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Mirrors & Myths.

20 Jan

This is the creature there has never been.

They never knew it, and yet, nonetheless,

they loved the way it moved, its limber

neck, its very gaze, mild and serene.

Not there, because they loved it, it behaved

as though it were. They always left some space.

And in that clear unpeopled space they saved

it lightly reared its head, with scarce a trace

of not being there. They fed it, not with corn,

but only with the possibility

of being. And that was able to confer

such strength, its brow put forth a horn. One horn.

Whitely it stole up to a maid- to be

within the silver mirror, and in her.

— Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus, II-IV.

One of the great truths about a reading life is that timing matters. When you read something is almost as important as what you read.  Last year, I finally gave up my old standby of reading books in one sitting. What had once been an intense and freewheeling experience was now diffuse and overwhelming. This I justified in many ways: diversity, deadlines, multiple bibliographies, a brain that can never be satisfied with only one of anything. The truth was I simply couldn’t read the way I had all my life any more. It was no longer about the reading, it became about the writing.  To write, one must compress, paraphrase, and excerpt like a librarian on pills. This is as often exhausting and dull as it is exhilarating and refreshing, and books lost their hold upon me.  My nose for them was all nostril and no flair. Where once I had anticipated reading, I now planned it; and in the crossfire I abandoned my visceral love of a good story, the very reason I began this whole writing shebang in the first place.

This past month I have set about trying to recover some of that lost stardust. I read mountains of fiction, usually the most regulated commodity on my reading lists. As with any reader, fiction is my confectionary: curative in small doses, addictive in large. I watched even larger doses of television, to tide over days when the very sight of a book gave me the hives. I did freelance work that was more about a good pitch than a good tale.  I even went dancing. In all, I got me a life. And I detested it. The book that drew me back from the abyss (read in one sitting) was Reckless, by Cornelia Funke. A few weeks later, happily ensconced in my library, I am wondering why this little book managed what so many others could not.

Funke’s ‘Inkworld’ books were skilled at world-building and clumsy with plot; Reckless, weirdly, inverts this equation. The story races along, while the ‘mirror-world’ is drab and populated by stock fairytale types: witches, dwarves, unicorns, fairies, shape-shifters.  The dominant races- humans, and stone-people known as Goyls- are at war. This is the world that Jacob Reckless, our hero, ventures into at age 12. He slips between the worlds for another dozen years; a famous treasure-hunter in one, an absent brother in the other.  Finally, Jacob’s worlds collide, his brother is attacked by Goyls, and Reckless begins. If fur turns to skin, and skin to stone, what remains?

Reckless is an experiment in the tradition of Through the Looking Glass, though it sorely misses the wit and invention of Carroll’s classic. There are no March Hares and singing walruses to be met here, nor do the unicorns declare children to be fabulous monsters. Mirror-worlds have spawned into an enormous sub-genre in recent years, and Reckless is a solid (if not incandescent) sample of the trope. It served, anyhow, to draw me towards an ancient trail, and the road to sanity was littered with glittering mirrors.  Everywhere in my reading, I saw magical mirrors: Denethor’s Palantir; The Mirror of Erised; Lady Shalott, whose mirror crack’d from side to side; Despair of the Endless, locked in her hall of mirrors. Perseus, who turned Medusa’s gaze upon herself; Narcissus, who taught humanity to glance askance. There are enough of them scattered about to garner Diana Wynne Jones’ attention in her Tough Guide to Fantasy Land:

Mirrors are somewhat infrequent, despite the fact that glass is used for windows. Many of them are made of polished metal and are the property of rich people and Enchantresses. Where mirrors exist, of whatever material, they are not commonly used for combing hair. They will be employed for Prophecy or Farseeing, or, less frequently, as the way from our own world to start the Tour, or simply for travel. Glass mirrors are almost exclusively used as a device for spotting Vampires or other Enemies in disguise.

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Field of Magnetic Impulses.

12 Jan

I would like to be Mercutio. Among his virtues, I admire above all his lightness, in a world full of brutality, his dreaming imagination- as the poet of Queen Mab- and at the same time his wisdom, as the voice of reason amid the fanatical hatreds of Capulets and Montagues. He sticks to the old code of chivalry at the price of his life perhaps just for the sake of style but he is a modern man, sceptical and ironic: a Don Quixote who knows very well what dreams are and what reality is, and he lives both with open eyes.

