Visions of Paradise

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Roger Zelazny

One of fandom's leading cliches is that every science fiction fan has his or her own Golden Age, usually around the age of fourteen. Well, I must have been a slow developer, because my Golden Age took place between the years 1966-1969 when I was in college. Those were the years of the New Wave when, in my opinion, some of the most exciting science fiction ever was being produced by such writers as Samuel R. Delany, Michael Moorcock, Robert Silverberg, Harlan Ellison and, perhaps most importantly of all, Roger Zelazny.

Zelazny was first published in 1962 with an obscure story entitled "Passion Play" in Amazing Stories. He achieved his first widespread recognition a year later with "A Rose For Ecclesiastes," a melancholy story of love and poetry amidst the Martian sand dunes. The story earned Zelazny his first Hugo nomination for Best Short Fiction. In 1970, when the Science Fiction Writers of America were compiling their Science Fiction Hall of Fame, "A Rose for Ecclesiastes" was voted the 6th best science fiction short story ever published prior to 1965.

In 1965, Zelazny abruptly became the most important science fiction writer in America with the publication of three award-winning stories which showcased three different aspects of his talent.

The novel ...And Call Me Conrad (later This Immortal in book form) featured a favorite Zelazny protagonist, the immortal human who spends his life as a sort of super guardian angel for humanity. The novel combined mythological characters with references to an alien invasion of Earth, one of the early uses of fantasy tropes in a science fiction story. The novel tied Frank Herbert's Dune for the Hugo Award as the best novel of the year.

The novella "He Who Shapes" (expanded into The Dream Master in book form) was a complex study of a psychiatrist who heals patients by controlling their thought processes. Typical of Zelazny, the story was emotionally-charged and very moody. It tied Brian W. Aldiss' "The Saliva Tree" for the Nebula Award as Best Novella.

Finally, the novelette "The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth" was a colorful whale-hunting adventure set on a mythical Venus, interspersing adventure with another emotional love story. This won the Nebula Award as Best Novelette.

Two years later Zelazny published his masterpiece, the Hugo-winning novel Lord of Light. This was perhaps a true blending of fantasy and science fiction in a single package. It told the story of a highly-advanced society in which technology is used to enable the ruling class to imitate the ancient Hindu dieties. It is also the story of how the abuse of power creates a society in turmoil and engenders revolution.

While Zelazny claimed to not be a New Wave writer (just as Delany also claimed), it was his ability to combine traditional science fiction, fantasy, adventure, and deep emotions, with mainstream writing skills that made him a favorite of the New Wave and exerted considerable influence on other science fiction writers.

For the subsequent two decades, science fiction critics debated why Zelazny turned away from the complex fiction of his early years in order to produce simpler, more accessible novels in the 1970s and 1980s. Whatever the reason, while his critical acclaim lessened, his popularity considered to soar. He earned much popular success for the original Amber series, five fantasy novels set partially in Amber, the only real world, of which Earth is but a shadow. At times the series slowed glimpses of the more thoughtful Zelazny, but it was primarily a fast-paced rousing adventure.

The fix-up collection My Name is Legion contained three related novellas about a nameless detective who is the only human not recorded in the vast data net encompassing the entire Earth. On the surface these are routine adventures, but a careful reading shows a depth reminiscent of the early Zelazny. The best of the three stories was "Home is the Hangman" which examined the nature of intelligence and the hubris of those who would create it artificially.

A decade later, "24 Views of Mt. Fuji, by Hokusai" re-affirmed Zelazny's ability to examine such serious themes as the nature of intelligence in an action-adventure package.

Even the most lightweight Zelazny adventure novels still had many interesting and worthwhile aspects. Highlights included the post-apocalyptic Damnation Alley; Jack of Shadows, which took place on a world neatly divided into fantasy and science fictional portions; and Eye of Cat, which combined Native American tradition with an examination of the nature of intelligence.

But in spite of all the glimpses of the true Zelazny talent, it is hard to ignore the fact that he took the easy way out for much of his career, leaving many true fans hoping that someday the spark of ambition would revive in him and we would see another Zelazny masterpiece to rival Lord of Light or This Immortal. In the mid-1990s he signed a contract to write a science fiction trilogy, and like many of his other true fans felt, I hoped and prayed this would be the real comeback.

Instead, Roger Zelazny died in 1995 at the relatively young age of 58. While other giants of the field such as Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein passed away around the same time, none of them affected me as much as the man who really sparked my enthusiasm for science fiction in the late 1960s. I'd only met him one time at a convention, and that was for a five minute conversation outside a men's room, of all places! But that was long enough for me to realize he was a genuinely warm, caring individual, who also managed to be shy and self-effacing in spite of his incredible talent and success as a science fiction writer. I still miss him.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Worlds That Weren't

I purchased Worlds That Weren’t, a collection of 4 original alternate history novellas, because Cheryl Morgan at her Emerald City webzine called Mary Gentle’s novella “The Logistics of Carthage,” a must for Ash fans.

