Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mysterious Mechanical Monsters!

And now for something completely different. I enjoyed culling the pictures for my last Superman post so much, I thought I'd do it again. If you've seen Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, you'll recognize the robots in this cartoon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

All Real Living is Meeting

Masters of the interior life teach that it's inadvisable to dwell on one's own mystical experiences, and especially to speak about them with others. As John of the Cross has it: The Bride says in her heart, my secret for myself. Part of the danger is that we come to regard them as a species of personal property or, worse, as spiritual cosmetics; still more dangerous is the fact that true contact with the divine takes place, not on the plane of concept or feeling or experience, interior or exterior, but on the plane of relation. To speak of experience is to savor the peel and throw away the meat.
O secrecy without a secret! O accumulation of information!
So I will not attempt to quantify my own experiences (insofar as I've had any). But any writer's mystical and metaphysical outlook inevitably colors his writing; my own has been profoundly affected by I and Thou (1923), the slim but rich volume by the great Jewish religious philosopher Martin Buber.

Buber begins by asserting that man's twofold attitude toward the world accords with the two "primary words" that can be spoken by man.
     Primary words do not signify things, but they intimate relations.
     Primary words do not describe something that might exist independently of them, but being spoken they bring about existence.
     Primary words are spoken from the being.
The two words, he says, are compound words. Each involves the I; when I speak a primary word, I enter it and take my stand in it. Any use of the word I is really a use of one or another of these words.
     The one primary word is the combination I-Thou.
     The other primary word is the combination I-It; wherein, without a change in the primary word, one of the words He and She can replace It.
He goes on to say:
     The primary word I-Thou can only be spoken with the whole being.
     The primary word I-It is never spoken with the whole being.
To speak I-Thou is to be in mutual relation. To speak I-It is to objectify. Think of talking to a person you love, of looking them in the eyes and addressing them as You, and how different this is from talking about someone not present as He or She. The thing is, you can use the word You and still mean It; there are people out there—narcissists and flatterers and manipulators, objectifiers and personifiers and conceptualizers—who are incapable of speaking in any other way. Such people never really live; the present is to them not the realm of eternal being, but the infinitesimal endpoint of the past.
The present is not fugitive and transient, but continually present and enduring. The object is not duration, but cessation, suspension, a breaking off and cutting clear and hardening, absence of relation and of present being.
     True beings are lived in the present, the life of objects is in the past.
Our relation with other men stands in the middle place. Below it is our relation with the world of nature; above it is our relation with the divine. Our address of I-Thou to (say) a tree may be somewhat mysterious, and take place on a dark, subliminal level, but it is real for all that. The I-It analyzes the tree according to utility, or form and color, or chemical composition, or what have you; the I-Thou sees it as it is in itself.
It can…also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is now no longer It. I have been seized by the power of exclusiveness. […]
     The tree will have a consciousness then, similar to our own? Of that I have no experience. But do you wish, through seeming to succeed in it with yourself, once again to disintegrate that which cannot be disintegrated? I encounter no soul or dryad of the tree, but the tree itself.
When we speak Thou on any plane, says Buber, we address the eternal Thou. But there is an attempt to evade this dichotomy between the past and the present, It and Thou, object and subject, by appealing to a world of ideas, by raising up a conceptual structure and dwelling in it as a bulwark against the onset of nothingness.
But the mankind of mere It that is imagined, postulated, and propagated by such a man has nothing in common with a living mankind where Thou may truly be spoken. The noblest fiction is a fetish, the loftiest fictitious sentiment is depraved. Ideas are no more enthroned above our heads than resident in them; they wander amongst us and accost us. The man who leaves the primary word unspoken is to be pitied; but the man who addresses instead these ideas with an abstraction or a password, as if it were their name, is contemptible.
When we erect such a framework and dwell in it, we barricade ourselves from relation with nature, with man, with god. Yet how frequently do men try to scale the divine heights by such means! There will come a time—in the afterlife, if not sooner—when doctrines and confessional differences will fade in significance. For there are two fundamentally different ways of approaching the divine, and the dividing line cuts right across the world of ideas, confessional boundaries, and the human heart. It isn't the division between polytheism and monotheism, but between what I (for lack of better words and at the risk of being misunderstood) will label the pagan and the mystic. It is possible to be a pagan and yet believe in one god; it is possible to be a mystic and believe in many gods. Every person is at least part pagan. A pagan is someone who speaks only I-It. To him the gods are objects to be acted upon; to him a tree is nothing unless it be fictively personified, or conceptualized, or dissected and analyzed.
[W]ithout It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man. 
Think of the old atheists' myth about the ebbing of belief. In the beginning, the legend goes, man believed that spirits inhabited trees and springs and other such things. As his familiarity with the world in which he found himself grew, he moved the divine agencies to the relatively inaccessible mountaintops. Further exploration forced him to relegate the gods to the distant heavens. And now, enlightened by precise astronomical observations, man has to locate god in the realm of abstraction.

Whatever the historical merits of this myth—asserted by some people with the ardent faith of the fundamentalist—I would counter it with a myth of my own construction. I would say that the peopling of hill and dale with rational spirits represents an attempt to deal with a fall. (Perhaps this is the source of the myth of the Fall, as hinted by Buber.) Man, alienated from the life of things, sought to regain his place by superimposing fictive animating agencies on the world of nature. No longer able to address the tree as Thou, at least on a subliminal level, he created the dryad. The impatient atheist is indeed fighting against one front when he denounces dryads and intelligent design. He is fighting paganism. But a pagan is really only a dishonest atheist; and there are atheists who, without realizing it, are mystics.

