Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Machine of Death

Machine of Death is a concept anthology, which is in itself a pretty cool concept (if an old one), and more so because it's certainly the first anthology in over 65 million years to have been inspired by the mostly offhand remark of a T. rex to a Utahraptor and a Dromiceiomimus.

Best. Blog. Ever.
What if, T. rex wondered one day, while stomping on a log cabin in front of which was parked what appears to have been a Plymouth Reliant, someone invented a machine that could use a simple blood test to declare infallibly how someone would eventually die? And what if (heh heh, heh heh) the machine "delights in ironically vague deaths"?

Utahraptor asks, "Natural causes?"

Quoth T. rex, "Hit on the head by a falling koala bear!"

This was in 2005, and then the internetz went crazy with people falling over themselves to imagine ironically vague death predictions that'd come true in fashions either amusing, heartbreaking, or Tarantino-esque. Flash five years forward, and you've got this pretty sweet anthology full of stories from all over, doing all kinds of things with T. rex's madcap premise.

Flash forward three more years, though, and I'm sad about a follow-up anthology that doesn't seem likely to do anything not done already by Machine of Death. I feel like I'm stupidly a fan of the early Velvet Roadkills, before they, like, sold out, you know?, but jeez.

And it's not that I distrust the early Amazon reviewers, all of whom are so excited they can't hardly stand themselves, when they say that the stories might be more mature and yearning and blitzkrieg, as appropriate in the given case, but I'm still not reading it.

At bottom, the virtue and crime of a concept anthology like this one is that you're going to get variations on a theme. You might happen to love the theme, and you might adore the very idea of a cover version, but how much "Hallelujah" do you really need?

It was lots of fun reading the first third of this book, and there were probably some better stories in the last two-thirds, but by then I was kind of feeling like whole stories were unnecessary: just give me tweeted summaries of unmade ideas (like these!), seriously, or titles like those of Friends episodes (season 3, episode 8: "The One with the Giant Poking Device").

Honestly, I slag not these authors or editors. It's not their fault that this book wasn't for me, or I wouldn't have enjoyed most of it and wouldn't have been grumpy that I wasn't enjoying stories I knew I should've been enjoying.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

ENGL 456, BC literature, Sept 2013 @ UVic

This term, I'm very pleased to be teaching a section of English 456 here at UVic, on the topic Literature of British Columbia. Each year, the 456 instructor is free to develop a somewhat idiosyncratic reading list, as long as you're selling a particular vision of BC that's defensible within the literature. After all, if you're only able to hit a half-dozen books from over a century's worth of writing, you're going to end up making some tricky decisions, and there's no reason to canonize one creaky compromise over any other.

Borrowed from here
For this year, I've decided to divide the course into two halves, leaving a blank spot for the 1960s through 1980s, the period which saw the rise of CanLit. (Joke explanation of CanLit also available.) I'll be speaking to this period, and I'm expecting that many students will get some exposure to literature of that time in coursework on Canadian literature more broadly, but I'm aware that it's something of a risk.

Further, we're starting with the more recent works, whose places in the canon aren't assured, before reaching back to look at the earlier, more canonical texts. In theory, we'll figure out where we are, then where we were, as a way of constructing a non-teleological understanding of literary history as a narrative of progress. Also, we're starting with a work of First Nations oral history, from the Okanagan people, because that just has to be our grounding for a course like this one.

In order, therefore, we're covering the following books, all but one of which I've already discussed on this blog once or twice:
CanLit Is Sexy (kind of)
The class is full at this point, though I'm certainly prepared to take on some extra students if anyone's desperate to enrol. We're going to be thinking a lot about the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, about the concept of fictional genre (and why literary fiction gets a free pass), and about what happens when a work of literature is anchored in a particular place and time that its readers know well, or at least could easily come to know well.

Plus, we're going to wonder what benefits there might be to thinking of these texts as BC books specifically, rather than just as books, and we're going to think about what kind of BC we're finding in this particular agglomeration. After all, we all live inside our own imaginations, ultimately, so inside the classroom, we're all going to be visiting from different versions of BC.

I'm looking forward to this course with nerdish delight, honestly. My general classroom approach is to keep trying to shut up and stop raving about the readings, so that I can hear from the whole classroom of smart that's assembled in front of me, but my success rate is often kind of low, because I'm a little excitable. If you're taking the course, please, help me find a way to listen more; the literature classroom is a community of readers, and a community's existence depends on conversation.

