Monthly Archives: September 2008

Banned SF&F: let’s celebrate Banned Books Week 2008!

It’s Banned Books Week (last week of September every year), an assertion of our freedom to read whatever we damn well please, led by the American Library Association for the last 27 years. Way to go, ALA, I’ll drink to that!

Let’s take a look at some of the science fiction and fantasy that has been challenged or banned by the small-minded censorship-loving prudes in the past, and their reasons for wanting it suppressed. I include fantasy just because so many demented dimwits out there criticize it for promoting “witchcraft” or “sorcery” (as if such things really existed), and that kind of irrational, muddle-headed nonsense annoys me to no end. (Much of this information comes from the ALA site, a great resource for learning about banned books).

1984 by George Orwell
Why: “pro-communist, explicit sexual matter.”

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Why: “promiscuous sex, language, moral content, negative activity, contempt for religion,” etc.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
Why: the Christ Community Church in Alamagordo, New Mexico had themselves a barbecue and threw LOTR on the fire because it’s “satanic.” Ok, everyone together…. ready…. start laughing…. NOW!

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Why: “objectionable language.”

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Why: contains the phrase “God damn”
Wait…. someone wanted to ban a book which is ABOUT the ultimate banning of books? Is it possible for a human being to so completely lack any inkling of the concept of irony!?

Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
Why: witchcraft, satanism, the usual crap…. blah blah blah.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
Why: contains witches and crystal balls, challenges religious beliefs (and we just can’t have that now, can we?).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Why: sex, language, etc.

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Why: sexuality.

His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman
Why: critical of religion.

Cujo, Carrie, and The Dead Zone by Stephen King
Why: sex, violence.

So go on, open one of these books and enjoy it, and be free from the petty tyrants who want to control what you read because (a) they’re so uptight about sex and “bad” words, (b) they can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, (c) they think their religious beliefs should be insulated from even the slightest criticism, whether real or imagined, or (d) some combination of the above.

Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only weapon against bad ideas is better ideas.
~Alfred Whitney Griswold, New York Times, 24 February 1959

Every burned book enlightens the world.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Top 5 imaginary literary works from science fiction

One of the best things an author can do to bring a fictional universe to life, to make it feel vibrant and real, is to give that universe its own literature — and even better, to quote from it. This seems to be common in science fiction, and it’s one of those little flourishes I’ve always loved. So here are some of my favorite imaginary literary works from science fiction. These are imaginary works I wish really existed so I could read them in their entirety, rather than in little bits and pieces.

The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan
Appears in: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Comments: I’d love to get my hands on this sarcastic, subversive, and ingeniously witty dictionary.
Excerpts:

SHALMANESER That real cool piece of hardware up at the GT tower. They say he’s apt to evolve to true consciousness one day. Also, they say he’s as intelligent as a thousand of us put together, which isn’t really saying much, because when you put a thousand of us together look how stupidly we behave.

POPULATION EXPLOSION Unique in human experience, an event which happened yesterday but which everyone swears won’t happen until tomorrow.

The Stolen Journals by Leto II
Appears in: God Emperor of Dune by Frank Herbert
Comments: The personal journal of science fiction’s deepest and most complex character? Who could pass that up?
Excerpts:

This morning I was born in a yurt on the edge of a horse-plain in a land of a planet which no longer exists. Tomorrow I will be born someone else in another place. I have not yet chosen. This morning, though — ahhh, this life! When my eyes had learned to focus, I looked out at sunshine on trampled grass and I saw vigorous people going about the sweet activities of their lives. Where… oh where has all of that vigor gone?

The singular multiplicity of this universe draws my deepest attention. It is a thing of absolute beauty.

The Rigors by Meridian
Appears in: Liege-Killer by Christopher Hinz
Comments: Paratwa uber-assassin Meridian shares his experiences ruling over those sniveling enslaved humans. He’s implacably ruthless, yet at the same time oddly charming.
Excerpts:

Dinner was not a very satisfying occasion for the humans that night. It was readily apparent that their digestion was being disrupted by the presence of Peter’s head on my table.
[….]
Peters was served for desert. The humans did not want to eat their companion but they also did not want to risk angering me. Their dilemma was intelligently solved. They ate Peters.
I made certain that all the other domiciles learned of our special confection. Peters had been served as a good object lesson.
He was also rather tasty.

The Birth of Braxi: excerpts from the later dialogues of Harkur the Great and Viton the Ruthless (author unknown)
Appears in: In Conquest Born by C.S. Friedman
Comments: Philosophy for a physically- and martially-oriented society not afraid to embrace its dark side.
Excerpts:

VITON: These gentle emotions, what good are they? Love, compassion, amity; what purpose do they serve? To my mind they are socially invalid, obstacles to emotional efficiency. There is no more constructive emotion than hatred.

