The Man in the Maze, or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

I’m going to stick with the Robert Silverberg material for awhile.

Joachim Boaz did a proper review of the novel.

Man in the Maze

Raw Feed (1993): The Man in the Maze, Robert Silverberg, 1969.

I liked a lot of things in this novel.

This alien maze was much more lush and exotic seeming with its nature as a romantic alien archaeological site than the maze in Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon. (I read this novel to compare it to that work.) I liked the throwaway bits of description (political, cultural, environmental) Silverberg gives for the various worlds of man — proving the truth of one reviewer saying Silverberg takes the material of space opera and recasts it into a more literate form. I liked the various technological details – the matter duplicators, drones, computer projection of probability, “women cubes” – that reminded me that the current crop of sf stories dealing with the implications of nanotechnology and computers and virtual reality are really not that new in the their concerns and findings, only in the window dressing of their rationales. I liked the giant aliens from a gas giant who see down the entire electromagnetic spectrum, who need to telepathically control other species to build their technologies.

I liked Silverberg’s skill at weaving the details of Richard Muller’s past with his self-exile on Lemnos. I liked Ned Rawlins as the young reflection of the earlier Muller: ambitious, moral, removed from humanity but also desirous of company. I liked the thematic tension – symbolized in Muller’s repulsive telepathic emissions of his emotions – between man’s repulsiveness (the physical repulsiveness of his pores, his guts, his skull – in contrast to the many sexual and sensual references in this novel – and his spiritual repulsiveness of lusts, xenophobia, fears, despairs, regrets) and his potential, his superficial beauty and grandeur, his cleverness. The novel says, in its rejection of Muller’s “sophomoric cynicism”, that man has to do the best he can with his nature, to adopt Boardman’s seemingly world-weary but really wise pragmatism.

However, I felt the novel fell a little short in a couple of respects: convincing me that naked emotions from Muller would be that bad and that Muller hated humanity (though it could be argued that he really didn’t). The ending, Muller’s soul being drained, was a bit abrupt too.

 

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Illusions of Immortality

It wasn’t just me who had never heard of Edmond Haraucourt until I read Brian Stableford’s “Going to Extremes: The Speculative Fiction of Edmond Haraucourt” in the April 2015 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. Pierre Versins’ Encyclopédie de l’utopie et de la science-fiction from 1974 doesn’t have an entry for him.

The “Edmond Haraucourt” entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction only seems to date to the publication of this English language collection.

Stableford’s article, like many of his recent ones for The New York Review of Science Fiction, includes material and commentary on the French authors he translates that doesn’t make it into his introductions for those Black Coat editions. Originally, I read the story because Stableford’s article hinted that one of the stories might be suitable for inclusion in my Fantastic Fiction in World War One series.

It turns out it wasn’t, but I’m certainly glad I read this collection.

This review will have spoilers. If you want a shorter, spoiler-free review, you can find it on Amazon.

Review: Illusions of Immortality, Edmond Haraucourt, trans. Brian Stableford, 2012.Illusions of Immortality

 You are going to die.

Your works are going to die.

Your reputation will be forgotten.

The human race will vanish.

Those are the primary themes of Haraucourt.

You’d think that he’d be a downer, a slit-your-wrists-after-reading author. Instead, Haraucourt is a delight to read. Witty, piquant, mordant, he’s the kind of friend who, after you unload your troubles on him, would reply, “What makes you special?” – and you’d still like him.

To quote the wit of Haraucourt is largely to reprint Haraucourt. That wit was not reprinted much in his own land though. Of his futuristic fiction, which is almost as sweeping in speculation and scope as his contemporary H. G. Wells, only “The Gorilloid” was reprinted in his lifetime from its original newspaper appearance. In France, it was only in 2001 some of his shorter works were finally collected. Continue reading

Son of Man

Since I have a review of another Robert Silverberg collection coming up, I thought I’d talk about one of his novels.