Stanislaw Lem, The Star Diaries

Imagine, please, that I'm starting this post with the same "English profs are SF weenies" disclaimer that opened my last post on Stanislaw Lem, regarding his brilliant novel Return from the Stars. It'll save us both some time, and we'll want some time if we're going to think about a book of the complexity of The Star Diaries.

The book's title "diaries" are in fact a series of reports by Ijon Tichy, an astronaut of pan-galactic renown, about some of his voyages. Because Lem wrote the separate reports across some four decades, and out of order at that, they embody a number of different attitudes toward their linked subjects of imagination, science, and politics. Ranging from romantic to bitterly sarcastic, the separate diary entries confront and genially abandon crisis after crisis, paradox after paradox, never getting too excited about the purely literary conundrums usually so important to devoted readers.

I'm still processing this book, in part because I made the mistake of reading what Fredric Jameson had to say about Stanislaw Lem, in his messy sprawl of a book Archaeologies of the Future. To make a long and predictably inaccessible story short, Jameson thinks Lem should be celebrated for how completely he's prepared to accept the stupidity of anthropocentrism. The human physical form -- bipedal, oxygen-breathing, sexually dimorphic, and so on -- must only ever be one option among many, and while most SF writers deal with this at some point in their work, Jameson seems to think that Lem completely accepts the notion of human oddity, the notion that humans shouldn't be understood as in any way archetypical of other sentient, let alone space-faring, civilizations.

Do people read single voyages from the book? Not sure, but the brilliant 20th voyage would I think come across as only a gag if it was stripped from its context. If you don't know about Tichy's existence (sometimes accidentally) across multiple lifetimes and in multiple centuries, you're going to lose a great deal of the value in Tichy's explanation of how evolution came to operate on Earth, and how humans became the species that they are: namely, through a vastly complicated series of failed interventions intended to give humans a tiny bit of respectability, intergalactically, unavailable to them because of their bodily form and history.

Is it any surprise, truly, that Marshall McLuhan was a secret agent from the future whose mission was to confuse genuinely speculative futurologists?

All The Covers!!!
It's impossible to summarize this book fairly, because each separate voyage (except from the squibs) could be in itself a whole system of novels. Every so often, Lem will drop in an almost offhand remark about some technical detail, for example, that'll imply all manner of complexity about the entire imaginative mission of SF. For example, Tichy sees the technological apocalypse to be never more than a fantasy:
The apocalyptic visions that futurologists sometimes unfold before us, of a world choked with lethal fumes, filled with smoke, hopelessly trapped by the energy barrier, the thermal barrier, etc., they're complete nonsense: in the post-industrial phase of development one sees the rise of biotic engineering, which liquidates those kind of problems. (p.198)
At this point in the book, Tichy is merely commenting on why he isn't surprised, in landing on a planet new to him, by a field whose crop appears to consist entirely of night-tables and footstools. Once you can make truly synthetic seeds, then there's no distinguishing between growing GMO corn and growing a shortwave radio. Absurd, far more even than the best details of Douglas Adams' deservedly beloved Hitchhiker's series, but also logical, no? Green design is passing strange, to be sure.

For me, the great joy in the book is in Tichy's blending of earthiness with space, as in this passage from early in twentieth voyage where he's trying to relax upon his return to Earth:
Of course an ocean of memories continued to assail me, like a swollen tide when a storm has passed. While cracking an egg I looked at the blue flame of the burner--nothing special about it, yet how very like the Nova of Perseus. And those curtains there -- as white as the sheet of asbestos I'd used to cover the atomic pile that time when I .... No, enough!--I told myself. Decide instead how you want your eggs--scrambled or fried? (p.147)
If you can imagine a combination of Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, the good-heartedly practical grifter and the accursedly idealistic trainwreck, you're starting to figure out Ijon Tichy, but you've got to spend some time with him. As I said last time, you can't understand SF properly without reading some Stanislaw Lem, and it might be that the figure of Ijon Tichy is the secret handshake that'll let you make any sense of Lem. Sheer genius, and SO much fun.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Stanislaw Lem, Return from the Stars

These days, I read more science fiction than I mean to. As an English prof, I'm supposed to be buried in Serious Literature, 'midst drama and eighteenth-century poetry and high-realist middle-class fiction, and for a couple of decades I was. I remain literarily addicted to the ecologically minded memoir of Theresa Kishkan, the collage/rant poetry of Rita Wong, and meticulously serious fiction like that written by Matthew Hooton, so I remain hopeful that I can keep my union card a little longer, but high-end SF? It does all the things that literature was invented for in the first place.