I've written a number of posts about how my perception of nature became warped when I was a teenager, due in part, perhaps, to my cognitive disability. At the time, I sought desperately to people my increasingly empty and meaningless world with minor gods. With all the data-acquisition-lust of my autistic mind, I pored over books about nature deities, demigods, elementals, fairies, and the like, collating and cataloging. I actually sought such beings in the woods and rivers. I sculpted goddesses from clay; I began the construction of a pagan shrine in the backyard, never to be completed. (My parents finished the garden after I went to college, but without the statue that was to have crowned it.) My point here is that my alienation from the world of nature went hand in hand with my retreat into paganism.

When man fell, Our Father Who Art in Heaven became Jupiter; literally, the names mean much the same thing, but I speak in terms of connotations. Again, I'm not opposing monotheism to polytheism. Certainly the objectification of the divine lends itself to a multiplication of gods, which is always a movement of rationalization and conceptualization. But who could argue that the polytheist Socrates lived exclusively in the world of I-It?

I have some thoughts about how these two primary words, these two attitudes, play out in art, especially in the fantasy novel. Perhaps that would best be relegated to a second post. For the time being, you, my reader, who find yourself trapped in the world of objects, consider the following, as I have, and find hope and a path to life:
Believe in the simple magic of life, in service in the universe, and the meaning of that waiting, that alertness, that "craning of the neck" in creatures will dawn upon you. Every word would falsify; but look! round about you beings live their life, and to whatever point you turn you come upon being.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Common Thread

I like to link ideas. What do the following passages have in common? Do you see it?

"Chrysaor was joined in love to Callirrhoe, the daughter of glorious Ocean, and begot three-headed Geryones. […] And in a hollow cave she bare another monster, irresistible, in no wise like either to mortal men or to the undying gods, even the goddess fierce Echidna who is half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth. And there she has a cave deep down under a hollow rock far from the deathless gods and mortal men. There, then, did the gods appoint her a glorious house to dwell in: and she keeps guard in Arima beneath the earth, grim Echidna, a nymph who dies not nor grows old all her days. Men say that Typhaon the terrible, outrageous and lawless, was joined in love to her, the maid with glancing eyes. So she conceived and brought forth fierce offspring; first she bare Orthus the hound of Geryones, and then again she bare a second, a monster not to be overcome and that may not be described, Cerberus who eats raw flesh, the brazen-voiced hound of Hades, fifty-headed, relentless and strong. And again she bore a third, the evil-minded Hydra of Lerna, whom the goddess, white-armed Hera nourished, being angry beyond measure with the mighty Heracles. […] She was the mother of Chimaera who breathed raging fire, a creature fearful, great, swift-footed and strong, who had three heads, one of a grim-eyed lion; in her hinderpart, a dragon; and in her middle, a goat, breathing forth a fearful blast of blazing fire. […] Echidna was subject in love to Orthus and brought forth the deadly Sphinx which destroyed the Cadmeans, and the Nemean lion, which Hera, the good wife of Zeus, brought up and made to haunt the hills of Nemea, a plague to men."

– Hesiod's Theogony

"Come, now, tell me, where hast thou proved thyself a seer? Why, when the Watcher was here who wove dark song, didst thou say nothing that could free this folk? Yet the riddle, at least, was not for the first comer to read; there was need of a seer's skill; and none such thou was found to have, either by help of birds, or as known from any god: no, I came, I, Oedipus the ignorant, and made her mute, when I had seized the answer by my wit, untaught of birds."

– Sophocles, Oedipus the King

"Then someone suggested that their plaything should be exhibited in the nearest building, and so I was led past the sphinx of white marble, which had seemed to watch me all the while with a smile at my astonishment, towards a vast grey edifice of fretted stone."

"Above me towered the sphinx, upon the bronze pedestal, white, shining, leprous, in the light of the rising moon. It seemed to smile in mockery of my dismay."

"I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight."

— H. G. Wells, The Time Machine

"I stood in one of the embrasures of the Last Redoubt—that great Pyramid of grey metal which held the last millions of this world from the Powers of the Slayers."

"To the North-West I looked, and in the wide field of my glass, saw plain the bright glare of the fire from the Red Pit, shine upwards against the underside of the vast chin of the North-West Watcher—The Watching Thing of the North-West… 'That which hath Watched from the Beginning, and until the opening of the Gateway of Eternity' came into my thoughts, as I looked through the glass…"

"[O]lden sciences […], disturbing the unmeasurable Outward Powers, […] allowed to pass the Barrier of Life some of those Monsters and Ab-human creatures, which are so wondrously cushioned from us at this normal present. And thus there had materialized, and in other cases developed, grotesque and horrible Creatures, which now beset the humans of this world. And where there was no power to take on material form, there had been allowed to certain dreadful Forces to have power to affect the life of the human spirit. And this growing very dreadful, and the world full of lawlessness and degeneracy, there had banded together the sound millions, and built the Last Redoubt; there in the twilight of the world."

"And then, so it would seem, as that Eternal Night lengthened itself upon the world, the power of terror grew and strengthened. And fresh and greater monsters developed and bred out of all space and Outward Dimensions, attracted, even as it might be Infernal sharks, by that lonely and mighty hill of humanity, facing its end—so near to the Eternal, and yet so far deferred in the minds and to the senses of those humans. And thus hath it been ever."

