“Sailing to Byzantium” & “Seven American Nights”

More Silverberg and some Gene Wolfe.

Sailing to Byzantium

Raw Feed (1989): “Sailing to Byzantium”, Robert Silverberg/”Seven American Nights”, Gene Wolfe, 1989.

Gene Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights” — This story started out with promise but eventually ended with no resolution. Gene Wolfe leaves us with tantalizing bits of story involving mutation, obsessive love, secrets beneath Mount Rushmore, and the unreliability of perception and its shaping by desire. In the end, Wolfe leaves us with a largely unresolved mystery that sputters to a murky anticlimax. Initially, I thought I was in for a treat along the lines of Norman Spinrad’s “The Lost Continent”, a future sf story from the standpoint of a blighted United States. This story had some of that charm and power but only dimly.

Robert Silverberg’s “Sailing to Byzantium” — Like his “Born With the Dead” this is another of Silverberg’s technical exercises in translating a classical work of literature, here W. B. Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantium”. Like “Born With the Dead”, this story has an eerie, fantastical, airy feel about which contrasts weirdly with Silverberg’s lush descriptions (which show his expertise in archaeology — he wrote several non-fiction books on the subject). Like “Born with the Dead”, one never has the sf wonders explained. We only see the idle, immortal travelers not the planners (who seem oblivious to their mythological and anachronistic mistakes) though they may be the robots we see. We also never find out how the research for the building of the five cities is done, but it is an imaginative, baroque concept disturbingly accented by strange, seemingly shallow future jetsetters who flit from city to city. Once again, Silverberg does a good job showing the emotional effect of immortality. The reasoning Charlie Phillips uses to say his robot self is as human as any human is well-stated but nothing special.

 

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The Ark

I picked up this collection of two French novels thinking that The Ark, given that it was literally written in the trenches of the First World War, would have material for my World War One in Fantastic Fiction series.

That was not to be the case. It is from the war but not of the war.

Review: The Ark, Andre Arnyvelde, trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.The Ark

Right up front, I’ll say I can’t really recommend these two novels, The King of Galade (1910) and The Ark (1920), to anyone except a scholar of French sf, antiquarians, or those, like me, who are seeking fantastic works related to the Great War.

This review will not be spoiler free.

Stableford, in one of his usual thorough introductions, notes that Arnyvelde aka Andre Levy is still widely read today for his journalist pieces on many areas of the arts and sciences which include a lot of information on his contemporaries who were or would become famous: Marcel Proust, Claude Monet, Filippo Marinetti, Edmond Rostand, and the Giradouxes. (I’m not even going to wax wiki glib on these names since I recognize none except the first two and don’t care enough to research the others.)

The King of Galade is reminiscent of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas in that its protagonist leaves a valley kingdom isolated from the Europe that surrounds it. (Or so my memory of Rasselas has it from decades ago. I couldn’t even be bothered to wiki that either. Are you picking up yet on the general apathy most of this book induced in me?)

The first part of the story talks about protagonist Emmanuel’s royal ancestor Harb who discovers a way into the outside world and builds his palace around it. He kills the Wise Men who complete a tunnel from their grotto to the outside from their cave. (Technically, he has a servant kill them after they complete the tunnel and then he kills the servant.) Harb builds a palace around the grotto and enjoys secret access to the outside world and makes trips outside to bring back “practical and spiritual information”.

The story then shifts to Emmanuel, the titular King of Galade. He’s so charming that the kingdom (and several husbands) don’t mind his many affairs with their many wives. He becomes infatuated with Melidine, a widow who won’t sleep with him. He suffers ennui before re-discovering his privileged access to the outside world. After concocting a story about going into monastic retreat for a year, he leaves his uncle in charge and enters our world.

At first, he finds the Europe ca 1910 technologically marvelous.Then he burns through his money and is forced to take a menial labor job. He then falls in with the world of the Parisian poor and anarchists. He becomes dismayed at how all the glorious things are not available to the poor. They not only don’t have the money, but their energy is sapped by manual labor. He is also bothered by life being bettered by technology but its benefits not fully shared with the poor.