Son of Man

Raw Feed (1993): Son of Man, Robert Silverberg, 1971.

I liked this strange, weird, surrealistic fantasy.

I liked the fact that the motives behind so many of the denizens of this far future, particularly the Skimmers and Destroyers (with their enigmatic project of spreading both ice and fire), were mysterious, unexplained like so many of the mysteries here.

I liked Clay, an enigmatic figure that we learn little about personally – he’s a stand in for our version of humanity – other than that he’s has the usual sexual fantasies and appetites, and his shock at finding nothing of our age surviving though the “humans” he meets vaguely remember hearing something about the moon being around once.

I liked how so many scenes could be delusions or reality, visions or descriptions — things like Clay’s body dissolving in a multi-chromatic, acidic river or the Earth being leveled to a smooth sphere, and the intriguing aspect of Clay being turned into a woman and having sex with male-form Skimmers (though Clay feels oddly violated).

I liked the Eaters hanging out in a subterranean city incomprehensibly described by a robot – the words are familiar mostly but the sentences make no sense.

I liked the Awaiters who sit in the ground like trees and spin nihilistic, acausual philosophies that seem beautiful to Clay when he’s in Awaiter form but pointless otherwise.

I liked the trek through the various Zones of Discomfort. It’s another example of Silverberg’s theme of loneliness and alienation.

I liked Silverberg’s style. It’s usually simple as far as word choice. He repeats the same sentence three times in many places, but the sentences often are complex compounds intermingled with simple sentences. It’s quite effective, hard to describe.

I like the many references to Clay’s sexuality – usually in a suffering context.

I liked the religious allusion of the title, and the end seems to be implying that Clay takes the pain of these sons of man. It’s curious that Clay readily accepts that humanity is defined by psychological and spiritual traits and not appearance. The burdens of the sons of man are taken by Clay after he is purified, sort of – at least the Skimmers say he’s learned much about himself, by a trek through the areas of discomfort (oddly, intriguingly, somehow appropriately long established for “the instruction of mankind”). In the end, he dies. The book says he sleeps, but I take that as a metaphor since it is clearly stated many times he needs no food or sleep in in this world. This is after he crawls from the Well of First Things which I took not only to be a literalization of man’s evolution past and future, but an allusion to Satan’s pit for Clay clearly acknowledges his vileness, that he is disturbing to the Skimmers. Yet, he says they must realize that “I am you”, imperfect but the potential form of the book’s many sons.

I don’t think this religious imagery and allusions works though. It seems tacked on at the end as if Silverberg realized he had to put some dramatic end to what is a series of intriguing, surrealistic vignettes. I’m not convinced Silverberg meant from the start to do anything more than a refreshingly strange tale. He has said elsewhere it’s the spirit of 1968 incarnated. (I’ve also heard this book compared to David Lindsay’s Son of Arcturus, but I’ve never read that.) Still, I liked it probably the best of any far future story I’ve read including Brian Aldiss’ Hothouse.

 

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The Diamond Age; or, Adventures in Reader Reactions

Opportunism, synergy, or vampiric leaching off other bloggers, you be the judge.

Inspired by From Couch to Moon‘s recent review of Stephenson’s novel, I’m posting this.

Yes, these postings of mine and other blogger reactions to a book are often a lazy, pre-fab implicit argument. There is some of that here but some of Megan’s criticisms about the novel’s logic seem valid to my dim memory, (It’s been 19 years since I read the book.)

Diamond Age

Raw Feed (1996): The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson, 1995.