— William Hope Hodgson, The Night Land

"At length they came to the door upon the outer court, and they halted. Even from where they stood they felt the malice of the Watchers beating on them, black silent shapes on either side of the gate through which the glare of Mordor dimly showed. […]
     "Sam drew out the elven-glass of Galadriel again. As if to do honour to his hardihood, and to grace with splendour his faithful brown hobbit-hand that had done such deeds, the phial blazed forth suddenly, so that all the shadowy court was lit with a dazzling radiance like lightning; but it remained steady and did not pass.
     "'Gilthoniel, A Elbereth!' Sam cried. For, why he did not know, his thought sprang back suddenly to the Elves in the Shire, and the song that drove away the Black Rider in the trees.
     "'Aiya elenion ancalima!' cried Frodo once again behind him.
     "The will of the Watchers was broken with a suddenness like the snapping of a cord, and Frodo and Sam stumbled forward. Then they ran. Through the gate and past the great seated figures with their glittering eyes."

— J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Infant of Krypton, Man of Steel

I wrote in my last post about having watched the 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons. Some of them have astonishingly beautiful animation and should be seen by anyone interested in dieselpunk. Just for fun, I've culled some of the more striking images from the first cartoon ("Superman," or "The Mad Scientist"). Enjoy! (Or better yet, go watch some of the cartoons.)

"In the endless reaches of the universe, there once existed a planet known as Krypton, a planet that burned like a green star in the distant heavens. There, civilization was far advanced, and it brought forth a race of supermen, whose mental and physical powers were developed to the absolute peak of human perfection. But there came a day when giant quakes threatened to destroy Krypton forever. One of the planet's leading scientists, sensing the approach of doom, placed his infant son in a small rocket ship and sent it hurtling in the direction of Earth, just as Krypton exploded. The rocket sped through star-studded space, landing safely on Earth with its precious burden: Krypton's sole survivor."

The Superman we Deserve?

So, I saw that new Superman movie.

Let me begin by saying that I've always had an interest in Superman. I grew up watching the old Fleischer cartoons, the movies, the television shows; I even read a few comic books. What makes a superhero iconic is that he takes some few aspects of our culture—tensions, aspirations, conflicts—and embodies them in a dramatic way. So here we have Clark Kent, an immigrant adoptee growing up in Smallville—flyover territory—just trying to fit in and be a decent American, attempting to make it in the Big City. As a person of mixed ancestry who came of immigrant families, who's done what he could to fit into small towns with varying success, who's lived in the Cultural Center of the Universe (Austin) without particularly caring for it, that appeals to me. I think it does to a lot of people.

Man of Steel certainly touches on this. I particularly like how the boy-Clark's extreme hypersensitivity isolates him from the other children at school. The treatment—the way his foster-mother teaches him to focus his senses—seems owing to the experiences of people with autism disorders. Having such a disorder myself, I found the depiction quite powerful, and potentially useful in explaining how we perceive things. It gave me another way to identify with Superman.

So you see, I'm already well-disposed toward Superman for many reasons. I generally can't stand superhero stuff, but Batman and Superman I like. Which is what makes it so unfortunate that my reaction to this movie is a resounding "meh."

It's heavy on CGI action and light on character and plot, which is disappointing, considering that it was written by Nolan and Goyer. We go straight from the spectacular opening on Krypton (I mean, it's supposed to be spectacular, but to me it just looks like a big cartoon in which they could make pretty much anything happen) and the planet's destruction to a grown-up Clark Kent saving people from a burning oil rig. His boyhood is handled in flashbacks. Which is OK, except that that's where the only interesting drama is. Kevin Costner, channeling Field of Dreams, is wonderful to watch. Russell Crowe, not so much.

You see, the thing I like about Batman Begins is that it shows Bruce Wayne finding his own path, building his persona. It's a messy, halting process. We all know where it's going to end, but there's something absorbing about the storytelling. We see him building his knowledge and skills, forming his philosophy, exploring his future lair, gathering his arsenal. There's something elemental about a hero creating his own weapons, as Siegfried reforges his father's sword.

But in Man of Steel, bam, Clark overhears army guys talking about a buried alien aircraft (in a bar, of all places), then, bam, he goes and finds it, then, bam, he sticks Jor-El's flash drive in the computer (luckily it hadn't been destroyed or lost when his clothes burned off in that rig explosion), and receives a virtual visit from his father's "downloaded" (!) consciousness, and gets his Superman suit and his commission to go help people and bring hope and all that. (How exactly was that suit just hanging in the closet? The ship had been there for thousands of years.) This is right at the beginning: Superman's persona and mission are handed to him by Daddy. And then here comes General Zod from the Phantom Zone.

The thing about these big CGI epics is that, visually speaking, pretty much anything can happen, which tends to make them loud and dull. Take Superman battling this world engine or whatever it's called. These big metal snake things come out at him, and he fights them, and it goes back and forth, and then he gets down into the blue laser beam somehow, and flies up it, and destroys the thing. Meanwhile things are getting smashed up pretty good in Metropolis. Now, is there any reason internal to the story why he couldn't have destroyed the engine ten minutes earlier? No, because it's all just ad hoc, designed for visual titillation and nothing more. The action falls flat because we're not given enough information. But there's really not any more information to give, something that becomes increasingly apparent as you watch. It's like kids playing with action figures, making it up as they go along.