Arnyvelde uses the metaphor of a coaler on a locomotive to address a standard capitalist apologia for this. He may be hurtling through the landscape like the rich, but he is forced into a life of regimentation and manual labor while some of his passengers don’t have that life.

A fellow laborer, an anarchist, asks Emmanuel to join in armed struggle.  Emmanuel agrees that the anarchist is right, all have the right to joy.

Then a philosopher from Galade shows up who advises him that every man “ought to demand from himself, and expect from himself alone”, that every man has the ability to live in the “realm of Ideas” before which voluptuousness and the “sensation of power” palls.  If we live in that realm, we will, upon leaving it for the world again, find the world changed and improved. Emmanuel returns to Galade and leads a spiritual revolution on these principles and finally is united with Melidine.

Essentially, Emmanuel is advised to do what the protagonist of The Ark does in wartime.

Started in the French trenches in November 1914 and finished in 1919, it reads like a combination dream vision and philosophical discussion. It is a difficult read. The only thing it has resembling a plot is the narrator, framing the story as a letter to his wife, meeting an “arcandre”, a mystical being with vast powers.

Levy, understandably for a miserable soldier in the trenches, discusses with the arcandre all the things hampering his great goal of Joy, the motive behind living. He will need vast powers to overcome the obstacles, and those powers, we learn at the end, will come through the science of the future. It’s a slog to get through some portions, but it develops a peculiar and compelling narrative drive at the end.

A random quote:

But as I extended my burning curiosity toward him, and just as I was about to question him, I suddenly saw him light up with a more ardent glare than that of the fantastic light that surrounded us, shining with an increasing scintillation, which became so intense, so various and so marvelous that even now, merely transcribing what was given to me then to contemplate, I am obliged to lower my eyelids, as if the mere memory of the moment were dazzling me.

There is no specificity linking this internal visitation to the land of ideas to the world Arnyvelde was inhabiting when he wrote it.

I finished The King of Galade on October 10, 2015. In preparation for this post, I had to make some notes on it. I had to skim the whole thing over again. It had almost entirely evaporated from my mind.

However, in thinking about it, both these works reflect Arnyvelde’s obsession: Joy. Specifically, it was Arnyvelde’s answer to Arthur Schopenhauer and Nietzsche’s question as to why humans bother to achieve things. Schopenhauer said it was the “will to survive”. Nietzsche said “will to power”. Arnyvelde said it was to achieve Joy.

Both novels are about removing the obstacles to Joy (which is more than just happiness to Arnyvelde; it’s something like self-actualization).

In The King of Galade, it is social obstacles that prevent all from enjoying life, the benefits of technology are not enjoyed by all, wasted human potential. The Ark is concerned with more basic questions on how technology’s development can give us godlike powers and Joy.

 

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“Vintage Season” & “In Another Country”

And more Robert Silverberg, this time a sequel to C. L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” from 1946.

Vintage Season

Raw Feed (1992): “In Another Country”, Robert Silverberg/”Vintage Season”, C. L. Moore, 1990.

“Introduction”, Robert Silverberg — Account of Silverberg’s respect for C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season” and why he wrote his sequel, “In Another Country”, the way he did.

