The dystopian present

Dystopia
If there is one good thing to come out of the election of Donald Trump, it has been the renewed interest in a certain genre of literature. Sales of dystopian novels have skyrocketed on Amazon, in particular what might be called “The Big Three” of dystopian tales: George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale.

From each of these novels, allegorical threads can be woven into some narrative aspect as a metaphor for the Trump administration: 1984’s newspeak, media manipulation and paranoid Big Brother; Brave New World’s elites-vs-savages mentality, exiled intellectuals and its psychological manipulation; Handmaid’s Tale misogyny and control of women’s reproductive rights.

But only in Bernard Wolfe’s 1952 dystopian novel, Limbo 90, did I find a metaphor for Trump’s followers (it was also published in the USA titled simply Limbo).

Wolfe’s novel is set in what was for him a dimly foreseeable future: 1990, after the atomic-bomb destruction of WWIII. An American, he was writing during the early years of the Cold War and blossoming Red Scare: the pinnacle of the McCarthy witch hunts. In his imagined future, Wolfe pictured the Soviet and Western Blocs still surviving, at least ideologically, but changed by the war.

What has changed most is society: after the latest conflict that devastated so much of the world, the populace grew so weary of war that pacifist politics came to be the norm. But pacifists became radicalized. Words alone didn’t count (although there are plenty of anti-war slogans around): you needed to prove your resistance to war. And the only way to do it was to have a limb voluntarily amputated. Or two, three, four… to become a Vol-amp.

For some, the lost limbs were replaced by prosthetics, worn with pride to show off their dedication to the pacifist principles. The more radical eschewed the pros entirely and simply lumped in baskets, limbless, passive, and immobile: the Immobs. Amputees of both sorts are now in the majority of males. (Women don’t follow suit because in Wolfe’s time, women were not allowed into active military service, and people of colour are pretty much reduced to servitude.).

Trump’s followers didn’t amputate their limbs, of course, but they did amputate a part of themselves. Or rather parts. They amputated their reason, their intellect, their empathy, their logic, their critical thinking and skepticism. They voluntarily stopped thinking and became intellectual Immobs, no less passive than those in Wolfe’s tale. You can see the metaphor here.

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The Postmortal

Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

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Decoding Alice in Wonderland


Alice's Adventures in Wonderland DecodedIt is tempting to suggest author David Day’s lush new book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded is the final word on the mysteries and secrets behind Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s fantasy, but alas, it would be an over-reach. Surely others will follow, perhaps even Day himself will extend his research to a sequel.

Aside from the difficulties of probing the motives of a man dead more than 125 years, there comes the question of interpretation, which is more like opinion than it is fact. Looking back 150 years at possible explanations for a reference or a character sometimes involves guesswork.

But even from its original publication, people knew there was more to Alice than a simple children’s tale replete with frivolous nonsense. As Day explains, Carroll himself acknowledged some of the references and metaphors. But there remain others for be dug out of the text like opals from the Australian bedrock. Day is a superb, if sometimes eccentric, prospector.

In an interview in the National Post, it notes,

Day also argues that the book was meant to give a classical education to someone like Alice, who, as a girl, wouldn’t be able to attend Oxford. Every character in Wonderland then becomes an allusion to a scholar or to a figure in Greek mythology; a reference to mathematical concept or to a famous work of art; or, quite frequently, a combination of all of the above.

It is fun, in a conspiracy-theory sort of way, to entertain hidden references to ancient gods, myths and mysteries, but as Sigmund Freud allegedly said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Those of you old enough to remember the Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods books know how quickly such egregious assumptions can be discredited and ridiculed.

Still, Day’s effort is not to be dismissed: his arguments and theories are well explained and generally compelling. It is, to date, the most comprehensive and wide-ranging peek behind the Alice curtain, and certainly most elegantly published version (the full-colour hardcover is gorgeous). It took the author almost two decades to research and write.

And it’s a good social biography of Carroll and his milieu, although it helps if you know something about the Victorian era, the British Empire, the impact of Darwin, and the social and political attitudes of the day.

But don’t lose track of the prime reason Carroll wrote the book: to entertain, delight and (possibly) educate children. Let’s not rub off all the innocence and the magic by too much analysis. As The Telegraph noted of the original book:

Future generations may see other hidden meanings. In a tale this rich, it seems highly likely they will. But for children the story itself, with its universal theme of an innocent youngster attempting to make sense of a strange adult world, is enough.

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Read, Re-read, Repeat

Master and MargaritaI’m currently re-reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantasy novel of Soviet life under Stalin, The Master and Margarita. Since this is actually a newer translation than the original one I read many years ago, I’m not sure it properly qualifies as “re-reading.” However, for me, re-reading a novel is uncommon.

I seldom have the time to re-read, because my current reading list never dwindles (in fact it grows as I continue to add books to my library). Plus my interests and not static: I constantly seek to learn new things.*

I always have a dozen books on the go, piled beside my bed in an unruly assortment. Most of these are nonfiction: history, politics, philosophy, science and style guides in particular.

Among that pile are books about books, including a newcomer I added a week or so ago: Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. It’s a book about the joys of re-reading science fiction and fantasy.

I tend not to read such collections of reviews, but when I glanced through her pieces while standing in the bookstore, I was impressed by not only how many authors and titles she has read, but on how many I didn’t know.