Italo Calvino, A Hermit in Paris.

My debt to Italo Calvino, my shameless plagiarising of his device, will be obvious to anyone who has read The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Over the years, I’ve borrowed many things from him, not least my stock response on dates and parties to nerd ice-breakers such as who is your favourite Shakespeare character? and Don’t you wish some sidekicks would kick their principals off-page? What’s good for Calvino is certainly good enough for me, despite (or perhaps because of) my own lack of opinion/knowledge when it comes to the Grand Bard of Almighty Lit.

I read Castle to write a college-application essay back in high school, and it was my silver lining across a shabby six months. I was supposed to read If on a winter’s night.., which I gave up speedily enough. Castle I could begin to fathom, and I read the book like a talisman across the exam-onslaught that is 12th standard. The only chemistry I remember is my attempted synthesis of the periodic table and sundry arcana.

It was much later I read his description of the calculation behind that collection; in Memos he calls it a “fantastic iconography”, his use of the tarot-imagery within it a “machine for multiplying narratives”. What struck me then was the dexterity of the text, how every story could fold into any other, creating new polarities, new points of tension, alternate realities.

In years since, I continue to drift to him when I need someone to remind me of literature’s redemptive power.

 I’ve dipped into most of his books, but the only ones I claim to understand are Castle and (hopefully) Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

I don’t think I’ll ever “finish” reading Calvino. I don’t think I ever want to.

The artist’s imagination is a world of potentialities that no work will succeed in realising. What we experience by living is another world, answering to other forms of order and disorder. The layers of words that accumulate on the page, like the layers of paint on canvas, are yet another world, so infinite but more easily controlled, less refractory to formulation. The link between the three worlds is the indefinable spoken of by Balzac; or, rather, I would call it the undecidable, the paradox of an infinite whole that contains other infinite wholes. A writer- and I am speaking of a writer with infinite ambitions, like Balzac- carries out operations that involve the infinity of his imagination or the infinity of the contingency that may be attempted, or both, by means of the infinity of linguistic possibilities in writing.

“Visibility”, Six Memos for the Next Millennium.

Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino’s final book, is a catalogue of virtues he would like to see preserved in our millennium. It was intended to be a manual for future generations about the nature of writing: as a skill, a vocation, an enterprise. Hold steady to these questions, he tells us, keep faith in the maelstrom of your world; if these should die the world shall be a fell place indeed. He completed five of the planned six lectures: Lightness, Quickness, Exactitude, Visibility, Multiplicity. Of the last, Consistency, we have only the hints he buried across the span of his literary career.  Calvino was a prolific writer, and fans will know that the concept of “masterpiece” is redundant when it comes to this master of the fable. Calvino’s gift is the vignette, his best work evokes snatches of illustrated tapestry. This is the Calvino of Italian Folktales and Cosmicomics: ironic, precise, detached. Calvino, in his fiction, is an avatar of the weaver Arachne, announced with a faint cackle and the crinkle of old paper in the background.

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Anarchist, Ahoy!

20 Jun

Three books about the price of revolution.

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life: science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and historical outlook, among them. Space Travel is a metaphor; so is an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor…. The truth is a matter of the imagination

Ursula Le Guin’s introduction to Left Hand of Darkness.

Stone Marked Grave, from Nat-Geo.

Science fiction is the craft of the probable. It uses contemporary society as raw material, and imagines what it can become, how it will end up. Take this trend, and that, and put them together so, it says, and what will you have? It doesn’t offer anything as prosaic as predictions about the shape of things to be, and is often spectacularly dismissive of actual science- what science fiction is interested is in how humanity and technology will interact. To take one common trope, a good writer is fascinated not by the the science behind the invisible-ray gun, but by the choices it imposes upon society- what will it mean for privacy or for law enforcement if people can wander about without being noticed? Who are the people most likely to use the technology; who are the ‘right’ people to handle such sensitive devices (generally very distinct species)? Will anyone given such power not abuse it? What could society do to prevent such abuse? In a century where we race between breakthroughs, science fiction allows us to take a step back and examine the paradigm that progress is linear, benevolent, always desirable. Speculative fiction is the most fecund genre of the 21st century because it examines the ultimately human concerns behind innovation.