“Vintage Season”, C.L. Moore — I knew the ending to this generally acknowledged classic, so that element of horror and shock, that emotion of the final revelation was denied to me. Of course, the ending seems obvious once you know it and read the story. Still, this story did generate some ominous, creepy feelings. There are the disturbingly immaculate visitors from some mysterious country. They’re time travelers, of course and are given to making disturbingly cryptic remarks that seem — in retrospect I would assume if I came to this story cold — to foreshadow a coming cataclysm. Moore does a nice job of not really describing the artifacts the time travelers have brought to our time but conveying the emotions of their art and artifacts. And she does a nice job showing the dreamy, strange relationship between Oliver Wilson and weak, too sensitive, patronizing, addict Kleph. The time travelers agenda, a tour of perfect seasons with seemingly great events in them, is a neat idea with a logical appeal to an aesthetic society of spectators. To Oliver Wilson, they seem horrible in their pursuit of disaster as an aesthetic experience. Yet, he realizes time has isolated them so far from him there can be no real emotional connection between them and him. The ultimate horror is represented by Cenbe, brilliant symphonia composer who, unlike his time traveling peers, is fascinated by the aftermath of disaster, the emotions of survivors and dying. To him, Oliver Wilson’s world is merely one of the “building blocks” that lead to Cenbe’s world, a source of artistic inspiration. When Oliver begs Cenbe to change history, Cenbe replies to do so would eliminate his “time-world” which is entirely to his liking. Wilson pleads he can change history, wipe out pain, suffering and tragedy. Cenbe, in effect, says this current horror will pass away like all the rest that makes up Cenbe’s history. Wilson has the fact unpleasantly driven home that we all exist (we hope) in someone’s distant past. But are we really that much different from Cenbe and his peers? We often view history and its horrors (and joys) as entertainments. The time travelers, of course, differ in that they can change history. But would we completely alter our world to help temporal strangers we can never fully know or understand? This story is one of those classic stories that start out on a human scale and end by showing humanity horrifically dwarfed by spatial and temporal vastness. Sometimes it’s the inhuman, dead universe that dwarfs us. Here it is our descendants.

“In Another Country”, Robert Silverberg — This story is, of course, a sequel to C.L. Moore’s “Vintage Season”. It’s set in the same time, same place, and has some of the same people (as minor characters) as “Vintage Season”, so it’s hard not to compare the two. I found Silverberg’s the more romantic (in both senses of the word). Moore’s plot is more concerned with exoticness, mystery, and unease than the romance between Oliver Wilson and Kleph. Silverberg’s story, by its nature of setting, is deprived of all mystery. The exception are the bits when Christine Rawlins feels she’s met Thimiroi before and the latter feels he was a 20th Century man. I thought Silverberg was going to do a time travel paradox, but he didn’t. Christine’s feelings of recognition could be some effect of the vaguely described time travel process, but I doubt that interpretation is intended. The counter-intervention only wipes out her memories and meeting with Thimiroi. Silverberg’s story is more emotional too (in the sense of poignancy and tragedy) with its doomed romance and Laliene’s futile efforts to spare Thimiroi the agony of frustrated, impossible love. Silverberg also does a nice job of showing how alien the visitors are (with women who don’t sweat or menstruate and a general intolerance for seafood) and how wonderful this vintage season and time are (with Thimiroi reveling in the primitive vitality of our world and suddenly chafing at the planned aesthetic perfection of his). But why did Silverberg see fit to date this story with a reference to Iranian politics? It spoils the timelessness (in a loose sense) of Moore’s vision. Silverberg in this story explains why Rome of 19 BC and Charlemagne’s coronation are on the itinerary (the travelers look for vintage seasons culminated with disaster of a natural or political nature though in Augustus’ and Charlemagne’s case the years chosen seem to be their best. Silverberg’s story does not have the creepiness and moral questions of history (however horrible) as entertainment that Moore’s does. Still, a worthwhile story.

 

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Up the Line

More Silverberg.

A strong contender for the greatest time travel novel ever written.

Up the Line

Raw Feed (1992): Up the Line, Robert Silverberg, 1969.

This book was a lot of fun, a lot better than I expected. Along with Robert Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” and Alexander Jablokov’s “Ring of Time”, it’s one of the most complicated time travel stories I’ve read. I read recently a scientist saying that Silverberg did about all you can do with time travel in this novel, and that’s true.