Stephenson’s Snow Crash was rightly taken to task by critic-author Gwynnth Jones for implausibility (particularly in the chronological details of characters’ lives) and wrongly nominated, I thought, for a libertarian Prometheus Award.  (I thought Stephenson was satirizing privatization as a force for anarchy though I grant his portrait of the remnants of US government was dark).  Still, it was a funny book.
This book has less humor, a great deal more plausibility, and has another variation on the idea of information as a virus (here sexually transmitted nanomachines that exchange data with each other when they enter a new host).  This is a conservative novel in its basic plot, its politics, its technology, and its basic conceits even if it’s many elaborations on nanotechnology, the stories from the Young Ladies Illustrated Primer, and asides on the consequences of new information/nanotechnology technologies make it a unique reading experience.

Continue reading

The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales

More Villiers de L’Isle-Adam …

He put the “cruel” in conte cruel.

Scaffold

Raw Feed (2004): The Scaffold and Other Cruel Tales, Auguste de Villiers L’Isle-Adam, translated Brian Stableford, 2004.

“Introduction”, Brian Stableford — Stableford puts Villiers’ Contes Cruels (Cruel Tales) in a personal and literary context. Published in 1883, just six years before Villiers’ death, Contes Cruels gave the shape to a type of story whose tone and frequent endings of bitter, revelatory irony influenced future horror writers. Not all of the stories in this collection come from that collection published in Villiers’ lifetime. Some were written afterward. With the collection’s publication, Villiers gave up trying to be a dramatist. Stableford talks about the possible reasons for Villiers’ erratic behavior and night haunting. (Stableford says his lodgings were so horrible, he probably just hated to go home.) Stableford has grouped the collection’s stories into various groups: the scaffold, the perils of progress, exotic adventures, gifts from beyond the grave, the travails of creative artistry, and the paradoxes of passion. (Villiers had an early interest in the occult but only a minority of his stories feature the supernatural.) Stableford sees Villiers as an author both behind and ahead of his time. He also talks about the inadequacies of previous English language translations of Villiers’ works.

“The Secret of the Scaffold” — Stableford’s notes to this story say Villiers had a fascination with the guillotine and had seen several public executions with it. This story has a doctor convicted to death agreeing to help answer an old riddle — does the brain’s consciousness survive after the separation of head from body. He agrees to blink his right eye three times if he remains conscious. However, in an example of Stableford’s observation that Villiers’ tales often feature curiosity frustrated, the severed head only blinks its right eye once. Stableford’s notes say that Villiers grafted the names of real people on to what was an urban legend that goes back to a convict’s execution in 1836 (the story is set in 1864). I’ve actually heard the story associated with a scientist executed during the French Revolution, specifically Antoine Lavoisier. However, an Internet search tells me that there is no contemporary evidence that he offered to perform one final experiment at his death. There is mention of something similar being done in 1905 — after this story was written. Continue reading

The Vampire Soul and Other Sardonic Tales

Since I’m working on a review of another Black Coat Press release, I thought I’d post something on the first of their offerings I read.

Vampire Soul

Raw Feed (2004): The Vampire Soul and Other Sardonic Tales, Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, translated Brian Stableford, 2004.

“Introduction”, Brian Stableford — Stableford, translator of these Villiers’ tales, talks about Villiers’ dubious family history. Contrary to what he claimed, his family may not have been related to the illustrious Villier de l’Isle-Adams that included a Marshall of France and a Grand Master of the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem (and the founder of the Knights of Malta after the order relocated). Villiers’ father constantly dug for hordes of money buried by aristocrats during the French Revolution — without any success and, thereby, accomplishing penury. Villiers seemed to have been something of a poseur in that he talked a lot about future products that were never finished or even started. Stableford even describes him as more being in love with the idea of writing rather than writing. However, Stableford also points out that being a poseur and entertaining conversationalist (Villiers was evidently something of an accomplished pianist and boxer) was rather common in the French literary world of the time — a world full of writers not making much money from their sales. And Stableford also points out that many famous French writers thought the man talented and promising. Stableford then talks about the influences on Villiers — he may not have always read the philosophical works he alluded to — which included the occult, German philosophy, and Catholic Revivalism. Stableford says Villiers has been ill translated into English making his tales — a mixture of terror, irony, and satire (including self-parody) even harder to understand.