HARKUR: A man’s most sacred possession is his privacy of mind. Examine him, torture him, break him; still his thoughts are his own until he chooses to express them. This concept is one of the foundations of Braxin philosophy. Psychic ability, by its very nature, guarantees violation of this privacy. Therefore, we should not and will not tolerate it.

BuSab Manual (author/s unknown)
Appears in: Whipping Star, The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert
Comments: The Bureau of Sabotage exists to throw an occasional monkey wrench into the vast grinding machinery of government, to help keep it within bounds. This is their training manual.
Excerpts:

When the means of great violence are widespread, nothing is more dangerous to the powerful than that they create outrage and injustice, for outrage and injustice will certainly ignite retaliation in kind.

There are some forms of insanity which, driven to an ultimate expression, can become the new models of sanity.

The value of self-government at an individual level cannot be overestimated.

Going to camp, thinking deep thoughts, and reading some Disch

I usually don’t pay much attention to those quotes on the covers of books; you know the ones, the dripping-with-honey praise from other authors for the particular book in question. I mean, all books have those, and it seems easy enough to find someone to praise just about anything. In this case, though, I admit I was struck by the quotes on this Bantam paperback edition of Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration. First, Samuel Delany calls it “one of the three best speculative novels of the decade” — high praise indeed from someone widely considered one of sf’s true intellectuals. And Ursula Le Guin says it’s “brilliant… a work of imagination controlled by real moral responsibility…. a work of art.” Since Le Guin is one of my favorite authors, naturally her opinion is worth listening to. So I started this novel thinking there had to be something to it; and even if I’m not sure I can appreciate it as much as Delany and Le Guin do, I must say it’s well worth reading.

In one sense this is an anti-war novel. It takes place in a near future when the U.S. is involved in a drawn-out, senseless war which may or may not be a continuation of Vietnam, but in any case is modeled on and strongly invokes that war (not surprising as the novel is from that period, published in 1972). This future America is led by President McNamara (as in, presumably, Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense during Vietnam). The novel’s main character is a poet who is in prison as a conscientious objector, or “conchie.” Soon he is yanked out of one prison and put into another of a very different kind, a secret facility known as Camp Archimedes.

And this is where one of the book’s other major themes comes into play, one of the other ugly things governments engage in besides self-serving wars: the quest for power through any means, even by experimenting on their own citizens. Camp Archimedes is a military facility running biological experiments on prisoners. Specifically, these experiments involve Palladine, a strain of bacteria related to the one that causes syphilis. Palladine’s effects are an extreme extrapolation on the old idea that many luminaries of the past had syphilis and that a heightened intellect was one of its effects. Palladine produces outright geniuses, but at a steep cost: while their minds soar at a superhuman level, their bodies are ravaged, leading to death in around nine months. Our poet is brought in, against his will, to keep a journal documenting the subjects’ mental accomplishments; only later does he learn that he, too, has been infected.

The sad thing is that there’s not much about this that’s really fictional. The U.S. government, in the form of the military, the CIA, or various other agencies, has a long history of experiments on its own people, experiments of many kinds (biological, radiological, chemical, pharmaceutical), with various levels of consent of the subjects — meaning, in the worst cases, no consent at all. I’m assuming Disch drew heavily for this novel from the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service allowed several hundred illiterate black sharecroppers infected with the disease to go untreated, and unaware of what disease they had, for many years so the effects could be studied. This atrocity was made public in 1972, around the same time Disch was writing this book. And one of the book’s other major characters, a sort of spokesman for the infected, is a black man, possibly a nod to the Tuskegee victims.

But it’s not only governments that are indicted here. Some of the criticism also rubs off on scientists and doctors who go along with these unethical practices. Then, also, some of the Palladine subjects volunteer to be exposed to it, and that’s another of the book’s themes: the Faustian bargains people are willing to make in order to acquire something they desire, in this case knowledge, or insight, or enlightenment.

This is an extremely dark novel. I mean, you kinda get that idea from passages like this one:

“And isn’t everybody, after all?”
“A prisoner? I often get that feeling — yes.”
“No, I meant marked for slaughter. The difference is I’ve had the bad luck to sneak a look at the execution orders, while most people walk off to the ovens thinking they’re going to take a shower.” He laughed harshly [….] “It isn’t just Germany,” he said. “And it isn’t just Camp Archimedes. It’s the whole universe. The whole god-damned universe is a fucking concentration camp.”

This bitterly bleak outlook on life is evident throughout the book. It can even be seen in Palladine’s nine-month duration; it can’t be a coincidence that it equals the human gestation period. Disch seems to be equating life with death. We’re headed for the grave from the moment we’re born. Shit happens. Life’s a bitch, then you die.