I’ve always thought of myself as a scifi buff with a fair bit of background knowledge and reading (not, I’ll admit, as much about fantasy). But Walton’s reading list makes me an amateur who has barely scratched the surface. There are many whose names I recognize, and some works I’ve read, but among the dozens of titles and authors are far too many with which I have little knowledge, let alone have read.

And Walton is re-reading them, That simply flabbergasts me. I’ve always thought of myself as a voracious reader, but she outstrips me as rapidly as a motorcycle passes a pedestrian on a highway.

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Rethinking John Carter

[youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8FekiAVioSg]

After recently going through the first five of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ 11 Barsoom books, I decided to give the 2012 Disney film, John Carter, another viewing. This two-hour-eleven-minute film bombed at the box office, and when I first saw it, I was deeply disappointed. But on reflection after a second viewing, it isn’t all that bad. It’s not great, but it deserves a better rating than it received, and it wears well in a second viewing.

It isn’t quite the Barsoom I grew up with, true, but it borrows heavily from Burroughs, enough to make it a close cousin in many parts. It’s the parts where the writers went off to play mix-and-match with other scifi franchises and stories where it’s actually weakest. That’s where the storyline unravels, but not so much it falls apart.

And, of course, no film or TV series can ever live up to the books, if for no other reason than that no matter how spectacular, no film cannot live up to imagination. Reading always wins, hands down, regardless of the film’s budget.

I initially saw John Carter through my own lens as a lifelong fan of ERB, who had grown up reading and rereading Burroughs’ tales and still has a substantial library of his novels on my bookshelves. That’s a mixed blessing, because while it allowed me to immediately understand the story, setting and the characters, it made me overly sensitive to that context. I compared the actual novels and the plots to the film from a purist perspective and found them wanting.

I should have been looking at the film more as a tribute, set in the Barsoomian universe, rather than a strict retelling. The film plays homage to the first two Barsoom novels, but also takes many liberties, conflating plots and characters and adding extraneous non-Burroughs elements. I didn’t like these additions at first, but now I understand better what the writers and director were trying to achieve by enhancing the drama.

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Lovecraft’s Tales of Terror

Cthulhu

No new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonplace.
Ex Oblivione, 1921.

Along with Edgar Rice Burroughs, my teenage reading covered a lot of genres, but I gravitated to scifi and fantasy. Fantasy in those days didn’t offer the same overflowing bookshelves of cookie-cutter tales we find in today’s bookstores. But they took me out of the miseries and difficulties of my little world so easily that I made the effort to find them.

Back then, fantasy was an addendum to the scifi section. You often had to hunt for the rare titles in stores and libraries where there were ample selections in all other genres (this is before the explosion of fantasy literature in the late 60s, when J.R. R. Tolkein’s Ring trilogy exploded into popularity. generating all those thousands of spin-offs.) I can’t recall horror even having its own section.

My reading took a darker turn when I discovered the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in the mid-60s. While I have returned over the years to ERB and many other writers whose works I discovered in the 1960s, I have not until recently re-read any of Lovecraft’s works. But his fiction certainly deserves a re-read because it was seminal for a lot of modern horror fiction and film. And last week I picked up an anthology of his more famous works for that purpose.

For a young teen as I was, Lovecraft was a rude, exciting awakening. What a change from what I had been reading before! In the swords-and-adventure books of Burroughs or the gallant, embattled heroes in the Doc Savage series, or even in Howard’s violent-but-honourable Conan, there was morality, definable good and callous wrong, great deeds and immense challenges to overcome, but evil was always defeated by those of strong heart, iron will and a strong moral sense. In all of these tales, there is some sense of redemption and achievement. There is joy in conquering, in winning the heart’s desire, in love, in battle.

Not so in Lovecraft, not at least in the Lovecraft I recall. He has a lot of despair and loss, terror and anxiety, and the sort of nameless middle-of-the-night terror that makes you wonder what’s under the bed.

And he wrote in sometimes florid prose that today seems rather histrionic, even puerile at times. But although Lovecraft seldom followed any of the rules most practitioners preach today on the art of story writing, he still garnered a huge following despite any literary failings.

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ERB and Barsoom

Chessmen of Mars

Tara of Helium rose from the pile of silks and soft furs upon which she had been reclining, stretched her lithe body languidly, and crossed toward the center of the room, where, above a large table, a bronze disc depended from the low ceiling. Her carriage was that of health and physical perfection—the effortless harmony of faultless coordination. A scarf of silken gossamer crossing over one shoulder was wrapped about her body; her black hair was piled high upon her head. With a wooden stick she tapped upon the bronze disc, lightly, and presently the summons was answered by a slave girl, who entered, smiling, to be greeted similarly by her mistress.

So opens the fifth book in the prolific Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ Barsoom series, The Chessmen of Mars. I have read that opening – indeed the whole series of his 11 Martian novels – several times. I still have the entire set of Ace paperbacks from the 1960s or 70s on my bookshelves. I periodically read a Burroughs’ tale just to remember the pleasures of reading him.

I recently downloaded several of his novels in audiobook form, to listen to on my visits to my mother, in her nursing home or on my iPhone when walking the dogs in the park. Librivox has many, and some are quire well read.

Last month I manged to hear A Princess of Mars, the first of the series, written in 1912, and the fifth book, Chessmen of Mars (1922).  This month I have books 2,3 and 4 burned to CD and ready to play. Back in 2007, on my old blog, I wrote the following piece about ERB and my lifelong love of ERB and his tales. After hearing these two audiobooks, I thought I should share it again here, albeit somewhat edited and updated.

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