Much is made of the salutary effects of Earth air, which is said to be thinner and more nourishing than Krypton air. As to how thin it is, I have no opinion, but, sure, I guess I've always found it nourishing. It's a nice combination of carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen, and so on. This, together with our young sun's radiation, is what gives Superman his superpowers (including, er, eye-beams and flying). Even if we leave aside the question of why the far-advanced Kryptonians haven't discovered this themselves and used it to their benefit, it's hard not to notice that it isn't handled consistently. But I'm not going to waste my brain cells trying to explain all the contradictions.  Maybe I'm just missing something. Maybe not. It doesn't really matter, and it clearly didn't matter to the writers.

People keep saying that this is an angsty Superman, but I don't see that. Actually, the movie is full of warm, easy platitudes about faith and trust and life and so on, but their impact isn't earned by the script. Nothing is earned by the script. It's emotionally unsatisfying. And don't even get me started on the cardboard Lois Lane. And the product placement. I mean, there was one part where it looked like a Nikon commercial.

Well, I seem to be getting my curmudgeon on, so I'd better stop there. Tonight I think I'll watch The Dark Knight again.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Post Oaks and Sand Roughs

We recently passed the seventy-seventh anniversary of the death of Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Cimmerian and seminal writer of the sword-and-sorcery genre. I had the opportunity to tour his home on the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death; I've written about it here before, but I took some decent pictures, and have been meaning to return to the experience. This seems like a good enough occasion.

Howard was born on January 22, 1906, and died by his own hand on June 11, 1936. He spent most of his adult life in Cross Plains, Texas, having moved there with his parents at the age of thirteen. This is where they hold the annual Robert E. Howard Days on or around June 11, having made the morbid decision to celebrate his life's work on the date of his suicide. His father was a country physician, and the family moved around the state pretty frequently before settling down. Cross Plains was only a hamlet when the Howards arrived, as it is now, but became a boom town within several years of their arrival. To this Howard credited his familiarity with the dark side of life. He worked odd jobs around town before getting published. Apparently he helped install the wires for the first radio receiver in the area. He liked to hunt and fish, and went everywhere with his dog Patch. He was also a boxer.

The house where he lived with his parents up until his death is a museum now; during Howard Days it's open all day long, but usually you have to make arrangements to see it. They were excited I'd come from so far away, from "a whole nother" part of the state, as the local tmesis has it. The Cross Plains Barbarian Festival was held in a nearby park; I went to it, briefly, but was disappointed to find rednecks, country music, and beer rather than feasting Cimmerians, Stygian rites, and black lotus.

Here we have Dr. and Mrs. Howards' bedroom. Robert's room was the closed-in sleeping porch visible through the window on the right. His mother ailed from tuberculosis throughout much of his life, and her illness affected him deeply. As her condition worsened, he made plans to commit suicide. The day after he bought a family cemetery plot in Brownwood, she lapsed into a coma from which she was not expected to recover. He went out and shot himself immediately. His mother died the next day, and they were buried side by side. He was only thirty. No one knows exactly why Howard committed suicide. The only note he left was a bit of verse: "All fled, all done, so lift me on the pyre;/ The feast is over and the lamps expire."

The books in the Howards' parlor were Dr. Howard's and look to be mostly of the country Baptist variety. Dr. Howard is supposed to have owned several books about Eastern mysticism that he sometimes used in his practice, but none were in evidence. The piano, the tour-lady told me, did not belong to the them, nor did they own such a thing. The historical society just thought it went with the room.

Howard bought this bust of Cleopatra when he was fourteen while spending some time in New Orleans with his father. It's certainly an unusual thing for a teenager to have spent his money on, and presages his many stories dealing with shapely, scantily-clad females in ancient mythical lands. He also spent time in the library during that trip, and there discovered the Picts, a barbaric race that later became an inspiration in his Conan stories. The bust was owned for a time by L. Sprague DeCamp before being donated by him to the museum.

To me, nothing is so inspiring as to see the place where a writer or artist created their works. Here we have Howard's tiny bedroom and study, a closed-in sleeping porch. The typewriter is, I believe, Howard's own. The inkwell is from Jerusalem and was sent to him by a friend. Howard's original desk is now owned by an elderly lady in a nearby town and has been converted into a coffee table. She refuses to part with it despite having been offered a large sum of money; she's promised to leave it to the museum when she dies, however.

Howard was inspired by history and adventure novels. The book in the front was a gift to his lady friend, Novalyne Price. They dated off and on during the couple of years leading up to Howard's suicide, having met at college in nearby Brownwood. She'd asked for a history book for Christmas, but instead he gave her a French pornography book with bizarre "naughty pictures," as the nice old lady who gave me the tour put it. Price was rather disturbed by the present and kept it hidden away. When she asked Howard the meaning of the gift, he replied that it was a history book in a sense, for to him it portrayed the slow degradation of our modern civilized culture. He was writing "Red Nails" at about the same time. He hadn't long to live then.

Price was also an aspiring writer. They told me that she had to drive to Howard's home in Cross Plains to get her first date with him because, whenever she tried to telephone, the protective Mrs. Howard would say her son wasn't in. Price later wrote a memoir about Howard—The Man Who Walked Alone—and it has been made into a movie with moderately famous actors. She wasn't fond of the Conan stories.