“The Vampire Soul (Claire Lenoir)” — This was an odd story, hardly terrifying. It reminded me of one of those soft-core French porn movies where naked people sit around philosophizing for long periods of time before they get to the sex. Only here the philosophizing was before the “horrifying” conclusion. Doctor Bonhomet is funny as an unreliable narrator who unwittingly drops all sorts of hints as to his boorishness and unsophistication. (Stableford’s annotation helps a lot in explaining what works of art and what authors and musicians and political and scientific figures are being mentioned. He also explains the somewhat opaque underpinnings of the plot with Claire Lenoir having committed adultery with a naval man and repented. Her husband’s spirit (Stableford’s exact phrase is a “demonized fragment”) survives death and inhabits the body of a savage Ottysor islander. When the naval officer lands on the island, he is killed. Stableford seems to interpret the text in a rather Freudian (I don’t think he uses the term) manner with a savage part of the husband making up the part of the posessing spirit. I interpreted, in light of a chilling chapter epigraph “That which sees, in our eyes, watches from hiding on this side of the depths of our fleshy pupils.”, the story as involving a sort of savage, alien entity haunting part of the husband and the Ottysor. (Though you would have to explain his sexual jealousy, sublimated by the husband while alive.) Villiers really doesn’t do much with the vampiric notion. I think you can also interpret Claire’s remark about “There are other beings who know the roads of life and are curious about the paths of death.” (A dramatic enough quote that it’s featured on the book’s cover.) as backing up my interpretation though you could say she’s speaking about herself. According to Stableford’s introduction to the anthology, Claire and Césaire represent two modes of Villiers’ thoughts: Claire his Catholicism and Césaire his fondness for the philosopher Hegel. Evidently the philosophical themes of the story varied in each of the two versions. This later one (1887, the first from 1867) shows more of Villiers revived Catholicism. I wasn’t sensitive enough to get much out of this story, but I did like the bombastic bragging of Bonhomet who excuses his inability to engage either of the Lenoirs philosophically by claiming he could — but he just doesn’t want to upset them. Continue reading

A Christmas Carol

A retro review from exactly six years ago.

I may dip into another English writer who did ghost stories for Christmas: M. R. James.

And, for the record, I think the best film adaptation is the 1984 with George C. Scott as Scrooge. Yes, I think it’s better (and a more faithful adaptation) than the acclaimed 1951 Scrooge.

Review: A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens, 1843.Christmas Carol

If you live in the English speaking world and have spent any time around a tv during the month of December, you know the plot.

Is the story worth reading and not just watching? Very much. It preserves the poignancy of lost time and redemption that is at the heart of Scrooge’s story – even more than a religious message. Dickens addresses the reader directly, and there is more humor than most adaptations show.

This edition has an interesting account of the first time Dickens read the story to a general audience – the beginning of Dickens’ career in performing his work which proved almost as lucrative as the mere writing of it.

 

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A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities

I’m still catching up on reviews for stuff already read, so you get this retro review from July 5, 2010.

Barry Baldwin did review this for Fortean Times. It was a mixed review as I recall.

Review: A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire, J. C. McKeown, 2010.Cabinet of Roman Curiosities

Whether you’re a fan of Barry Baldwin’s “Classical Corner” column in the Fortean Times, a fan of the tv series Rome, or already a Roman history buff but can’t remember if it was in Cassius Dio or the Historia Augusta where an 11 year old Commodus ordered a slave to be burned for too cold of bath water, this is the book for you.