I am not an Ash fan, only because I have never read it. The only Mary Gentle book I have read was Golden Witchbreed twenty years ago. I liked that novel a lot, and have been intrigued by reviews and descriptions of later Gentle novels such as Rats and Gargoyles, the massive Ash: A Secret History, and the recent 1610. But her books have not been easily accessible here, so I have not bought any of them yet.

So Cheryl’s review, combined with my natural liking of alternate history, and the fact that Harry Turtledove and Walter Jon Williams are both excellent writers, made buying this book a no-brainer for me.

I read Gentle’s story first, and had slightly mixed feelings about it. I really liked the historical setting, and the “feel” of Gentle’s world. While I am no expert in that era–or any historical era, for that matter–it felt authentic and was certainly thought-provoking. The basic storyline was that several mercenary Christian soldiers demand a group of heretical Christian monks bury one of their fallen members, but the monks refuse because the dead soldier is a woman disguised as a man, which the monks consider blasphemous. There were several side plots involving a young swineherd protective of both his flock and the abbott. The swineherd is also a seer who not only has visions in his dreams, but shares the dreams with the person they are actually intended for, in this case Yolande, one of two viewpoint characters in the novella, who is a woman accompanying the soldiers as a member of the fighting troupe.

There are clever scenes involving the pigs, particularly one funny, if gross, scene involving “night soil”, if you know what that means. And the story’s ending also involves the pigs in a manner which is both hilarious and fitting.

So why are my feelings towards this novella mixed? Because of its attitude. Since all the main characters are soldiers in a violent era, the story is bloody, cruel, even gross at times, and the story’s “heroes” are arrogant, cold-blood killers who accept killing as normal. While that was probably an accurate view of that era, I don’t particularly enjoy reading violent stories, whether murder mysteries, war fiction, or crime stories.

Fortunately, the violent attitude tended to fade as the story progressed, so by the ending it was mostly forgotten, and I was left with the good parts of the story. Still I cannot help wondering how violent Ash is, and if I would enjoy reading it enough to tackle its 1,000+ pages. Does anybody have an answer to that question?

The other stories in Worlds That Weren’t were mostly good. Harry Turtledove’s “The Daimon” told of Socrates accompanying an Athenian general Alkibiades as he defeats Syracuse. Apparently, the historical Alkibiades was recalled to Athens by his enemies, but in this story he refused their recall, ultimately returning to become tyrant of Athens. While the reversal of history was interesting, knowing that fact seemed to have little, if any, effect on the story itself, nor did the presence of Socrates seem more than an interesting addition.

S.M. Stirling’s “Shikari in Galveston” almost lost me in its first brutal scene. But I plowed onward, and gradually the story became a more interesting tale of a 20th century world much less civilized than our historical world. It concerns a British empire centered on India after something called the “Fall” devastated western Europe in the late 19th century. For much of the story, I was confused as to what actually happened, until I sneaked a peak at Stirling’s afterward to find out.

Stirling’s story contains more weaknesses than either Gentle’s or Turtledove’s. One of the three main characters is a fighting woman named Sonjuh (with red hair and very reminiscent of Robert Howard’s Red Sonja, which hardly seems a coincidence) whose family was killed and eaten by the Swamp Devils who are the villains of the story. Determined to count coup on 10 Swamp Devil scalps in revenge, she joins a hunting expedition headed by a British noble and a backwoods fighting man.

So what happens? Sonjuh is assigned the womanly task of cooking for the expedition, and amazingly, although Stirling has given no indication that she has ever cooked before, she becomes practically a gourmet chef, and even has an affair with the British lord. That was so unconvincing I could not decide if Stirling is basically sexist or preoccupied with regency romance novels.

The story is also full of expository lumps in which Stirling gradually reveals the story’s alternate history. And the ending is a violent adventure which is both too easy and too gratuitously gory, at least as bloody as Gentle’s story without her story’s intelligence and thoughtfulness.

My favorite story in the book was Walter Jon Williams’ “The Last Ride of German Freddie,” which told what might have happened had health problems forced Friedrich Nietzsche to leave Europe and resettle in the Southwest United States, specifically Tombstone during the era of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Not only was this a rousing adventure, but it successfully explored how Nietzsche’s philosophical views would have impacted his participation in the battle between the Earps and the Clantons.

Which raises a few thoughts about alternate history in general. Alt history is like sf in one important regard: sometimes the setting is an excuse to study the human condition in generality (which is a good thing); and sometimes it involves studying historical change, whether in specific situations or in general (which is even better).

And sometimes it is merely a Bat Durston. In case you are not familiar with the term, a Bat Durston refers derogatorily to a science fiction story which is little more than a traditional western using sf settings and icons. Taking the comparison to alternate history, the better stories in this genre should create the story’s world for some reason other than merely creating a nice setting for an adventure. In his afterward, Stirling admits that he created his world purely because post-World War I western world does not lend itself to the type of classic adventures which he enjoys. So he basically wiped away modern civilization and wrote his story. Did his historical change matter? Not really, which might explain why his story had nowhere near the intelligence of Gentle’s story.