And yeah, Stanislaw Lem is among the world's very finest writers of science fiction, receiving the ultimate plaudit for an author: no, not a Nobel Prize, what's wrong with you? -- a brilliant Google Doodle, on the 60th anniversary of his first book publication. I'm almost certain that I hadn't read any of his books until this year, and while I don't regret my career path and the reading I've done to get here, it's experiences like diving into the work of an author like Lem that make me feel the most ridiculous about how intensely narrow, necessarily so, really is my bookish expertise.

Readers have tended to fall in love with Return from the Stars, though apparently Lem himself had mixed opinions about it.

In the most general terms, it's the story of an astronaut named Hal Bregg who returns from a lengthy mission to an Earth that has changed enormously in the hundred years of Earth-time that were only ten years for the mission's crew. Powerful emotion has been largely removed from people's lives, through a process known as betrization, applied universally across the planet, and in consequence culture has evolved away from anything evocative or provocative of the same. In particular, space missions are no longer pursued, indeed they're viewed as representative of an embarrassing period in Earth's history, and this renders Bregg's life back on Earth generally meaningless. While the end of space flight (and its risks) might be a consequence of betrization, there's also a logic to abandoning it: to be brief, deep-space astronauts go out in search of answers to the questions conceivable to the culture that sends them out, but because time passes at different speeds on Earth and on high-speed space vessels, such astronauts are fated always to return to a culture that has evolved beyond any need of the particular answer that seemed so important at the time.

Bregg's task, then, is to consider whether to adapt, how far to adapt, and so on. Lem's great achievement might be his ability to express just how difficult such a task would be.

Take the opening chapter, in which Bregg return to Earth for the first time, alighting from a rocket that has brought him from something like psychomedical quarantine on Luna. Lem's dizzying rendering of airport architecture reads like a Frank Gehry museum might, if only Gehry wasn't such a mild-mannered, retiring piker whose heart is so clearly in the construction of tract housing and suburban sprawl. While the section does extend longer than one might perhaps want, it does a terrific job of evoking the planet's transformation from one that Bregg knew (and of course Bregg is a man of approximately our own time, so his disorientation is meant to be ours as well). In the end nothing of this new Earth makes physical or spatial sense to Bregg, though each scene or location has some logic to it, and we sense something in ourselves through his experiences there, both of his unthinkingly near-suicidal despair as well of his thirst simply to fit in again, with someone, with anyone.

There is, of course, a girl. Plus boxing, cool cars, dashing adventures, and gentility, so actually it's kind of your father's science fiction, but it's clear to me now that you can't understand SF if you don't spend a little time with Stanislaw Lem. He's just part of the pantheon, and even if Return from the Stars doesn't do everything for you that you'd want, it's part of a short roster of near-essential SF reading.

Also, WOW, WHAT AN AWESOME BOOK COVER. It's appropriate symbolically for part of the book's thematics, but it's in no way drawn from actual events in the book!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Larissa Lai, Salt Fish Girl (v2)

Love it, or doubt it?

Poster for an integrated arts stage production
based on the novel
As I said once before, it's going to be so interesting to see how my students respond this fall to Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl when we cover it in English 456 (Literature of British Columbia). As one critic has argued, it's a work of insurgent transfeminism, by which Nicholas Birns refers to "a feminism that defines the 'trans-' prefix in a a maximally heterogeneous way, focusing on transnationalism and transgendered articulations of identity in understanding the cultural formations at play in the identity of women in the twenty-first century" (p.1).

In other words, Birns' article isn't for the faint of dictionary, but he's saying that Salt Fish Girl doesn't give you an easy feminism, whatever that might be, and that whatever else the novel might be, it's also a call to specifically disruptive action.

Mind you, Larissa Lai's novel is also fantasy, rather than the more or less realist fiction that most English courses deal in. Myth-like origin stories (ancient and future), cloned humans, inter-species mashups, prolonged dream sequences that might not be dreams: this isn't meticulously rendered realist fiction, with repressed middle-class characters living lives of quiet desperation, worried about politics and employment and educational prospects, so it's ....

Hmm. Thing is, the book really IS about repressed middle-class characters living lives of quiet desperation, worried about politics and employment and educational prospects, just in a future Vancouver threatened by social collapse and featuring human cloning, corporation-run municipalities and police forces, and apparently magical durian fruit.

As someone more familiar with realism (and kind of more comfortable with it, embarrassingly), I kept wanting Salt Fish Girl to give me something more recognizably predictable, and to resolve for me the assorted minor paradoxes, lacunae, and hiccups that sparkle throughout the narrative. It never did, though, and even if the ending seems to me more familiar than I'd like (Stanislaw Lem's Return from the Stars, Douglas Coupland's "One Thousand Years (Life After God)," etc., though I'm not going to give it away here), Lai's novel is original enough that it deserves all kinds of attention. Lai seems to be a fave for a lot of academics, though, and that's rarely a good sign for how broad an author's readership might be.