From the clever octopus that stole garum out of a warehouse to graffiti in Pompeian brothels to the paucity of praenomina in the latter republic to the sadisms and mere eccentricities of emperors, this is an always lively and amusing book. Each curiosity is never more than a page long, often a single paragraph. McKeown has constructed the whole thing so that you can dip in anywhere though, occasionally, there is a reference to something you would have come across if you would have read the book the traditional cover-to-cover way. Most of the bits are taken from classical works, but he sometimes goes off on modern tangents like comparing the multi-tasking of Caesar to President James Garfield, noting the inaccuracies of Fascist Italian cinema in recreating the Punic Wars, and the horror of French novelist Stendahl at British tourists. And, channeling Pliny the Elder, he notes that he’s left it up to his classical sources to verify the truth of their tales.

The specific topics McKeown covers are Roman family life, women, names, education, military, naval matters, the law, farming, medicine, religion, philosophy, attitudes toward foreigners, slaves, animal tales, spectacles, decadence, food and drink, architecture, sex, timekeeping, and rulers. Throw in a helpful glossary about famous sources, people, concepts, and places and several illustrations – especially of coins, and this is a keeper for anyone interested in Roman history no matter where they are in their studies.

 

The Rome page.

Threshold

Theoretically, my hands are engaged in typing up an actual new review, so you get this old one from July 5, 2010.

Review: Threshold, Caitlin R. Kiernan, 2001.Threshold

Having been impressed by a couple of her Lovecraftian stories and her appearance as one of those interviewed for Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown, I decided to give one of her novels a try – particularly after hearing it was not only Lovecraftian but featured geology and paleontology.

Chance Matthews, grad student in paleontology, is alone in the world. Orphaned at a young age, she’s now without the grandparents, also geologists and paleontologists, who raised her. Her friend Elsie committed suicide. Grief stricken and trying to concentrate on her studies, she’s in no mood to see ex-boyfriend Deacon, present gothish girlfriend in tow along with one Dancy Flammarion (evidently a character in several Kiernan works). As if Dancy’s albino looks and freakish insistence on seeing her wasn’t enough, Dancy also insists Chance has to help her kill some monsters. It’s all a lot of mental patient crazy talk until Chance finds some strange fossils her grandmother secreted away before killing herself. And it may just have to do with whatever Chance, Deacon, and Elsie saw one strange night, at novel’s beginning, in the waterworks of Birmingham, Alabama.

Like most of the best Lovecraft inspired authors, Kiernan does no slavish imitation of Lovecraft. The plotting owes as much to Beowulf as Lovecraft though Lovecraft gets an explicit mention (as does Algernon Blackwood, Lewis Carroll, and the poet Longfellow). No characters, places, monsters, or books show up from Lovecraft. The inspiration is more subtle in the physical appearance of the novel’s menace and, particularly, in the promise of the novel’s subtitle: “A Novel of Deep Time”. For the menace is from deep time. There is one beautiful passage where Chance has a vision of Alabama’s Silurian age. (And, for those who need it, Kiernan, formerly a professional paleontologist, provides a glossary of terms.)

And that beauty is part of another subtle promise Kiernan makes on the copyright page: “The book is best read aloud.” Kiernan does provide read-aloud prose — carefully paced, sonorous, and sprinkled with occasional coinages of her own.

Lovecraft characters almost always seem divorced from any life with family and friends, and that is definitely not the case here. The trinity of Chance, Deacon, and Sadie are most definitely attached to other people – even if only their memories.

Kiernan tells her story with an interesting technique of describing a scene, often leaving the scene before its climax, and then going to another scene in the past which provides answers to the resolution of other scenes.

The one thing that may frustrate readers is the novel’s end. This story does not neatly resolve all the loose ends and mysteries. As one character says, “Some stories don’t have endings. In some stories, there aren’t even answers.” Kiernan’s resolution is not neat, perhaps too messily like real life for some. But it’s obviously a considered choice not incompetence. While I think not resolving major questions is a sin in some genres, I think it can be appropriate to a mystery horror novel of deep time, and it worked for me the more I think about it.

In other words, I was impressed by Kiernan the novelist as much as Kiernan the short story writer, and I’ll be reading more of her.

 

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