Which is why I enjoyed Williams’ story the best, since, in my opinion, it was the only one in which the historical change drove the story directly and generated further speculation about both the characters and the historical events themselves.

Just as the best sf makes you think about future change, I believe the best alternate history makes you think about historical change as well.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Outlaws of the Marsh

Outlaws of the Marsh (Chinese title Shui Hu Zhuan) is the second of the four classic Chinese novels. It is a much more brutal tale than Journey to the West, mostly because while Journey is pure fantasy, Outlaws is basically a realistic novel with fantastic overtones. Its basic theme is a satirical look at Chinese government and society during the Song Dynasty. One of the darker aspects of Chinese society that it examines is the self-serving attitude of people in authority, an attitude very similar to that of westerners, as demonstrated in the truism power corrupts. Outlaws of the Marsh is filled with corrupt authority figures who frequently abuse and torment people under them with no qualms of conscience.

Many of the people mistreated by authority are branded as criminals when they are in fact no more guilty than their judges, often totally innocent. Gradually many of these people drift together and form an outlaw society centered around Liangshan Marsh. From there they exact vengeance on their evil tormenters as well as on any other authority figures deserving of punishment.

The plot of the epic falls into two parts. The first half concerns the misadventures of people who, either through no fault of their own, or through their efforts to help other innocents, fall afoul of authority and join the outlaw society. The second half describes the efforts of local and national authorities to stem the growing power of the outlaws.

What makes the epic brutal is that it is set in medieval China during the 10th century. Life was not particularly precious then. When the outlaws exact vengeance on a cruel official they feel justified in killing not only the official but his entire family and retinue of servants and assistants. Some of the murders are fairly graphic, although told in a matter-of-fact manner intended to make a point rather than to offend. At first this brutality bothered me, especially since the outlaws are portrayed as an honest, high-principled group. Gradually I realized that I was viewing the novel from a modern perspective, while instead I should have been doing so from a medieval viewpoint. Violence and murders occur routinely in such western epics as Beowulf and The Song of Roland, and they do not bother me because such actions are part and parcel of the culture in which they take place. Once I knew to treat the attitudes and beliefs of the outlaws from a medieval perspective, it became easy for me to realize that by the standards of their era and their culture they were indeed good people performing what they considered a positive service for the society from which they were ostracized.

There is no single focal character in Outlaws of the Marsh similar to the monkey king in Journey to the West. The ultimate leader is Song Jiang, a very good man whose caring and honesty made him the obvious leader of the outlaws. Although, in true classic Chinese manner, Song repeatedly tries to turn over leadership to other outlaws he considers more worthy than himself. Only the constant urging of his closest comrades convinces him to retain the title.

But where the monkey king takes center stage in nearly every scene of Journey to the West, Song only occupies a small portion of Outlaws of the Marsh. The outlaw troop consists of thousands of soldiers with a carefully-drawn cast of leaders who are each given a chapter to illustrate their character and reason for joining the outlaws. While I certainly cannot describe all of them here, I will mention briefly two notable outlaws: Sagacious Lu is an army leader who comes to the aid of a bedeviled stranger, ultimately leading to his own branding as an outlaw. He disguises himself as a Buddhist monk, although he is generally too crude in manner to be convincing in such a role.

Li Kui, also known as the Black Whirlwind, is the most unstable of the outlaws, wont to kill innocents out of rage as readily as he would kill deserving evildoers. But he is totally loyal to the outlaws, and Song Jiang in particular, so he remains as one of them in spite of the need of the other outlaw leaders to keep a close watch on him.

What I actually enjoyed most about this epic novel was its splendid view of medieval Chinese life and society. The setting ranged from rural villages to imperial cities, from the emperor himself to starving peasants, from high-principled Buddhists to unprincipled prefects. I learned much about Chinese culture and Chinese philosophy, about their attitude towards life and death, family and loyalty, emperor and religion.

In structure Outlaws of the Marsh is basically a war epic, a format I usually reject quite emphatically. Yet before this novel was over, I was rooting for the outlaws against their enemies. I actually cheered at the scene when Sagacious Lu appeared out of the shadows and saved a seemingly trapped outlaw by slaughtering his opponent. And, most significantly, I was terribly saddened in the last volume when the happy ending near the end of Volume Three turned to tragedy as the violent existence of the outlaws boomeranged on them, leading many to tragic deaths.

Both as fiction and as a look at medieval China, I recommend Outlaws of the Marsh very highly. It is successful as a war epic, as a medieval saga, and as an in-depth look at a violent and tragic time in Chinese history.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

SF or literature?

I have been reading science fiction faithfully for 40 years, and, for most of that time, almost exclusively. As a result of this, my background in literature is fairly weak. I read all the required books in high school and college, but starting approximately from the age of twelve, my pleasure reading almost all fell under the broad umbrella of science fiction. Some fantasy occasionally, perhaps a small bit of horror, but mundane fiction? Never. And literature? Definitely not! My mind could not forget those books I was force-fed in high school. Like most students I found them boring and resented being forced to read Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare when I much preferred Clifford D. Simak and Isaac Asimov.