Howard corresponded regularly with fellow Weird Tales writer H. P. Lovecraft. This postcard was mailed from Quebec, and Lovecraft's description of the local sights sounds like it might have come out of one of his Arkham stories. Of the First Triumvirate of the Pulps—Lovecraft, Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith—only Lovecraft has achieved some form of respectability; his works are even featured in a handsome Library of America edition. Howard himself might be called a follower of Jack London, another Library of America author, but I don't think he'll ever escape the lurid aura of pulp seaminess. Perhaps that's as it should be.

Howard is something of a patron saint to me, having been, like me, a Texan who never made it out of Texas, nor ever really desired to; who lived in some of the places I've lived, and was inspired by some of the local sights that have inspired me (like the Hill Country around Fredricksburg on a misty winter evening); who cobbled together such an education as his means and resources could afford; who had an idiosyncratic worldview that proved incomprehensible to the people around him. I remember once, when I was in high school, I had the temerity to exhibit my artistic oeuvre at a show in a neighboring town. Surrounded by little old ladies with paintings of bluebonnets and rusty windmills, I had a naked Prometheus giving fire to man, and three-headed Hecate at the crossroads, and the Orphic creation myth, and other such things. A lady, upon seeing the latter, said quite loudly so that I could hear: "An angel? Hatching out of an egg? I don't think so!!!"

The tale I've sold most recently—"The Goblin King's Concubine," to Beneath Ceaseless Skies—is a subversive tribute to Howard. It's a retelling of the story of Cynthia Ann Parker's rescue at the hands of Sul Ross and the Texas Rangers, which seemingly also inspired Howard's tale "The Vale of Lost Women." Howard's latent racism, which unfortunately mars several of his stories, is in evidence here, and my story is in part an exploration of chauvinism and otherness.

So, perhaps Howard isn't altogether free of the besetting sins of his time, as I, no doubt, am not free from those of mine. He's something of an enigma, a complex man who died as he lived, unable (one suspects) to ever really say what was on his mind, who found himself in a dead end from which he could see no escape. I remain grateful for the earnestness of his writing and for the example he set; and I'm grateful, too, for having had the opportunity to be under the roof of his former home. Apparently someone from the REH House will be on hand at LoneStarCon in San Antonio this year to conduct a side trip to Cross Plains; I hope that some of you, my faithful readers, will take advantage of it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Universe, Otherwise Known as the Library

This is a continuation of my previous post.

The library in the town where I grew up was a tiny, one-room affair, so whenever I had to do research for school, my father drove me to the university library in the city. The first time was when I was about eleven, I think; I was writing a paper on Greek archaeology. The books I needed were far back in the stacks, which were below ground or at least had a subterranean feel, and close to where machinery hummed loudly behind vents. It was at night, and no one else was there.

University libraries are assuredly the most fearful.

My first weeks of college were frightening and intensely lonely, as they are for many aspies, but the libraries were a dream come true. I spent much of the week before classes started exploring the main one. (I recall reading The Bell Jar then, and reflecting that I would most likely make the same exit as the author, which, I'm glad to say, hasn't been the case.) I eventually got a job as a shelver, ultimately holding it for two years. My future wife worked the circulation desk at the other campus library, where they always thought I was a little shady; it was like the Capulets and the Montagues. The job itself proved invaluable, as I came across a great many books I would never have read otherwise (e.g., The Worm Ouroboros), and handled editions sometimes as much as two centuries old. There was a little reading room with fine chairs and tables and stained-glass windows and books behind glass that I always wanted to get into, much as Alice wanted to get into the garden, but the door was always closed and locked, and the lights off, and the drink-me bottles only made my neck lengthen.

On the square in that town is what may very well be the best used bookstore in the universe; I'm certain I spent more time there than wandering through the library. It's such a good business, I feel I must break with my practice here and divulge a proper noun associated with my history: the name of the store is Recycled Books, Records, and CDs. The books are never anything but reasonably priced, and among them I've found out-of-print works like Bury's History of Greece in its Modern Library edition, Portmann's Animal Forms and Patterns, and innumerable Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks, books I could have looked for in vain at the execrable Half Priced Books years without finding; I once even bought a nineteenth-century copy of Chapman's Homer for one dollar. Its layout is something like the library described by Mr. Vane, and a pleasure to lose oneself in.

A number of years ago I went on a walking tour of southern England and Wales. Hay-on-Wye, the used-book mecca of Britain, was my last stop. It was, for me, a rather disappointing experience, but one thing deserves mention: whenever the clerks found out I was from Texas, they were quick to ask if I'd ever been to Larry McMurtry's used bookstore in Archer City. Now this I have done quite a number of times, as it's close to my mother-in-law's house. The store (Booked Up) fills five buildings on the town square, and you have to get a map in Building 1 to find your way around. The editions there, while excellent, are somewhat overpriced, and the selection shows a certain bias and ignorance of some subjects and branches of literature, something I've often found to be the case in stores run by only one or two people. The town itself is somewhat moribund; its population is about 1800, and there's nothing but similar small towns for miles around. But the store is well worth traveling to see, especially if you have an interest in antiquarian books.

It may seem that I'm rambling without purpose here—and perhaps I am, Internet ink being cheap—but these recollections do link back to my previous post. I began by discussing the strange, almost numinous fear and dread that seems to lurk in the deserted back corners of libraries. I dream quite vividly, and, given the long obsession I've had with libraries and used bookstores, perhaps it isn't surprising that I dream of books every week or so. Sometimes these dreams are bizarre and nightmarish, as when I discovered a mirror image of the university library beneath its basement, lit by subterranean fires and inhabited by glowing, electric blue demons, or when I lost myself in dim, infinite stacks full of identical gray metal bookcases, and took an old oversized edition down from the top shelf, and opened it on the floor to read of the ancient kingdoms of the elves. Sometimes also I dream of rambling, chaotic used bookstores with secret passages and hidden rooms; generally I'm looking for some specific book that I can't quite call to mind, only to find ten copies of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in plastic slipcovers.

