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Archive for August, 2008

An interesting editorial from my hometown paper, circa 1927, just after a major socialist/communist riot/march in protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti:

“There seems to be some surprise expressed over the fact that Miss Aurora D’Angelo, who led a mob of demonstrators in a riot over the Sacco-Vanzetti case, in Chicago, passed the mentality tests of psychiatrists with flying colours.

There is no reason for supposing that the intellect of those who lead movements opposed to the theories that govern society of today is defective.  If they are regarded as being warped in their judgements, that is chiefly due to the fact that their ideas differ profoundly from those of the majority.  It does not imply that they have less mental ability than the average.

It is possible that these people have allowed their emotions to assume control of their minds rather than their reason, and that they are therefore prevented, in certain cases, in which their emotional nature is mainly involved, to pronounce as well-balanced a decision as they might otherwise do, but it must be remembered that mankind is largely made up of emotional creatures, and these are not to be classed as subnormal.

In the famous case of Eddie Sidis, who was trained from babyhood by his father, the well-known psychologist, and possessed and twelve or more actual learning than the average man has at thirty, all this brilliant achievement in the way of early education did not prevent him from being arrested while making a revolutionary speech to a mob of red agitators.  Had young Sidis possessed a subnormal intelligence, his father’s experimental education must have failed.

Eddie Sidis and Aurora D’Angelo were both 18 years old when arrested as disorderly rioters.  Youth is the time when emotion has the ruling place in most human mentalities.  It is not often that the wild enthusiasm of youth are carried, unimpaired, into the maturity of middle and old age.  But the world would be a dull place  if the young people did not have their occasional outbursts.

It would be very satisfying to those who feel that the only path to safety is that of extreme conservatism, if they could pronounce all agitators to be defective in mind and have them placed under lock and key.  But a glance over even recent history goes to show that the revolutionary thinker of today is likely to be the conservative of tomorrow or the next day, and that the progress of humanity is largely due to those who have differed from their fellows and who have been persecuted for their ideas.

The youthful anarchist will probably become the middle-aged constitutionlist and, at any rate, no case can be made out against such persons on the ground of defective mental powers.”

In less words, “at 20, you think with your heart, at fourty with your head”.  An interesting defense of radicalism that defends against calling radicalism an ‘infantile disorder’ and then calls it that.  For some context to the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution, some more news from the same time:

Guns and Bombs Scatter Red Mob

Chicago Rioters Are Injured in Scramble with Police when they Charged

August 10, 1927

Demonstration against exucution led by pretty sixteen year old, Aurora D’Angelo…mob of four thousand singing Internationale, shouting ‘Mob the Police’, marched toward district jail today, dispersed only after clashing with police…used tear bombs and pistols…sixty-seven men, four women, arrested…several rioters trampled in scramble to escape.  “Ain’t this a free country?  I’m only a girl, a kid.  I know what this means, I’m going to jail.”
And:

Armoured Cars Readed To Stop Disturbances

August 8, 1927

New York police take great precautions against violence as excitement grows as execution day draws near for Sacco and Vanzetti, denied a stay from death…greatest police guard in history of the city, including during the war, patrolled New York from Hudson to the railway yard in Queens…comissioner Warren disclosed elaborate plans against further disorder…two Italians loitering arrested on charge of disorderly conduct.  Police break up several attempts to stage meetings under permit of Socialist party…Communists predict 500,000 will down tools protestings the executon of the two anarchists.”

All those “young people [with] their occasional outbursts” causing all that trouble!  The horrors!

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Herman Hesse, Demian

The bird struggles out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever wants to be born, must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That God’s name is Abraxas.

These lines are what led me to Herman Hesse’s first major novel, Demian, subtitled The Story of Emil Sinclair’s Youth, published in 1919, and as the back matter of my edition informs me, a major influence on youth culture in the American 1960’s. The strange thing, for me, about Demian is that, despite its fame, I knew of the lines long before I knew of the book itself. Word for word, this strange and esoteric prayer to the god Abraxas, a major symbol in Demian, appears in the famous and equally esoteric Japanese anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, uttered in many episodes by its ostensible villains. I watched Utena as an older teenager, and its strangeness and depth of character and theme has stuck with me over many years and after a complete disenchantment with anime and its fandom. When I discovered the origin of this quote, and that Utena had been inspired partly by Hesse’s work, including a heavy use of Jungian archetypes, I was set to find this piece of fiction.