And like most sf fans, my taste has evolved somewhat as I grew older. As a fourteen-year old I liked nothing better than the Martian odysseys of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Foundation Trilogy of Isaac Asimov. By the time I graduated college, my favorite writers were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Robert Silverberg. Sense of wonder? Sure. This Immortal, Nova and Nightwings were full of it. But they also had more depth than either Burroughs or Asimov ever dreamed of. Instead of cardboard figures like John Carter jumping mindlessly from adventure to adventure, the science fiction of Zelazny, Silverberg, and Delany was concerned with real people whose lives mattered. And since their lives mattered, I developed an emotional stake in the outcome of the events they were involved in. I cared what happened to Rydra Wong and Conrad Nimikos and David Selig in a way similar to, if considerably less intense than, the way I care about what happens to the students I now devote much of my life to. And the more I cared about the characters in a story, the deeper grew my emotional involvement and, consequently, the better became my enjoyment of the story as well.

Between the late 1960s and early 1990s I found myself more and more attracted to science fiction that involved me emotionally while still providing me with sense of wonder. Stories by such writers as Michael Bishop, George R.R. Martin, C.J. Cherryh, John Varley, Orson Scott Card, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Sherri S. Tepper. I read a lot of fine science fiction written by those writers, most of it satisfying my twin needs for involvement and sense of wonder. I was thrilled to have found such a marvelous genre as science fiction, probably the only genre that could satisfy both cravings so well.

The only genre? And how many other genres had I sampled sufficiently to be able to make such a definitive statement?

Around 1975, some fairly sweeping changes affected my reading habits. For an entire year I read virtually no science fiction, mostly the result of burnout, but partly a side effect of other changes affecting my life. For the first time in my life, I began reading other types of fiction, including historical fiction, Chinese fiction, and *horrors* literature. And yet, for all these changes, one fact has remained constant: the majority of the fiction I read involves me in its characters while also providing me with sense of wonder.

The purpose of this column is not really to discuss the positive aspects of either historical fiction or Chinese fiction, but to talk about literature. Nearly as long as I have been reading sf, I have been inundated by fairly rigid opinions on both sides of the genre/non-genre line. Literati look down their noses as science fiction to the extent that any fiction they consider “worthy” is definitely not science fiction.

On the other hand, many genre fans are overly-protective of science fiction, stating opinions such as that made by a close friend of mine a few years ago: Literature, my dear. God protect us from such pomposity. Characters (who) have so many fears, neuroses and hangups they'd be right at home in a Woody Allen movie.

To be perfectly honest, I might have agreed with that opinion a decade ago, before I read enough literature to be able to formulate my own opinion of it. And while I am still not well-read enough in literature for my opinion to be definitive, there are certain facts that I feel comfortable stating.

One, literature is as much a genre as science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, mystery fiction, thrillers, westerns, etc. And being a genre, its works all have some identifying trademark. Fantasy must have a foundation that is impossible in the world as we know it. Mystery fiction must involve an attempt to solve a crime. Science fiction must involve some extrapolation from the world as we know it.

So what aspect defines literature? According to Webster it is writings expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest. That's pretty close to what my layman's definition would have been: fiction about important human concerns. That certainly agrees with the literature I've read as well. Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was about the struggle for survival during the Great Depression. Bronte's Wuthering Heights was about coping with a dysfunctional family.

But wait a second! Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness was about love and acceptance between two races which are throughly alien to each other. Kim Stanley Robinson's The Wild Shore was about coming-of-age in the aftermath of a limited nuclear war. Aren't they important human concerns as well?

Yes, they are. Because just as there is a common misconception about the nature of science fiction in the eyes of many mainstream critics, there is also a common misconception about the nature of literature in the eyes of many modern readers. Literature is definitely not the small sub-genre of literature currently supported by the self-important New York City literary establishment. What they consider literature is often formless exercises in plotless writing. Or stories whose focus is limited to, well, characters (who) have so many fears, neuroses and hangups they'd be right at home in a Woody Allen movie.

That small sub-genre of literature has scared a lot of people away from the breadth and depth of literature in much the same way that B-movies have scared a lot of potential readers away from the breadth and depth of science fiction. Which brings me to a second fact about literature: both science fiction and literature are equally subject to Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap! Certainly not every would-be artist who chooses to create writings expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest is successful at their craft. There is as much bad literature as there is bad science fiction.

And while no hardcore SF fan would reject the entire SF genre because of the 90% of it that is bad, it is equally foolish to reject the entire literature genre because 90% of it is bad.