This is one of those few books that lives up to that sf reviewer’s cliches about an author throwing off in a paragraph ideas others would base a novel. (And Silverberg would do fine either way.) Silverberg gives us the idea of killing one’s ancestors (one of the very oldest and hoariest time travel ideas) as a form of suicide and revenge on one’s father. Linked to this is the idea (with more or less incestful connotations) of sleeping with your female ancestors (not your mother though). Silverberg introduces the idea of financial schemes via time travel: currency manipulation, planting antiques to be found by archaeologists, smuggling artifacts. Of course, there is the possibility of altering history (a possibility guarded against by the comically fanatical and boorish Time Patrol) by saving JFK, poisoning Christ, killing Hitler. Silverberg has his Time Couriers fully use time as a fourth dimension of travel to set up alternate lives in history, to meet each other at non-sequential points in their lives. And he comes up with what I believe is a new question for time travel: the Cumulative Paradox. If many time travelers through the centuries go back to a fixed point in space and time (say the Crucifixion), why doesn’t the historical record show thousands of people at an event instead of a few?

Silverberg has a broad knowledge of history (he’s written several non-fiction books on history) so it’s no surprise that he’s able to bring history alive as well as his Time Courier protagonist who carefully arranges the order and length of time jumps he shows his charges. Silverberg, with brief passages, brings history alive. And he knows what kind of things people like me want to see in history: assassinations (including Huey Long), plagues (there’s a special Black Plague tour), riots, revolts.

So, I expected the history to be well-done, but I didn’t expect such clever variations on the time travel theme, and I certainly didn’t expect the light, breezy style and comedy — most of it being of the sexual farce variety. If this novel were filmed, it could be a porn movie with the sex scenes in it (in the text there’s not that much explicit sex. Amongst the many things Silverberg has written is porn, so that adds an extra punch to the sexcapades of the hero (including a not so great, rather mechanical session, with the infamously rapacious Theodora) who concludes there’s a lot of truth to the notion that “jazzing one snatch” is much like “jazzing” another. Our hero, Judson Daniel Elliott III, also says, self-mockingly, sex with love with his ancestor Pulcheria is better than sex without love.

It’s not only a plenitude of sex that marks this as a late sixties book but a plenitude of drugs. The sex is mostly heterosexual but homosexuality is mentioned. A case of child molestation is integral to the plot. A major mention is made of race relations. Here a black named Sambo Sambo befriends Elliott — who he describes as a loser. Sam feels sorry in a pitiful way for Elliott when he screws up by duplicating himself temporally and incurs the fatal wrath of the Time Police, so he gets him a job as a Time Courier. The element of race is played up in some witty repartee between Jew Elliott and Sam. Sam is also a product of genetic purification of black genes. There is some element of Black Pride with Sam’s life in Africa. Another element of the sexual farce is Elliott watching himself copulate — first with cold terror, then clinical detachment at the comic, rather grotesque sight. Synaesthia — experimental subject of some 50’s and sixties’ sf — shows up here.

Silverberg manages a clever ending with Elliott just waiting for the Time Patrol to catch on to his temporal sins, and then he vanishes into never existence in mid-sentence.

 

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The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Vol. 1: Secret Sharers

This is not the later collection of Silverberg’s shorter science fiction by Subterranean Press. That arranges his work chronologically.

This was the first in a series of one by Bantam Spectra though I understand HarperCollins of the UK did follow through with more volumes in that project.

Always an efficient writer, Silverberg recycled some of the story notes in this series for the Subterranean Press series.Secret Sharers

Raw Feed (1993): The Collected Stories of Robert Silverberg, Volume One: Secret Sharers, Robert Silverberg, 1992.

“Introduction” — Introduction where Silverberg talks of his commitment to writing short stries as well as novels even though the former are harder for him to write and don’t pay as well.

“Homefaring” — At the core of this story is an old idea – around since at least H. P. Lovecraft’s “A Shadow Out of Time”: consciousness being displaced in time to inhabit the body of another sentient being. In Lovecraft’s story, the protagonist’s consciousness switched with that of a being of an ancient race. Here a man from the future goes even further, in his disembodied consciousness, in the future to inhabit the body of a giant lobster. It’s a hoary idea but Silverberg pulls it off with slick skill and grace, makes it believable and interesting. In his introduction to the story, Silverberg sees himself working in the giant creature sub-genre of sf. At story’s end, I agreed with the protagonist. The life of a giant, sentient lobster of the future is not at all a bad thing. It’s a life of dignity and community. I liked Silverberg’s world of many different kinds of intelligent invertebrates in the global sea of a future Earth. Silverberg also does a real nice job at showing the emotions of his protagonist: first shock at being in an unexpected future. He expected to only go a 100 or so years into the future to a still human world. He ends up in a world where humans are a geologic memory, is surprised at the attraction of the lobster society, reluctant to return home while there are yet sights to see and is troubled at readjusting to his world and faintly longs to return to his “true kind” – the lobsters. Continue reading

The Engineer von Satanas

Review: The Engineer von Satanas, edited and trans. Brian Stableford, 2015.Engineer von Satanas

“That slut Science!”