The sole change in Utena is to replace Abraxas with an equally mythical call to revolution, otherwise, the general meaning remains the same: a call for transcendence through transgression, or to skip the academic jargon, and quote right from the book: “…the life of the hedonist is the best preparation for becoming a mystic. People like St. Augustine are always the ones that become visionaries. He, too, was first a sensualist and a man of the world…”

This is the voice of Demian, the eponymous character whose appearances are exceedingly rare in the text, but whose shadow looms very large indeed over the novel. His first appearance is as an odd, confident and aggressive “too superior and detached” young man who saves the, at the time, school boy protagonist, Emil Sinclair, from a agonising moral dilemma caused by Kromer, a young tough who uses a fictional crime concocted by Sinclair to blackmail him. In Sinclair’s words, Demian allows him “see the world again bright and joyful before me, and no longer succumbed to fits of suffocating fear”; Demian gives Sinclair the courage to confess to his parents the moral trauma he had suffered. Thus in both a literal and a metaphorical sense Demian, appearing periodically throughout Sinclair’s early life to utter cryptic lessons and approbations, from the beginning of the novel offers the opportunity of liberation, of the courage to break free of the circumstances imposed from without.

Demian offers to Sinclair, liberation.

But what kind of liberation? Utena replaced Abraxas with Revolution, which suggests one interpretation, and one that is easily applied to Demian. Demian mocks religion, the state, ministers and priests as oppressive and tired remnants of cowards; Sinclair himself sees his choice in chapter four, p. 57, as between becoming “a good son and a useful citizen” or going in an “altogether different direction.” To mistake Revolution and Liberation with only activism, or criminality in Hesse’s case would be to misunderstand, however. Liberation in Demian is not external, materialist or Marxist but internal, and spiritual, like the crisis of Stapledon’s Star Maker.  And therefore sometimes descends into vacuousness.

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Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker is a novel about crisis.

The Englishman narrator, his life seemingly at a crossroads, his moral and ethical beliefs in question in the first pages of the novel, is mysteriously disembodied. His consciousness embarks upon a fantastic journey across time, space and the entire Universe; you know, everything. As he journeys, the narrator gathers up, like a snowball tumbling down a hill, fellow intelligences from every planet that he, and then they, visit. The narrator comes to discern that each world, each intelligent species scattered through the cosmos, is experiencing or has experienced a profound crisis, sometimes spiritual, sometimes material, resolved through a fall into barbarity or a rise into a new enlightenment. Interestingly enough, though not surprising, Stapledon places our world at the cusp of this crisis, marked by the spectre of industrial exploitation, class warfare, mass movements, war and the Fascism and Stalinism of the 1930’s.

The shadow of these events lays heavy across Star Maker.

The most viscerally interesting aspect of Star Maker, however, is the incredible variety of alien worlds visited by the exploring mind narrator. Star Maker is boggling in its variety; for the nineteen thirties, homeland of the bug-eyed monster, Stapledon’s aliens are incredibly original: massive aquatic beings shaped like ships; communal-mind bird flocks; symbiotic aliens made of crab and great sea fish, cooperating to build factories and radiocommunication. Star Maker is often credited with inventing concepts of science fiction that have become practicably cliche now: guided evolution, prime directives, dyson spheres and constructed worlds, planet-sized ships, stars exploding as weapons, space empires and federations, sentient energy beings, hive-minds and shared consciousness, omnipotent aliens unto God. It’s quite humbling, to think that one man, in brief jottings and short chapters, crafted the meat and bones of so much science fiction, and then really didn’t even make those dyson spheres or space empires key to the story. The aliens keep the novel interesting, because it is barely a novel; for science fiction fans interested in tight plots and constant action, there is NONE of that here. Star Maker reads like sometimes like a dry philosophical text, at other times like a history, and the bulk of the action unfolds on a scale that is alienating, if you pardon the pun; the rise and fall of civilizations, again and again, isn’t exactly capable of communicating individual pathos and emotion, though it can be riveting in the same way that archeological studies of the Huns can be.

Star Maker isn’t going to be an easy read, but if you do it, satisfaction and wisdom may be yours. Star Maker is first and foremost a didactic novel, a result of Stapledon, a British pacifist, socialist and ethic philosopher, finding science fiction a more useful vehicle for exploring man’s purpose, the nature of God and the ideal human society, then any philosophical tract. Star Maker, despite its dryness, is an extended, broad history of galactic civilization, (much like the Silmarillion, but you know, earlier and better, in its avant garde rejection of avant garde and ordinary conventions of novels). It is as a novel of philosophy, and social criticism, that I choose to read Star Maker, but it is much much more, a rich seem of fantastic visions and strange insights the likes of which have rarely been matched.