This is a deep book with a lot to say. The only problem I had was that a lot of what it had to say went right over my head. The sheer density of literary, artistic, and theological references is a bit much to handle; about half the time, at least, I had no idea what they were even about. I’m not sure if it’s fair of me to classify this as a criticism. More likely, Disch was an utterly brilliant writer, and any failure to grasp the full depth of the novel is probably my own damn fault. Still, this did detract from my enjoyment somewhat. Maybe the book is just a bit too intelligent for it’s own good… maybe.

Speaking of intelligence, I think the cover art on this edition is the most perfect representation of a book’s contents I’ve ever seen. Rodin’s The Thinker with barbed wire through the head — brilliant!

A little redecorating: whaddya think?

As the saying goes, change is good. And hey, I’m one of those people who has to rearrange their living room every six months or so. So I thought it was time for a fresh look around here. Besides, there were a few small details about the previous theme I was using that annoyed me. After taking a long hard look at the other WordPress themes that were available, I’ve settled upon this one, called Andreas04.

I do miss my old banner at the top (this theme doesn’t allow for that). However, there are several things I like about this new setup: the color scheme, the double sidebars, and a few other little odds and ends.

Yes, I think this will work out just fine.

Bradbury burns it up: Fahrenheit 451

What can I say about one of the greatest pieces of literature of the 20th century that people haven’t already heard? I’m sure most people are familiar with this book, and even those who haven’t read it probably have a general idea of what it’s about. So without going into any great depth, I’ll just pass along a few of my thoughts after recently reading it for the first time (yes I know, I should have read it a long time ago… I’ve been a bad, bad sf fan…. ).

Science fiction has always had a lot to say about society, projecting current social trends and problems into the future to see where they might lead. And so there have been numerous works of sf pointing out how modern society is becoming increasingly more superficial. It seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 is the granddaddy of this type of socially critical sf — perhaps not in the sense of being the first example (I have no idea if it was) but in the sense of being the most potent work of its type. Bradbury manages to encapsulate, in this short novel, so much of the dumbing down of the modern world and how that world, and especially America, is becoming increasingly more and more shallow.

The most obvious symptom of that in the novel is the death of literature and the firemen whose purpose in life is the burning of books. But that’s only a specific instance of a wider anti-intellectual atmosphere. In Bradbury’s fictional society, not only is book possession a crime, but the very basic acts of thought, reflection, and discussion are deeply frowned upon. Houses are built without porches so people can’t sit there and leisurely mull things over. Curiosity and imagination are considered abnormal personality traits, as is any interest in nature, even the simple act of enjoying the rain or walking at night; these are the kinds of things that can get you sent to a psychiatrist. People are expected to get their all their enjoyment in life from artificial, manufactured entertainment. Bradbury anticipated the modern fascination with big-screen televisions, as well as the idiotic programming they deliver. The characters on the tv walls are considered “family” and are as real to people, or more so, than their real flesh and blood families. The whole society is geared for speed, so no one has time to stop and smell the roses, time to just stop and consider the world around them. Even driving slow is a crime, because it allows one too much opportunity for thinking. And going along with all this, society is dominated by a stifling sense of conformity, what Bradbury calls “the solid unmoving cattle of the majority.” Hardly anyone dares to be different, and those who do may end up in jail, or worse.

Unfortunately, much of what is contained in this novel has a basis in reality. Just consider the speed of modern (especially American) life, with people rushing everywhere, ready to run you off the road if you’re not a speed-demon like them. And then there’s the idiot box, which sucks up far more of our society’s time than reading these days. And consider the execrable fodder people sit there watching: soap operas, game shows, “reality” tv, air-headed comedies, and other assorted garbage. And, sadly, book burnings still occur from time to time.

It seems to me that Fahrenheit 451 could be the poster child for old sf that is still relevant today.

Douglas Adams television interview — one of his very last

Shortly before his untimely death (just eight days before, in fact), Douglas Adams appeared in a tv interview series called Big Thinkers, and I thought I’d post it here for all you Adams fans.

Actually, you could call me an Adams fan, even though I’ve never read any of his work. It’s always possible I will someday, but humor isn’t really my favorite type of writing. I’m the same way with other media too; it’s a very rare thing for me to watch comedy tv or movies. No, I usually prefer the more serious stuff. Still, I’ve heard enough bits and pieces and snippets of Adams’ writings and opinions to know he was a really sharp, brilliant guy, and I admire him a lot. For one thing, he shared my interest in evolutionary biology, and was good friends with Richard Dawkins (one of my favorite non-fiction writers). He was an outspoken atheist (his “sentient puddle” analogy refuting the fine-tuning argument was a beautiful piece of work). And he was devoted to various environmental and endangered species causes (such as The Great Ape Project and Save the Rhino, and his book and radio project Last Chance To See).