Some novels have memorable taglines. That’s the one for the centerpiece of this collection, Albert Robida’s The Engineer von Satanas.

I doubt that Robida, writing in 1919, seriously thought that World War One would start up again in 1920.

But I don’t doubt the sincerity of this amazing work of vitriol and bitterness.

When wartime censorship was lifted, Robida poured his despair out in a work unremarked upon and unreprinted until this translation by Brian Stableford. It is, as Stableford argues, the pioneering work of all those science fiction stories of survivors existing in the rubble of civilization, heirs not to the ruins of natural disaster and cosmic randomness but human action, of the terribleness of modern war. It was a vein that entered British science fiction a few years later in Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (1920) and Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (1922) and into American science fiction after Hiroshima.

It wasn’t always that way. Continue reading

“Press Enter █” & “Hawksbill Station”

More Silverberg, this time mixed with some John Varley.

Press Enter

 

Raw Feed (1992): “Press Enter ”, John Varley/”Hawksbill Station”, Robert Silverberg, 1990.

“Hawksbill Station” — This was a relatively simple plot moodily told.  Silverberg postulates a government tyrannical enough to want to suppress dissent but wimpy enough not to kill people.  It just exiles them via time travel to the Late Cambrian.  Silverberg’s love and knowledge of paleontology and geology works well in setting the mood of the tale.  He also does a nice job portraying a diverse group of men (the women dissenters are in another era) banding together to fight the enemies of despair, madness, loneliness, and loss of purpose, and how some must prepare for the sudden shock of freedom.  A simple but well done story.  It’s also interesting to see in this 1967 story how vital Marxism was presumed to be in the future – right down to having splinter schools like Khruschevist.

“Press Enter █” — Samuel Delany has talked about Varley’s love of strong, competent women and prosthetics.  Here the character of computer whiz Lisa Foo with her large, silicon augmented breasts fits the bill on both counts.  This story is well-written:  fast-moving, slick, exposition which slides down easy.  Even the romance works here, and it’s an exciting.  This story won a Hugo and a Nebula.  However, reading it eight years, I suspect the effect is dulled.  This story was published in 1984.  The eighties saw the dangers, transcendent potential, and wonders of the cybersphere excitingly explored in sf.  The awareness even crept into the general public consciousness.  However, this tale has parallels to other sf tales in its plot.  Computer whiz Patrick William Gavin is the stuff of modern hacker legend and, I suspect, myth.  His gathering of confidential material, financial manipulations, creation of wealth by fiat, his cloak of invisibility in a computer age, his privileged position as one of the architects of important private and governmental information systems was in part reminiscent of Roger Zelazny’s protagonist in My Name Is Legion, a book from the seventies.  The specter of a maleovelent artificial intelligence haunting the cybersphere shows up in the slightly earlier Vernor Vinge short novel True Names.  As in that story, the murderous artificial intelligence is escaped from a National Security Agency project, an experiment gotten out of hand.   However, in True Names the artificial intelligence was much more murderous, and, after manipulating people, came out in the open for battle.  The AI of this story seeks, above all, concealment.  His shadowy presence is reminiscent of Wintermute, the artificial intelligence in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, also from 1984 and also the AI of Roger Zelazny’s “24 Views of Mt. Fuji by Hosaki”.  So, the basic story is not new.  Varley adds two new elements though.  One, the idea of a computer intelligence generated by a critical mass of microchips in the cybersphere connected (the analogy of neurons in the brain is made) by radio waves, telephone lines, and electrical lines.  This leads to the compelling final scene where the protagonist guts his house of all the electrical trappings of modern civilization to escape the murderous power of the AI.  That murderous power is Varley’s second new element.  The AI can compel people to commit suicide.  How is never explained but it provides the air of menace and gruesome, mysterious death required.  I suppose it was also added as a thematic complement to the narrator’s experience with Chinese Communist attempts at brainwashing as a prisoner of war in Korea.  How exactly it developed the theme of psychological coercion is unclear to me.  Perhaps to show that the machine is more terrifyingly effective at it then Chinese communists or, for that matter, the Khmer Rouge that imprisoned Lisa Foo.  Or, perhaps much more speculatively, it’s a comment on the innate capability of sentience to be evil.  Foo chides the narrator (and her lover) for only thinking Nazis, South Africans, and Americans are racist. She rightly points out that Asians have a long history of racism.  Perhaps this is Varley’s way of showing that humanity may not be the only intelligence capable of murder and coercion.