Another complaint of many genre fans is that science fiction has "gone bad" because some writers feel the need to be taken seriously, replacing literature with entertainment for entertainment's sake. Nobody decided that science fiction needed to be taken more seriously. While the "new" SF writers of the 1930s and 1940s generally entered the field with backgrounds in science, the "new" writers of the 1960s and 1970s often entered the field with backgrounds in literature. They chose to infuse SF with literary qualities of their own volition because they wanted to enjoy the best of both worlds, a fusion of which I heartily approve. Some of the results of this fusing produced formless exercises in plotless writing, but others resulted in the masterful works of such writers as Ursula K. Le Guin, Michael Bishop, and Kim Stanley Robinson. And the ripple effect of this fusion produced such writers as China Miéville and Dan Simmons who combine aspects of both genre and literature without sacrificing any sense of wonder.

There is certainly nothing wrong with entertainment for entertainment's sake either. Last year I went on a Jack Vance reading spree, and enjoyed every word of it. Right now I am reading early 1950s issues of Galaxy Magazine, most of which is pure entertainment. However, that enjoyment does not change my preference for stories which combine genre values with literary values. In my 30+ years of reading science fiction I cannot recall a novel that provided me with more pure entertainment than Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. Yet that book was about ideas of permanent or universal interest as much as any SF novel ever written. Literature can be entertaining, in spite of what the New York literary establishment and its pompous supporters might have us believe.

In summation, it is very common for a hardcore lover of science fiction to blame many of its current weaknesses on literature, but that is as narrowminded an attack as all those literateurs who cast aspersions on science fiction without ever bothering to read it. Sure 90% of science fiction is crap, but I love it for the 10% that rises above the morass. Surely literature should not be held to a higher standard than that?

Wednesday, October 13, 2004


Since I let my subscriptions to Asimov’s and F&SF lapse, I don’t keep up with the new short fiction writers of SF as well as I used to do. The various best-of-the-year volumes help, which is where I discovered such authors as David Marusek and Ted Chiang. But there are still other writers I tend to miss, such as Andy Duncan. So when his first collection Beluthahatchie and Other Stories began garnering rave reviews, including a Foreword by Michael Bishop and an Afterword by John Kessel, I was intrigued.

Immediately I went to Ellen Datlow’s Sci Fiction website where Duncan’s story The Potowatomie Giant appeared. It was a story rich in characterization and atmosphere, and convincing enough for me to purchase a hardcover copy of Beluthahatchie. The book is a strong collection, mirroring the strengths of Potowatomie: good characterization, finely-detailed settings strong in atmospheric beauty. He’s not as good at story development, so some of the stories stagnate a bit like dried out streams when they should flow like summer rivers after a flooding rainfall, but that’s not a major flaw since his story’s considerable strengths more than make up for that flaw.

I still fear that Bishop and Kessel have a tendency to overpraise him, a dangerous thing since new writers need to be given incentive to develop rather than made to believe they are the reincarnation of Faulkner–which, unfortunately, is the most common comparison I’ve read about Duncan. But when he’s good he is damned good indeed.

The better stories in the book were The Executioner’s Guild, the story of a traveling executioner who takes his electric chair from town to town in Depression-era Mississippi; Lincoln in Frogmere, which reads like a backwoods American legend but is very convincing as such; and Beluthahatchie, which offers one of the strangest images of Hell I’ve ever seen, and succeeds in spite of that stagnant ending I mentioned earlier.

But my favorite story is Liza and the Crazy Water Man, a beautifully-constructed story about a radio station in the Depression-era South and a girl whose singing is so beautiful that...well, I’d better not spoil the ending. This story does not have the power of The Executioner’s Guild or the sizzling atmosphere of several others, but it such a wondrous story with so much optimism that it left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling which did not fade for a long, long time.

Even the lesser stories in the collection offer visions and scenes worth reading. Duncan reminds me of Michael Swanwick, not so much in any aspects of his fiction, but in his ability to entertain and delight even when the wonderful scenes making up a story don’t necessarily cohere into a successful whole. But that’s acceptable in short fiction where it is more likely to be fatal in a novel, which is one of the reasons I believe that, fine as novels might be, short fiction is often where f&sf is really at.

Saturday, October 09, 2004


Science fiction and literature have had an uneasy relationship in this country for almost one hundred years. When most popular fiction was published in the slick magazines of the late 19th and early 20th century, fantastic literature stood as an equal alongside serious literature. But with the growing popularity of the pulp magazines, things began to change. Where the slicks were aimed at an educated class of readers, the pulps were aimed at the common person. And, at least in the view of the editors of the pulp magazines, the common person was not interested in serious literature but adventure fiction. The incredible sales of such magazines as Argosy and All-Story Weekly lent credence to such a view, so that the pulps positively crawled with fantasies, horror fiction, mysteries, war stories, westerns and romance stories, not as diverse types of literature, but as slam bang action stories. Since serious literature apparently had no place in publications with cheap pulp paper and ragged edges, an almost immediate split took place between serious literature and popular fiction.