People go to libraries less and less often these days. It isn't uncommon to encounter a college student who doesn't even know how to do a catalog search or check out a book. Electronic media is to blame, I suppose. Now, I have no ideological problem with e-books and the like; I think it's great for popular fiction, which is what I write. But reliance on e-media for everything is (I think) an ominous development for any democracy, given its ephemerality and ease of manipulation. It's in de Tocqueville, people!*

I'm starting to acquire hard-copy books like foil-hat people stuff cash in their mattresses. I may be crazy, but then, I've always suspected that that was the case. Perhaps Bradbury's to blame. Or perhaps it's just an excuse to visit more used bookstores.

* Not actually in de Tocqueville.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Libraries of Faerie, Babel, and Urth

There was a time, perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, when I often read George MacDonald. The strain of gnostic mysticism that runs through nineteenth-century arts and letters appealed to me in his novels. Phantastes was, of course, my favorite, but I read Lilith several times as well. It's an interesting point that each of these novels—written at different stages of MacDonald's life—contain a large library with occult contents, secret rooms, and ill-defined boundaries, a library in which the protagonist finds himself as an alien in a wilderness. Here Anodos describes the Palace of Faerie:
The library was a mighty hall, lighted from the roof, which was formed of something like glass, vaulted over in a single piece, and stained throughout with a great mysterious picture in gorgeous colouring. The walls were lined from floor to roof with books and books: most of them in ancient bindings, but some in strange new fashions which I had never seen, and which, were I to make the attempt, I could ill describe… Over some parts of the library, descended curtains of silk of various dyes, none of which I ever saw lifted while I was there; and I felt somehow that it would be presumptuous in me to venture to look within them.
And Mr. Vane here describes the library bequeathed to him at the beginning of Lilith:
The library, although duly considered in many alterations of the house and additions to it, had nevertheless, like an encroaching state, absorbed one room after another until it occupied the greater part of the ground floor. Its chief room was large, and the walls of it were covered with books almost to the ceiling; the rooms into which it overflowed were of various sizes and shapes, and communicated in modes as various—by doors, by open arches, by short passages, by steps up and steps down.
Or again, later:
I saw no raven, but the librarian—the same slender elderly man, in a rusty black coat, large in the body and long in the tails. I had seen only his back before; now for the first time I saw his face. It was so thin that it showed the shape of the bones under it, suggesting the skulls his last-claimed profession must have made him familiar with. But in truth I had never before seen a face so alive, or a look so keen or so friendly as that in his pale blue eyes, which yet had a haze about them as if they had done much weeping.
     "You knew I was not a raven!" he said with a smile.
     "I knew you were Mr. Raven," I replied; "but somehow I thought you a bird too!"
     "What made you think me a bird?"
     "You looked a raven, and I saw you dig worms out of the earth with your beak."
     "And then?"
     "Toss them in the air."
     "And then?"
     "They grew butterflies, and flew away."
     "Did you ever see a raven do that? I told you I was a sexton!"
     "Does a sexton toss worms in the air, and turn them into butterflies?"
     "I never saw one do it!"
     "You saw me do it!—But I am still librarian in your house, for I never was dismissed, and never gave up the office. Now I am librarian here as well."
     "But you have just told me you were sexton here!"
     "So I am. It is much the same profession. Except you are a true sexton, books are but dead bodies to you, and a library nothing but a catacomb!"
Someone (Lewis, I suppose) says somewhere that MacDonald once worked in the library of a certain estate, and that this experience doubtless colored his stories. Certainly I can understand its making a strong impression on him. There's something almost numinous about a large, empty library. To me it's akin to the fear described by Pascal in the quote on my sidebar, though why this is I'm not certain. Perhaps it's because libraries approach the mysteries of blank infinity with their iterative Chinese-box structure and seemingly interminable strings of characters.

Borges gives greatest expression to this spectral fear in his short story "The Library of Babel." Whatever he may have meant by the fable—I tread diffidently here—it captures the unsettling, nightmarish quality of rows upon rows upon rows of books.
The universe (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings. From any of the hexagons one can see, interminably, the upper and lower floors. The distribution of the galleries is invariable.
Each book in the Library consists of 410 pages with 40 lines on each page and 80 characters on each line; there are 25 characters in all, including 22 letters, the period, the comma, and the space. It is claimed that the Library contains every possible combination of letters without repetition. There are thus only finitely many rooms. However, adapting a line from Pascal, the narrator states:
The Library is a sphere whose exact center is any one of the hexagons and whose circumference is inaccessible.
This would seem to indicate a peculiar topology. The narrator expresses the opinion that the Library simply repeats. (This, however, is impossible, unless one of the rooms is different from the others. For each cell contains 20 shelves with 35 books per shelf, so that there are 22 × 52 × 7 books per cell, whereas the total number of possible combinations is 52,624,000, into which 22 × 52 × 7 is not divisible. Perhaps the spine characters introduce the necessary factors?) If the Library does repeat in a consistent way, then a horizontal slice would be an orientable surface, possibly of extremely high genus.