The aliens of Star Maker, despite then their unearthly physical appearances and modes of perception, are engaged in the same spiritual crisis that humanity has reached.

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Why do you think it has to want something?

if you think that there is a solution, you’ll die here

…our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds; we want mirrors

I remembered her wrong

Recently I have been reading Stanislaw Lem, I just finished his short novel The Invincible, and then the critical writings by Frederic Jamieson about Lem in his collection Archaeologies of the Future. I won’t comment on Jamieson, as I found writing about critics dangerous territory.  Lem, on the other hand, I’m much more comfortable writing about. He is a man whose value and intelligence as an author and commentator are often overstated, but deservedly so. Though he wrote science fiction, I don’t believe Lem should be condemned just for that, any more then any science fiction writers: a cliche, yes, but his thought and importance and influence range beyond the science fiction he came to disown and vilify. He resented the narrow provincialism and parochialism of the science fiction practised in America (as if that in Poland was any better; remember, the major difference between capitalist and communist junk writing is that the capitalist junk writer exports his work and expects to be rewarded for it). Lem wrote about subjects like alien contact that were purely speculative, with an intelligence and commitment to ideas, science and philosophy, and an often unwilling ability to capture the fragility of the human and the frustrating mysteries of our existence (or so he claims).

And that brings me to the lines above, quotes from Steven Soderbergh’s adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s most famous work, Solaris. That I would use quotes from the second time that book was made into a movie has undoubtably set Lem’s carcass writhing about in his grave…may he rest in peace..: like any self-respecting reclusive intellectual author, Lem hated other people’s interpretations of his work: Tarkovsky’s and Soderbergh’s Solaris are not his. Deservingly so.

SPOILERS AHEAD…SO BE PREPARED…

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Swim” said Fassin. “You know; when your head kind of seems to swim because you suddenly think: “Hey, I’m a human being, but I’m twenty thousand light years from home and we’re all living in the midst of mad aliens and super weapons and the whole bizarre insane swirl of galactic history and politics! That; isn’t that weird?”

These lines are a defining summary of Iain M. Banks as science fiction writer, uttered in his next to newest science fiction novel, The Algebraist. This novel is one in a long series of of his science fiction novels stretching back to the early eighties, though it is not set in the fictional culture and civilisation of the Culture, the rather unimaginatively named but superbly omnipotent (and thus deserving of such a lame descriptor) galactic civilization. It is a stand-alone piece, a novel set in the space opera traditions of old, where the science falls rapidly away to the fiction, and where things that are sometimes implausible but at least imaginative occur with entertaining frequency. The Algebraist shares with classic space opera like Star Wars or a dozen other, A. E. Van Vogt, Bester, Flash Gordon, E. E. Doc Smith, with enormous space empires, bizarre and unsettling alien species, startling scientific discoveries, whole universes to be conquered. There the resemblance ends.

Iain M. Banks is part of what has been called the ‘new space opera,’ a group of mostly British science fiction writers such as Banks, Alistair Reynolds, Paul McAuley (who includes M. John Harrison in this list, though I’m less certain), Charles Stross (to an extent) Liz Williams and Ian McCleod, even Dan Simmons, who use the ‘loose and unrigorous’ science of old space opera as a backdrop for stories whose central importance has little to do with death rays or flying saucers; instead, well-developed characters, well-realised plot and strands of social criticism, moral philosophy or startling imagination replace the surface deep ‘gee-whiz’ attitude of older space opera. They are also rarely possessed of the often conformist, parochial, Science Club attitude of 1940’s and 1950’s space opera (Van Vogt being a major exception) and being distinct from the Webers and Moons of ‘new’ American space opera.