In what ways might it be a valuable book for thinking about British Columbia? Well, if you're thinking about taking English 456 with me, you might want to know that I once taught Stephanie Meyer's Twilight in a graduate course on West Coast literature. "Straight" might not be the angle you'll want to take on any of our readings....

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Harry Thurston, A Ship Portrait

God bless the poets, I say, who just don't care that their books fulfill every mocking stereotype of them that even their sympathetic wannabe readers hold about them -- especially the Canadian poets.

Harry Thurston's a terrific writer, both his nonfiction and his poetry, and I don't know that he's ever written something that isn't worth spending serious time on. That's certainly true with his 2005 verse novella A Ship Portrait, which includes lines from 19th-century letters and newspapers in amongst black-text poetry in the voice of 19th-century painter John O'Brien and blue-text poetry in Thurston's own voice. Those who don't fancy themselves poetry fans -- do such people exist? -- will find Thurston's style approachable rather than off-putting, and it really is a novel, with a narrative that I couldn't help wanting to follow.
The Frank off George’s Island, Halifax (source)

So many stereotypical CanLit elements: a partly autobiographical novella-in-verse, about an unsuccessful 19th-century Nova Scotia painter who specialized in ship scenes, sounds like a cartoon version of a Gaspereau Press publication, but it's real. It's also a beautiful, beautiful book, but for those ready to distrust or dislike poetry, or Canadian poetry more particularly, let's just say that not every reader's going to read past the stereotype.

And that's a shame, because A Ship Portrait is a complicated little gem: the tragedy of O'Brien's career as a youthful prodigy and an adult failure; the gulf between the romance of classic 19th-century sailing ships and the aesthetic offensiveness of the contemporary container ship; an artist's intense awareness of what it means to watch another artist's life fade away; nostalgia for a boy's life by the working sea. Thurston's isn't the only poetry that deserves more attention than it gets, but this is pretty terrific. If you're interested in boats at all, then take a chance -- drop the Horatio Hornblower, and read some poetry for a change!

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

It wasn't fair to A.J. Jacobs, probably: on a Gulf Islands holiday this summer, I read Jacobs' My Life as an Experiment during daylight hours and the early evening, in the main house with up to a dozen other people around, and the book made no impression on me apart from being mildly entertaining.

In the evenings, though, in our separate quarters, I read with a flashlight, alone, for as long as it took for our daughter to fall asleep, and I was blown away by Michael Chabon's Manhood for Amateurs. I've loved the other books by Chabon that I've read, so I kind of expected to appreciate this one the same way other readers have, but ... wow.

It's an open, intimate, but still pitch-perfect smartass portrait of how Chabon became the (gulp) middle-aged man that he has become. In some ways, it's a book-length collection of longer-form posts like this guy's, honed and re-rewritten until they jump off the page. (I mean this as a compliment for both of them, though neither would take it that way. C'est la vie.)

Take Chabon's essay "Hypocritical Theory," which explains why he has no choice but to hate a book he really should love: Captain Underpants. Sure, it's about two subversive-ish kids, working against The Man (in the form of their principal, teacher, etc.), and it's full of potty jokes and socially unacceptable acts, but the social context is more complicated than that: "The reading of the books is not only condoned but encouraged by teachers and librarians, grateful that boys are interested in reading anything at all" (p.72). Since the 1970s marketing of Wacky Packages, the educational capitalist system has grown fat on the commodification of children's every desire, and Chabon's point is that it should hurt all our hearts to see children's anarchic and original counterculture stolen this way: "The original spirit of mockery has been completely inverted; it is now the adult world that mocks children, implicitly and profitably, speaking its old language, invoking its bygone secret pleasures" (p.73). Once upon a time, the only books like these you could see at school would be some kind of handmade samizdat, but clearly that was a golden marketing opportunity. Somehow Chabon manages not to sound crotchety while complaining about the decline of Western civilization, but it's tough to capture that in a summary.

It's genius, how Chabon explains 70s fashion -- "looking like a fool was correctly understood to be a likely if not inevitable result of the taking of risks" (p.200); recalls the futurism of a 6th-grade report on hydroponics -- "if you had tried to tell me then that by 2005 we would still be growing our vegetables in dirt, you would have broken my heart" (p.255); and utterly justifies not asking for directions, seeing in it a historically essential (-ist?) manly deferral of the human condition -- "We are born lost" (p.130).