The weight and pregnant hush of libraries is handled more affectively in Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer, when Severian descends to the stacks to find Master Ultan, the blind curator.
"We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens, and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part of the opinion that no brace of them survives unfossilized. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations—books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.
     "We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning their pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and chimeric dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate wafers of white jade, ivory, and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have also that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here—though I can no longer tell you where—no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does."
Here the library is invested with the impossible weight of ages that lie heaped upon Urth in those latter days, as the sun cools and dims.

I still have somewhat to say concerning libraries—chiefly of an autobiographical nature—but this is getting to be a long post, so I'll save it for the next. Why am I writing about all this, you ask, dear reader? Because it helps me organize my thoughts, and because the subject interests me. So, onward ho.

Monday, June 10, 2013


I paint as well as write, and I've read a lot of books about the visual arts. The useful ones come in four varieties: (1) books containing large, faithful reproductions, together with technical information on format, ground, medium, etc.; (2) instructional books by great artists; (3) biographies with accurate portrayals of lifestyle, education, means, methods, etc.; and (4) manuals of materials. Those prolix, pedantic, fluffy art books filled with explanations about how the dog symbolizes fidelity and Christ grew up in Jerusalem and Picasso's wife stepped on his girlfriend's hand, but no information on execution, are useless. The same goes for criticism, unless you need someone to tell you what to like and why to like it, and for instructional books written by hacks.

Anyway, I've discovered much the same about books on writing. Here category (1) is superfluous. Category (4) includes books like Nicholson's Dictionary of American-English Usage Based on Fowler's Modern English Usage, which I often read for pleasure. Category (3) is equally useful and equally rare, because aesthetes and literati would rather read about concepts, controversies, and anecdotes than art. And category (2) is rarer still. I don't understand why someone who's published one novel and teaches college literature would feel qualified to write a book about how to write fiction, but there it is: I've got one on my shelf.

All this is to say, I've been reading How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy by Orson Scott Card, an author I greatly respect even if I don't always agree with his views, and I'm pleased to find it a worthy entry under category (2). It's obviously a bit out of date, but the advice is still mostly sound, both encouraging and sobering. I only wish it were longer.

In one memorable passage Card compares the professor-cum-writing-teacher to a wine-making instructor who takes it upon himself to evaluate his students' work based on the half-understood words of famous wine critics. Card also describes in practical terms the process by which great ideas come to maturity, using himself as an example. Here we get down to nuts and bolts, which is the only really useful thing in art how-to books. The idea that formed the basis of Ender's Game apparently came while he was reading the Foundation trilogy as a teenager, but naturally took many years to produce fruit. He also describes the development of Hart's Hope (my favorite of his novels)—how the city began as a sketch of a map, produced its own culture, and ultimately acquired a story. This prompted me to think about the ideas behind the stories I'm writing right now, and whether they're of a like provenance.

I wrote my first science fiction story when I was a college student—thirteen years ago!—and sent it off to the Writers of the Future contest, which, alas, I didn't win. No copies are extant, but its title was "All the Rivers" (from the line in Ecclesiastes), and it opened with a quote from Blaise Pascal: "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me." The story, which was based on a psychedelic dream I'd had thanks to skipping my meds for a day, involved a mad, self-proclaimed prophet-king wandering with an army in scrap-iron armor through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Like the phenomena described by our sacred philosopher, it was a bit pointless. But that same mad king and wandering army have, amazingly*, resurfaced in my recent writings, as has the proverb: All rivers pour into the Sea of Bitter Tears, but the sea is not filled.

Entropy! That's what I write about. The next year I'd married and moved from the dorm to a tiny apartment. A rain gutter ran down along the outside of our unit, and there was a leak where the siding had rotted, causing a carpet of blue-green mold to creep across the ceiling of our closet. The bedroom was always dark because the blinds were broken, and, when that caused the window AC unit to break down, the maintenance guys fixed it by cutting an AC unit-shaped hole in the blinds. We always had a box fan in the door to the bedroom in an attempt to keep the living room from getting so miserably hot in the summer. There was also a rat infestation, and I actually skewered two with the point of an umbrella. The building was torn down as soon as we moved out; the management tried to make us leave before our lease was up, which we successfully resisted, but we were the last to go, the other residents already having fled likewell, you know.

Why do I mention all these picturesque details? Because they're a picture of my soul at the time. It was a period when I was severing psychological ties to a small but fanatical sect while living an extremely conflicted double life and performing such public mortifications as preaching the end of the world barefoot while dressed in a habit I had sewed myself from burlap. As if this weren't enough, I was, under a math professor's direction, trying to teach myself differential geometry, general relativity, and cosmology. Like Severian the Torturer, I forget nothing, and I vividly recall sitting in my dark bedroom, where the only furniture was a mattress on the floor, listening to the rodents' pitter-patter in kitchen, and studying the Schwarzchild model and Hawking's Theorem. The slowness of my mind so frustrated me that I beat the walls with my fists until my knuckles bled. I still have the scars.

Did I mention that I'm autistic?

But I digress. While all of this was going on, I began producing an elaborate future history of Martian civilization. A prince, a sultan's son who spoke with a woman's voice and never went without a veil to hide his horrific rictus grin, made an appearance in the kingdom of Xanth. This fellow—also inspired by missing my meds—has come into my recent stories as well. In fact, he shows up in both the stories I've sold to Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

The stratospheric, ocean-girt tower that acts as a kind of axis for all my stories originated as a doodle maybe six years ago. The world in which my stories take place came into being a couple years later, but I'd been contemplating the idea of a counter-earth with paleozoic biota for some time before that. The Paleozoic Era has long fascinated me. When I was a boy I had a print of the famous Yale Age of Reptiles mural on the wall of my bedroom, beneath which was the board where I'd draw the genealogical charts of the Greek gods and heroes. I suppose the origins of my novel really go back to that.