Notably, Banks is reported to have torn up his British passport in protest over the invasion of Iraq, and Ken MacCleod, as can be seen on his fine blog The Early Days of a Better Nation, is involved in various socialist and revolutionary currents in the UK. Their stories do reflect this; one of MacCleod novels features a digital and heroic Trotsky, and the novella The State of the Art leaves the Culture’s contempt for our capitalist and socialist ‘democracies’ in little doubt.  The Culture is frequently depicted and described in other reviews as being an ‘anarchist utopia’, an ideal society wherein a total availability of resources and intelligence has rendered war, poverty, social inequality, even jobs, redundant, and its conflicts with civilizations that have yet to see the ‘benefit’ of such a system. The Culture novels have been recognized as much more important by no less than the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, praising Consider Phlebas and Use of Weapons for being brave enough to use science fiction  to genuinely imagine something different but plausible, truly, totally different, and not just replaying World War 2, the Cold War or the Napoleonic Wars in space. Or assuming that the US government and corporations will be around thousands of year from now in space.

(As an aside, it is worth noting that the Culture novels bear some striking affinities with Star Trek‘s future world;  the idea of Earth as paradise where replicators have freed humanity from a need for resources and forced labour, allowing us the potential for true cultural and personal freedom is enticing…but Star Trek shows and movies rarely delve into that aspect of the Federation, and leaves us bored with Star Fleet, military uniforms and troubles that seem all to mundane from their reality…despite the nebula and bumpy headed life forms.  The Culture at least follows through on the radical potentials of its whizbang magic technology, and is much sleeker, sexier and cooler to boot).

In these new space operas, just To be sure, Things are complicated as well, there is not just evil, and non-human, and good, and pure and American; as an example, Fassin, the protagonist of The Algebraist, is a skilled scholar in an obscure field whose knowledge places him square in the middle of a vicious war; he serves, and is not particularly morally worried about this service, to a military order of a repressive, reactionary interstellar empire run by an alien species.  He is morally uncertain, a philanderer and naive, and he is no hero, not at all, but just a patsy and a scared man trying to survive in a universe that, while not outright hostile, is not friendly either, a true heir to the protagonists of New Wave space opera like The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison (who dislikes that book the most of his ouevre, apparently) and The Void Captain’s Tale by Norman Spinrad.

The Swedish author Sam J. Lundwall in his 1977 study of science fiction, The Illustrated History of Science Fiction argues that space opera is fundamentally a stale genre, one in which the hero can “single-handedly destroy an entire galaxy of fifty thousand million suns, each of them with an undisclosed number of inhabited planets, without raising an eyebrow.” The greatest genocidaires ever as heroics, and the hero concerned about his WASP girlfriend and the fame and glory of Earth; an essentially parochial genre, Lundwall calls it, and I am inclined to agree. The weakness of space operas like Smith’s The Skylark of Space and Children of the Lens, or Van Vogt’s Slan, or the innumerable clones of Perry Rhodan popular in 1977 and still going strong today, are many, but two concern us here.

Firstly, all these planets smashing, suns exploding, alien races dying, vast eons and distances crossed in stupendous speeds and times do absolutely nothing; they do not contribute to the plot in any concrete way, and as Lundwall says, all the “mile-long space ships, space fleets of hundreds of thousands of ships, heros brave and bold beyond reason and villains straight out of the nethermost regions of Hell…all seem somewhat repetitious..[and] one cannot even muster the enthusiasm these incredible feats are undoubtedly worth.” They are essentially the distraction, the wall hangings meant to hide the hollow crumbling walls beneath, or even worse, in the Popular Mechanics, Marvel Comics or Hugo Greensback Amazing Stories tradition: the plot and story are just a way to show off the space ships and warfare, gushing in all the heroic battles and destruction as they remain to an extent in American and Japanese military space opera. Either way, all these trappings of Space Opera contribute nothing specifically important to the story.

Secondly, Space Opera used to be, and still seems to be, a rehashing of the old Horse Opera from which it derives its name, or World War 2 adventure stories, one in which the brave, square jawed hero faces off against a menace (once the Indian, then the Jerry and the Jap, and now the Alien) that threatens peace, order, civilisation, and worse still, our women folk! They sublimate racism and violence into an acceptable form, in which things we do not understand can be destroyed without moral or ethical repercussions; it is a fantasy then, too, one shared by many comic books and movies, in which the Good Guy, because he is Good without question and his opponents Evil without remorse, can massacre at his leisure. Dave Weber remains to me the mso prominent of this new breed of old Space Opera, and the continuing popularity of men like Smith and Van Vogt and the Star Wars franchise (though the novels and extended universe has troubled the morally simplistic dichotomies of the original trilogy) would seem to indicate at least in part a longing for a simpler moral order that never existed, and for murderous destruction without any repercussions (a trend pointed out by Norman Spinrad in his fine novel, The Iron Dream).

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