Shut the front door, because this might become one of my very favourite books. Amazing, Manhood for Amateurs: it renders most of an entire sub-genre completely irrelevant, because it's just that complete a read.

Friday, August 09, 2013

My Life as an Experiment

A.J. Jacobs seems like a pretty fun guy, in his essays and assorted books. Well, mostly, anyway, since he keeps talking enough about his OCD and other issues that I'm sure it'd get maddening at times eventually, but you know what? I think I'm done with him.

Seriously, I can't remember this ever happening to me in my entire life.

I read a lot of books. Over the last six years, I've reviewed more than 50 a year on this blog, and I've read rather more books than just those. With episodes of sitcoms, I sometimes find myself wondering whether I've seen it before or not, but books? These, I climb into for the duration of my reading, taking on aspects of them as we coexist, however briefly.

Except that during my recent Gulf Islands holiday, I read A.J. Jacobs' My Life as an Experiment. Decent book, because there's room in the world for lightweight stunt journalism that takes itself seriously, but it turns out that I'd already read this book. LESS THAN TWO YEARS AGO. And somehow I'd forgotten. The separate experiments felt a little familiar, but the book club talked about Jacobs' assorted books quite a bit when we read his Year of Living Biblically (which I didn't read, embarrassingly), so I just thought I was remembering the guys' versions.

So -- methinks I'm not reading A.J. Jacobs again. Anyone got a reason for me to read something by an author whose book had so little impact on me that I could read the same book twice, and not remember the first reading?

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating

A year or so ago, I briefly started mailing books to people: environmentally minded books from British Columbia, to colleagues and friends outside of BC who were unlikely ever to come across them on their own. The program was a casualty, unfortunately, of a seriously full schedule coupled with an unwillingness to use automated reminders to help me get things done consistently, and after only a half-dozen, somehow it all faded away.

Not long after, though, the brilliant and thoughtful Pamela Banting mailed me, unsolicited, Elisabeth Tova Bailey's The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating. Now that I've read this wee volume, I'm inspired to restart my one-man Reader's Clearing House, because it's just a remarkable treat, Bailey's book.

And yes, it really is -- partly, anyway -- about the sound a wild snail makes while it eats.

Image borrowed from Helen Explains It All
In brief, Bailey spent a few years largely bedridden from an illness or illnesses that went undiagnosed or incorrectly diagnosed for some time, recurring intensely over the course of some 20 years. Forced to abandon her beloved forest property in Maine for a bed in the city, where she couldn't sit up even to look out a window, so unwell that she had to travel to her doctor while lying down, she felt completely isolated from the world: not just the natural world, or the world we experience through the senses, but even the imagined world, because she didn't have the strength to think.

In the depth of this illness, Bailey receives a gift of field violets, a pot of living plants. The violets aren't the actual gift, though, because Bailey's friend is handing them over only as an environment for a snail that she'd noticed while walking a forest path near where Bailey was convalescing. At first Bailey finds the notion of such a gift overwhelming, because she has no energy whatever to spare, but very rapidly, she comes to find the snail's wandering and activities so compelling as to consume all of her attention.

The book shifts back and forth between a dispassionate depiction of extreme illness, which turns out to be chronic fatigue syndrome, combined with and/or prompted by other conditions, and a passionate explication of the biological marvel that is a snail. It's full of delighted facts about snails and molluscs (2640 teeth! snails can eat paper! they sometimes nurse their eggs!), and Bailey's health remains only a background concern, though a persistent one. In other words, it's a book about health and self-help, that's hardly at all about either of those things; it's about meditation without any Chopra-isms anywhere, hurrah, about one's own illness without an ounce of self-pity or -congratulation, huzzah, and as such it's one that I can get behind for a change. Still, the book really is about this one snail, and the snail's not a metaphor or symbol, or not only that. Come for the self-help if you like, as it's a valuable book about health, but stay for the snail.

Bailey's snail exists at a pace that she could keep up with, and one of the book's great beauties is that it makes you slow down as well. I've seen plenty of reviews online from readers who said they couldn't help reading the book all at once, or in one day, and certainly it's possible to do this, but good lord, people, you're doing it all WRONG. Savour this book; read with something like the pace of Bailey's discovery and recovery; a snail doesn't gallop (the loathsome Turbo notwithstanding), and it's such a beautifully written book that you should want to extend its reading as long as you can.

Such a joy, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating: essential reading for pretty much everyone, I'd say, but especially for anyone capable of slowing down, and anyone with a connection to a person with a long illness.

I wonder which book I'll mail out next, and to whom....