The split was aggravated when the general pulps gave way to the specialized pulps, magazines devoted entirely to one specific genre, whether they be mysteries or westerns or, *gasp* fantasies and their newly-popular sub-genre science fiction. The fact that the early science fiction pulps contained mostly hack writing and purple prose sandwiched between lurid covers aimed at teenaged boys was undoubtedly a factor in the literati rejecting any fiction which appeared in the pulps. What was really unfortunate, however, was the fact that the literati also unilaterally rejected any form of fiction which appeared in the pulps. Therefore, all mysteries were immediately frowned upon, along with all westerns and war stories and horror and fantasy and science fiction. Theodore Sturgeon's serious studies of love? Trash! Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett's examinations of the underside of contemporary American life? Nonsense! Louis L'Amour? Bah! Unceremoniously thrown into the literary trashheap were More Than Human, The Maltese Falcon, Shane, Lord of the Rings, A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Stars My Destination, and countless other worthy novels. No serious American writer dared write any genre fiction at all and expect to be taken seriously as a writer. Even as late as the 1960s Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., a serious writer who was also a science fiction writer in every way that mattered, including publication in both Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction, found it necessary to disclaim that dark secret and denounce his SF credentials in order to be taken seriously by the literary establishment.

The situation was not so grave in England where serious writers had no qualm about including fantasy and science fiction among their repertoire. Olaf Stapledon, Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell all achieved considerable reputations in the British literary community while writing explicit SF works. Stapledon even pulled off the rare double of achieving a considerable reputation in the American science fiction community as well. In the late 1950s, Brian W. Aldiss became a major science fiction writer without sacrificing his literary credentials in the process. And, of course, New Worlds survived for several years due mostly to government funding, publishing an eclectic mix of literary and pulp-derived science fiction.

Obviously the situation has improved to a great extent for several reasons, but a chasm still exists in the minds of many people, both literati and genre fans. Many high-brow but narrow-minded editors and critics still consider science fiction writers genre writers who produce high level entertainments and interesting diversions, but rarely works of true literary merit. Many devoted genre fans also react against such discrimination with an almost religious discrimination against all literature. So for every Ursula K. Le Guin who has been embraced eagerly by both sides, on one hand the Michael Bishops and Kim Stanley Robinson are virtually ignored by the literati, while on the other hand Toni Morrison and Michael Chabon are unfairly neglected by some genre fans.

Fortunately, most writers have largely rejected any artificial divisions and write from the heart rather than to impress the small group of editors and critics who comprise the literati. The list of major literary authors who have incorporated science fiction and fantasy motifs and images in their fiction has grown so large as to be almost unmanageable. Many have produced very good works, both by literary standards and by science fictional standards. Some have achieved considerable popular acclaim as well, even being embraced by the literai who simply downplay the sfnal or fantastic aspects in their works, and by much of the genre community who simply ignore their membership in the literary community.

Which brings us to Toni Morrison who deserves to be embraced enthusiastically by every serious reader in the world, no matter what type of fiction they prefer. Toni Morrison is indeed a darling of the literai. She has taught literature at Princeton University, won the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and in 1993 won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But reading Beloved made it immediately apparent that Morrison has no interest in appealing to any small cabal of editors and critics. She is a writer first, concerned only with telling the best damned story she can. It is a grave misfortune that she has been mostly overlooked by the genre fantasy community because Beloved is one of the finest, fantasies I have ever read.

Beloved is the story of a former slave named Sethe who lives with her daughter Denver and her mother-in-law Baby Suggs in Cincinnati, Ohio, after the Civil War. As a young woman, Sethe lived on a farm the slaves called Sweet Home. The owners Mr. and Mrs. Garner were gentle, caring people who never mistreated their slaves, or even allowed them to be mistreated. Sethe had the good fortune to actually marry a fellow slave named Halle and have 4 children by him, a rarity for slaves indeed.

But, of course, there are no constants in the lives of slaves. When Mr. Garner died, his wife was unable to "keep up" the farm. So she asked her brother-in-law to take charge of the farm. The slaves called the new master Schoolteacher and, as gentle as Mr. Garner was, Schoolteacher was cruel. Several slaves tried to escape, most failing, but Sethe with her two sons and two daughters succeeded, eventually reaching the home of Baby Suggs in Cincinnati.

But something mysterious happened in Sethe's early years in Cincinnati. One of her daughters, named Beloved, as in "Dearly Beloved", died under tragic circumstances, and her ghost continued to haunt the house for the next eighteen years. The presence of the ghost eventually drove Sethe's two sons away, leaving the three women together in a rather shaky relationship.

Until the arrival of Paul D changed everything. Paul D was one of Sethe's fellow slaves at Sweet Home, and he and Sethe quickly become emotionally involved. When the ghost of Beloved tried to interfere, Paul D successfully exorcised her from the very house, but none of the inhabitants were prepared when Beloved returned home in a physical, human form.

In structure, Beloved is a mystery. Most of the important events in the early lives of Sethe and her fellow slaves are withheld at first, occasionally hinted at, and then slowly revealed through the novel like the layers of an onion being peeled.

The immediate question raised here is why did such a serious author as Toni Morrison choose to structure her novel as a mystery? Since all the key scenes in the life of Sethe took place early in her life, Morrison might easily have structured the novel in a linear fashion, showing the key scenes first and using the rest of the novel to examine the effect of those events on Sethe's life.