Well, so, it seems that "there is nothing new under the sun," at least when it comes to my writing. Ideas percolate for decades without my being aware of it; characters that I'd long forgotten reappear in new guises.

One day, when I'm rich and famous and dead, some pedantic student of early twenty-first-century speculative fiction—the author, perhaps, of the obscure monograph Culture at the Crossroads: The Metaphysical Epic Pulp-Action Fantasy Movement and its Antecedents—will come across this blog post in the dusty archives of the Wayback Machine, and cite it in a chapter devoted to my works; from there it will find its way into the Fantasy Writing Reader, where some aspiring author such as myself will find it and benefit from it.

* I say amazingly because I hadn't realized how far back it went it until I was writing this.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Of Flying Whales

My About Me page lists such luminaries as Conrad and Melville as authorial inspirations. Metaphysically, I am an Aristotelian or (more accurately) a Thomist, of sorts; I read Thomas Aquinas through his great twentieth-century expositors, especially Etienne Gilson, and I believe that this has a heavy influence on my writing. My knowledge of the physical laws that appear in my works (usually to be purposefully flouted) was imbibed at the font of my mathematics doctoral program, through which I studied graduate-level quantum theory and cosmology. And, lest my pedigree be suspect, I can point to Carl Friederich Gauss, Prince of Mathematicians, as my teacher-to-pupil mathematical ancestor. (So can about twenty thousand other people, of course.)

This list of influences and credentials is, admittedly, impressive. Yes. But it would be incomplete were I not to add one more source that, due perhaps to childhood trauma, has never been far from my mind. Those of you, my readers, to whom the felicitious locution "You spoony bard!" is not unfamiliar will know that of which I speak. I refer, of course, to the video game Final Fantasy II (Final Fantasy IV in the original Japanese version) produced by SquareSoft for the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in the early nineties. (The total number of random Google hits my blog has received to date just octupled.) After having completed the American version too many times to count easily, I obtained the original version together with an English language patch, and am proud to say that I beat it as well, despite the added difficulty.

I know that I've spoken dismissively of video games in the past. This is for three reasons. First, I am a grown-up now, and have better and/or more lucrative ways to spend my time. Second, they rot your brain. It's true. And, third, I don't like first-person shooter- or slasher-type games, and those took the market over in the late nineties. I liked the old two-dimensional games like Zelda, which could sometimes be quite beautiful. (I also love to peruse Owen Jones' Grammar of Ornament.) Final Fantasy IV (IIE) is, alas, not particularly beautiful*, although the re-release looks to have corrected this. It is a great sadness to me that I will most likely never play it, as I have no intention of ever spending money on the system for which it was produced.

No, what chiefly I loved FF IV (IIE) for was the grand sweep of its story. It is a remarkably coherent story, considering the number of ridiculous plot elements introduced into FF VI (IIIE), which I also played extensively. There is much for the writer-of-fantasy-series to learn here. The key is the gradual broadening of perspective. What begins with the dismissal of Cecil the Black Knight from the Red Wings of Baron ends with the defeat of the evil Lunarian Zeromus deep beneath the surface of the Moon. (I can't believe I remember all that.) The story follows something of a spiral pattern, with new characters, forces, and places being held in reserve until the proper moment. This works to maintain player interest. The same idea applies in fiction.

This is a matter of nuts-and-bolts practicality: you can't introduce all your characters in Book I and have them keep returning to the same familiar places throughout the series. It's boring. On the other hand, if you're writing epic fantasy and not episodic sword-and-sorcery, you can't let the finish line recede indefinitely. There has to be a point where whatever was causing the trouble in the Prelude to Book I is finally overcome, or else the reader will feel cheated. She'll get the feeling that you didn't know what the hell you were up to when you started, or else that it wasn't important enough not to alter in exchange for (ahem) enhanced financial security.

Another thing I like about FF IV (IIE) is its blend of fantasy and science fiction elements. Actually, it's pure fantasy, but it has spaceships and world-annihilating robot giants, which people tend to associate with science fiction. These things are given an air of strangeness and immense antiquity, though, and there's no incongruity in the transition from the spaceship (built, of course, to look like a glowing whale) to the lunar palace where our heroes meet Fusoya, Cecil's Lunarian wizard-uncle. I think this appeals so strongly to me because it tends to naturalize or humanize the aspects of our civilization (namely, industry and techonology) that I find most jarring, being a birds-and-flowers sort of fellow.

Well, FF IV (IIE) is one of those things I had to discover when I discovered it (early adolescence). I'm certain it wouldn't draw me now if I hadn't played it before. But game design is an artin the sense of chair-making rather than of, say, Gilson's Arts of the Beautifuland FF IV (IIE) is certainly a memorable product of its time, and one that, for one reason or another, affected me deeply.

A special welcome to all my new Google hits. Thank you for increasing my site's traffic. Alas, there are no games for sale here, no downloads, no hints or secrets or cheat codes. Go read a good book; or, better yet, go for a long walk and just listen. I recommend Moby-Dick and/or the National Park System.

* It did have a good score; I especially loved the overworld pieces.