 

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The Examined Blog

Normally, I disagree with Socrates about the merits of the unexamined life.

The unexamined blog, though, is another matter.

The WordPress stat bot report below would seem to suggest a few things:

  1. Assuming about 310 posts (about six a week), each post gets views only in the single digit. (Yes, I know the site could use more pictures, more use of social media, more focus, and a name that doesn’t sound like a Turkish village. Think of it as a perverse experiment.)
  2. Some posts continue to have enduring appeal. I suspect Ambrose Bierce is sought out by students lookin’ for term paper help. Thomas Ligotti seems to be an topic of enduring topic though whether it’s my review or just my link to someone else’s review is unclear.
  3. Based on traffic alone, I should dump everything else and just review the espionage history books in my library.

Impressions of the year:

  1. Even a slow reader like me should be able to pound through a book a week.  I managed 51 books, cover to cover. That’s not counting periodicals or stories read for LibraryThing discussion. Still, that’s slow.
  2. It seemed like an unproductive year because I read and reviewed time consuming things: short story collections and worked on my Ambrose Bierce and World War One in Fantastic Fiction series. I started to do more stuff for Innsmouth Free Press in the second part of the year, and those reviews and articles take (and, I hope, show) more polish than these blog postings.
  3. I was surprised how popular (relatively speaking) my Raw Feed feature was. I suspect that has less to do with their clarity and usefulness and more their length. Perhaps I should write shorter reviews.

Possible Directions for the Future

I’m not getting any younger, and my library is not getting any smaller.

I’ll probably be reviewing fewer titles this year.

I sort of conceive of my self as a travel writer into the ever expanding world of books. I go visit an area and report back and let you decide whether you want to pay a visit yourself or just live vicariously through my descriptions.

However, there seems increasingly little point in going places well reported on already. For instance, I have William Gibson’s The Peripheral on the TBR. It is unlikely I will be doing a review of it. What could I possibly add to the world’s knowledge and appreciation of it?

So my blog reviews will probably be more focused on books not covered by everyone else or where I do think I have something new to report.

I also have a lot ARCs sitting about. I’m not too guilt ridden about that since I do honestly intend reviews of them, but it’s time to get started on them. Some of them I hope to put in the context of older books and previous workings of their themes. I want to do less reporting on the surface sights of a book and more analysis. The articles I did for Innsmouth Free Press on the shaman theme in Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books or an upcoming survey of early fantastic works coming out of World War One are the sort of thing I want to do more of here instead of just plot descriptions and banal evaluation of characterization, style, and theme. Those sorts of things will take more time thus I will probably be going in the direction of fewer but better reviews and critiques.

Since the Raw Feed feature seems popular I’m going to do more entries on some my favorite authors: Alfred Bester, Jerry Pournelle, more Charles Harness, and Dean Ing.

Also, I like the indexing that Battered, Tattered,Yellowed & Creased and Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations use, so I want to do something similar with my site.

Finally, thanks to the few but regular readers. After all, you are the biggest reason this site is even here.

 

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 2,800 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 47 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.