The main reason I can see for Morrison's decision to reject a linear structure for a mystery structure is her realization that the best fiction should not only be a learning experience, but also an emotional experience. A linear Beloved would have contained considerably less emotional power than it has in its present form. In the early sections of the book we learn the relationship between Sethe, Baby Suggs, Denver, and Paul D. When the book flashes back to their early years we slowly begin to understand why they are how they are and, as each layer of the onion is peeled back, we are pulled into their lives deeper and deeper, like being trapped in an emotional vortex that is almost impossible to escape. When we eventually encounter the three defining moments in Sethe's life--her escape from Sweet Home, the birth of Denver, and the death of Beloved--we are already so familiar with the effect those events have had on Sethe and her family that the effect on our emotions of the events themselves is the emotional equivalent of having sat atop a landmine all novel and having it suddenly explode beneath us.

And by the time we have experienced all of Sethe's traumas--and we truly do experience them thanks to Morrison's wonderful prose--we begin to understand Sethe the human and Sethe the mother in a way we could not possibly have understood her if Morrison had simply begun the novel with those early defining moments before we were able to develop such a deep emotional stake in Sethe's life.

Beloved is a successful novel on three levels. On one level it is a moving examination of the life and attitudes of former slaves trying to make a life for themselves in post-Civil War Ohio. Because of the novel's relative brevity, it barely scratches the surface of this aspect and is more of an introduction than a truly serious study.

On a second, deeper level the novel is a successful character study of Sethe and how her traumas have affected the people close to her. The novel is more successful on this level with Sethe and Denver, but slightly less successful with Paul D and Baby Suggs although, admittedly, they were never intended to be given the full attention Sethe and Denver were.

Finally, the novel is an incredibly powerful emotional experience as gripping as any novel I have read in many years. To paraphrase Alfred Bester, it hits the reader in the face at the very start and keeps hitting you repeatedly until Toni Morrison finally grows weary and rests her arm.

Beloved is great literature about the human heart, great storytelling with a powerful emotional impact, and pure fantasy, not just in a token way since the fantasy element is arguably the most important aspect of the entire novel. What I want to know is: where was this novel when the 1987 World Fantasy Awards were presented?

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Blue Kansas Sky

Now that I have discussed Michael Bishop being my favorite writer for nearly thirty years, I offer a review of one of his recent collections of short fiction. I must warn you though that whatever I say in this review is outright prejudiced. While I try to be fairly objective in my opinions, it is quite possible I have grown so subjective toward Michael Bishop’s writing that I cannot even discern my own prejudice. So I apologize for any inaccuracies in my comments.

In the years since the publication of Brittle Innings, Michael Bishop has published only two mystery novels in collaboration with Paul DiFilippo, and three new short fiction collections, At the City Limits of Fate, Brighten to Incandescence, and Blue Kansas Sky. The latter book might be the best of the three, containing 3 classic Bishop novellas and one new publication, the title novella.

“Blue Kansas Sky” is a coming-of-age story, totally non-sfnal. It’s the story of Sonny Peacock, who lives alone with his mom. His father died in a prison riot after having been arrested for attempted robbery. The robbery had been the plan of Sonny’s uncle Rory who received a lighter sentence at the trial because Sonny’s father took the rap for him. As the story begins, Uncle Rory has just been released from prison and is returning to Sonny’s town.

This is not a heavily-plotted story, but a telling of Sonny’s life throughout most of his teen years. The people in his life who play important roles in the story include his uncle Rory, his mom who never gets over her resentment at Rory for abandoning her husband at the trial, and his closest classmates. The story is not major Bishop, because it really does not have any overriding philosophical or moral point to make, but it is a rich examination of growing up, and well worth the long wait since Brittle Innings.

“Apartheid, Superstrings, and Mordecai Thubana” is about precisely what the title describes. While driving through the wilds of South Africa late one night, a rich Afrikanar accidentally crashes his Cadillac into an elephant. Trapped, he is rescued by a busload of black Africans being taken on a several hours’ long ride to their daily jobs. On the bus he meets Mordecai Thubana and from him learns about superstrings while experiencing apartheid firsthand at the hands of government troops they encounter on the way. It is a harrowing experience which shakes him out of his smug ignorance and makes him see the truth of the world in which he lives for the first time in his life.

At first it seemed as if the science fictional element of the story–a humanization of the superstring theory of the universe as the Afrikanar becomes unseen matter himself–is little more than a sidebar to the story, an attempt to blend two parallel plotlines into one. But as the Afrikanar’s descent into the depths of Apartheid becomes deeper and more revealing, it becomes apparent that there was no other way for him to experience the truth of Apartheid other than by being invisible to the government minions himself.

Overall, “Apartheid...” is a strong, gripping, emotional story which is both revealing and chilling. This is one of Michael Bishop’s finest novellas.