In this video he touches on some of those subjects, as well as technology issues and, of course, his books and science fiction in general, on which topic he says:

“As a science fiction writer I’ve always been terribly terribly interested in seeing how very familiar things look from unfamiliar points of view. How do you change your point of view, how do you change your perspective, and suddenly see the truth of something?”

Very interesting, very unique individual, and it’s unfortunate for us that he’s no longer with us. Anyway, on to the video:

Also, for anyone who may be interested, here’s a video of a discussion on evolution moderated by Adams, with the participants being Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Jared Diamond (those first three are three of my favorite people on the planet):

Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4.

Aliens in need of a big can of Raid (the “kills humans dead” variety)

The first time I ever heard of William Tenn was a few months ago when I read his entry in John Clute’s wonderful science fiction encyclopedia. Before that, he was completely off my radar; I had never heard even the slightest mention of him from other sf fans, in any reviews or essays, on any sf sites or forums, not anywhere. I didn’t know the guy even existed. Is he really that unknown? Or has everyone else known about him except me, but kept it quiet as part of some perverse conspiracy of silence? Whatever the case may be, I’m very glad I’ve come across this author, whose work spanned the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s. That work includes an impressive and very enjoyable novel from 1968 called Of Men and Monsters, which surely must rank as one of the more unique takes on the alien invasion theme.

This story is set many generations (hundreds or maybe thousands of years, it’s a little vague) after the Earth has been conquered and taken over by an alien species that dwarfs humanity in both technology and sheer size. These aliens, who stand hundreds of feet tall, view humans exactly the way humans view mice: as nothing more than irrelevant, mindless pests. But the pest analogy goes much further than that, since these future remnants of humanity live within the very walls of the enormous alien houses, and survive by stealing scraps of food from their larders. Indeed, among males it is considered a rite of passage to travel into Monster territory to perform a Theft, whether of food or other usable materials.

While highly satirical, the novel is also quite realistic in the way it portrays a futuristic downfallen mankind. Humanity has reverted to a simpler, more primitive way of life, along the lines of a hunter-gatherer society. Everyone seems to know and accept their place in that society, and overall they seem fairly satisfied with their lot in life. And that’s one of the points Tenn tries to make here; one of the main characters expounds on how being the dominant species of the planet must have involved huge amounts of strain, pressure, and guilt, and maybe it’s just as well that the task was turned over to somebody else so humanity can lead a more relaxed and more natural existence. Actually, the character who puts forth this idea comes from a tribe that has pursued that line of thought to an extreme conclusion:

“Man shares certain significant characteristics with the rat and cockroach: He will eat almost anything. He is fiercely adaptable to a wide variety of conditions. He can survive as an individual but is at his best in swarms. He prefers to live, whenever possible, on what other creatures store or biologically manufacture. The conclusion is inescapable that he was designed by nature as a most superior sort of vermin — and that only the absence, in his early environment, of a sufficiently wealthy host prevented him from assuming the role of eternal guest and forced him to live hungrily, and more than a little irritably, by his own wits alone.”

Those who hold to this philosophy seem to assume that modern humans live less “irritably” than their ancestors, and in fact they criticize their ancestors for all those varieties of cruel behavior we know humanity is capable of. However, I don’t think their assumption really works out all that well. Tenn also portrays these modern primitives engaging in warfare, torture, political backstabbing, and the misuse of religion to control people. So, although the “vermin theory” may have something going for it (it’s interesting, at the very least), it’s harder to swallow the idea that these descendants of a conquered species live nobler or happier lives than their predecessors did.

During the course of the novel’s events, Tenn pokes fun at various human traits and tendencies. It’s hilarious the way one certain character raises brown-nosing to a high art! And humanity’s hierarchical instincts also receive a good amount of ridicule, most pointedly when one character exclaims:

“He’s not wrong. I mean he can’t be: he’s our leader.”

One of the serious issues the novel raises is the nature of power differences between species and the question of how to treat “lesser” species. After witnessing the Monsters testing various pest control poisons and devices on captured humans, one character comes to ponder the question: if we can experience suffering so casually at the hands of the aliens, to whom we are nothing, then what about those creatures we see as nothing, and consider pests? Do they, in their turn, experience suffering at our hands? If it’s all right for us to destroy rats or roaches, then isn’t it also all right for the Monsters to destroy us?

In fact, those who hold to the “vermin theory” seem to accept that it IS all right for the Monsters to do what they do; it’s all part of the nature of things, with every species doing what it has to do to survive and live comfortably. And that includes humanity, who, as the superlative pests they are, have resources of their own, and at the end of the novel put them to good use, making sure that their infestation spreads much much further than just the Earth. How ironic that when mankind finally reaches the stars, it’s not as the masters of a planet, but as annoying, verminous hitch-hikers!

Excellent book, just superb, and highly recommended!