At first glance “Cri de Coeur” seems like a most atypical Michael Bishop story: a trio of immense spaceships are taking several thousand carefully-selected humans to colonize a new planet in the Epsilon Eridani system. It is the closest to a hard-science story I’ve ever read by Bishop, since it is filled with elaborate descriptions of the ship on which the narrator is a passenger, and the climactic scene involves the important decision the passengers must make when their intended home proves uninhabitable.

But that’s just surface description. The novella’s real concern is the reaction of the people to the journey and to the traumatic events at the story’s climax. While we catch glimpses of many members of the colonizing group, three of them are the story’s main focus: Abel, the narrator who is merely a passenger on the ship since his scientific work will begin after planetfall, thus now he functions as unofficial ship’s poet and the father of the second important character, Dean, who was born on the ship and is a Down’s Syndrome child. Dean serves as the eyes of innocence viewing all that takes place around him and, as such, offers a perspective none of the other characters can offer.

The third main character is Kaz, who originally resents the presence of a defective child onboard the colonizing mission but during the story becomes Abel’s closest companion–if not deep friend–and Dean’s surrogate uncle.

Most stories of this type are primarily concerned with the mission, either the science or the plot, or with the colony, either its native culture or the one developed by the colonists. “Cri de Coeur” is instead concerned with the people doing the colonizing, how they relate and interact and deal with both the mundane tasks of travel though space and with the unexpected traumas. It is a strong, thoughtful, and highly successful story.

Blue Kansas Sky is highly recommended (assuming you can trust my pro-Bishop bias). Certainly, if you enjoy literary SF and have not read either “Superstrings” or “Cri de Coeur”, then this volume is mandatory reading.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Daughter of Time

Daughter of Time, by Josephine Tey, is the type of mystery I much prefer to the typical genre type of crime committed / detective studies clues for several hundred pages / crime solved. It is the story of a bedridden detective who sees a portrait of the badly-maligned British monarch Richard III and has trouble believing that a man who looks so deep and thoughtful could really have been the cold-hearted murderer who killed his two young nephews imprisoned in the Tower of London.

Thus begins several hundred pages of historical research combined with speculation on the part of the detective and his researcher associate. What they learn is fascinating indeed. Apparently Richard was the last Lancaster king who was killed in battled by Henry VII, the first Tudor king. The first history of Richard was written by John Morton, a supporter of Henry who ingratiated himself to the king by rationalizing Henry’s seizing the throne from the supposedly “evil” Richard. Morton was rewarded for his pro-Tudor history by being named archbishop of Canterbury by Henry.

The most influential history of Richard was written by Thomas More shortly thereafter. More, chancellor during the reign of Tudor king Henry VIII, based his facts primarily on Morton’s history. As a result, More’s description of the horrific Richard became the standard reference for centuries. It also influenced Shakespeare who wrote his plays during the Tudor era, and who too realized the importance of satisfying his monarchs. His villainous image of Richard, based on More’s history, has influenced generations even moreso than More’s history did.

According to Tey, Richard was a well-loved, fair and kind king who cared for the family and supporters of his brother Edward; Henry, however, was a tyrant who tried to kill or eliminate all the remaining Lancasters who were a threat to his legitimacy. While Tey’s detective never learns for sure, he considers it much more likely the famous young princes were killed in the Tower of London during Henry’s reign, not Richard’s.

The evidence in favor of Tey’s view of Richard is quite convincing in the book. At the time of Richard’s supposed murders, there were so many other heirs to the throne alive that it made no sense for Richard, a truly rational man, to kill the princes. Plus, upon seizing power, the Tudors issued many public statements intended to discredit Richard, but none of them mentioned anything about his supposed murder of the two young princes. Surely, the detective surmises, if such a horrendous deed did take place, that would have been one of their primary arguments against him.

At the end of the book Tey claims that after the Stuarts came to power, vindications of Richard were written, but Morton’s, More’s and Shakespeare’s images were so ingrained in the public mind the truth was never able to change Richard’s popular image.

After finishing the book I decided to do some research to determine if Tey’s view of Richard III is the correct one, or whether the entire novel is pure fantasy. I began with an online search. The first website I found repeated the Richard was evil mantra, but their source was the original Morton Tutor history.

The next website was created by The Richard III Foundation, Inc. which described itself as "a non-profit educational organization to authenticate the life and times of King Richard III, his contemporaries and era, and to expand information about the medieval period." Obviously I knew where their prejudices would lie, so I was not surprised to read therein that The Lords and Commons of Parliament petitioned Richard to take the throne and he accepted.

During his reign, according to the Foundation, Richard III passed some of the most enlightened laws on record for the fifteenth century.

I have since read two scholarly books, The Yorkist Years and Richard III, both of which offer pro-Richard histories filled with first-level documentation from the Yorkist years. Obviously more research into both sides of the issue still needs to be done, but if thought- provoking ideas, whether fictional or historical, are one of the hallmarks of outstanding fiction, The Daughter of Time certainly qualifies. I recommend it quite highly. In addition to my opinion, the novel was selected as the 4th greatest mystery novel of all-time by the Mystery Writers of America, which results can be found in The Crown Crime Companion.