This is an essay about the deployment of similar metaphors in two roughly contemporaneous science fiction classics: Frank Herbert’s Dune cycle and Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish cycle. I have not discussed all the novels in the two series, as that would amount to analysing a dozen novels. Herbert’s work is chronological- events in Dune lead to events in Dune Messiah and so on. This essay discusses only the first book, which tells the story of Paul Muad’dib’s journey from a noble’s son to Fremen fugitive to all-conquering emperor.  The later books experiment more, and arguably better evoke Herbert’s vision. Duneverse is constructed ponderously, and as one goes deeper into the series he begins to explore subtler quandaries than Dune allows itself.  The later books have more women doing interesting stuff, for one, to the point where the cast in the final two is almost exclusively women (“heroes”, regrettably, remain men, save for a few exceptions). Unfortunately, Herbert’s women don’t improve for all their abundance: the Honoured Matres of the last two books are the stuff of feminist nightmare. My primary interest lies in Herbert’s world before its conflicted saviours arrive; in the forces that got humanity from here to there, as it were. The world that shaped Paul Atreides and his dubious choices was the society into which he was born and raised, and the only book that gives us a clear picture of that world is the first one.

The Hainish cycle, on the other hand, is in no way linear. The novels are all set in the same “Ekumen” universe, where various planetary societies have established contact with each other, but there the congruence ends. Each is a stand-alone novel, focused on independent themes, and only loosely related to the others. My choice here is thus convenience. I have chosen books I can profitably compare to Dune, coincidentally also the most famous of the lot : The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness (hereinafter Left Hand). Annares (the setting for half of The Dispossessed) and Arrakis (the planet also called Dune) are extremely isolate planetary societies, though such imperviousness is less surprising in the former case than in the latter. Gethen, Left Hand’s planet, exists in splendid ignorance of alternate intelligence. All three planets are remarkably similar in their hostility to human life. Annares is an arid mining-planet. Arrakis is all desert. Gethen is mostly glacier.



Drive the Sandworm, from


My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,
A furious devout drench,
And I should raise in the east
A glass of water
Where any-angled light
Would congregate endlessly.

Larkin, Water

Arrakis- Dune- is the spice planet; a desert world where the most precious substance in the universe, the drug melange, is to be found. Melange (and desert) are both children of Shai-Hulud, the giant sandworms of Arrakis (bigger than the average train). Sandworms swallow everything in their path, are exceedingly sensitive to all vibrations, and make life unbelievably annoying. The Fremen, who have domesticated the worm by adapting to it (not, it must be noted, evolutionarily, but by daring initiative and excellent sense) have a decent time of it, but to everyone else the deep desert of Arrakis (most of Arrakis) is a hostile wasteland.  One of Dune’s eternal mysteries is how the Empire apparently forgot, in all those millennia it mined Arrakis, the most basic dictum of colonisation: to control, you must civilise and you must count. The Atreides arrive on Arrakis ten thousand years into space travel, yet it remains frontier country, unmapped and untamed. There isn’t even an accurate census or geological report. It is truly odd, with such administrative indifference, that the planet remained docile enough to allow for centuries of uninterrupted exploitation, given that the savagery of its climate is only matched by that of its native Fremen. The habitually martial Fremen seem (to me) to be little more than cookie-cutter Pathans hopped up on steroids. Herbert must’ve been heavily influenced by the British Indian Army officers’ records of their encounters with India’s ‘warrior tribes’ (or their counterparts from the Maghreb and Arabia) while scouting for suitable role models for his sturdy brown folk. They might be smart enough to ride sandworms, but the Fremen have barely evolved beyond tribesmen, despite thousands of years of the universe come knockin’.

Gender roles, for instance, are extremely rigid, with women being allotted one of three roles: wife, slave or kin. Polygamy is rampant, as are feuds; men spend their time provoking fights in order to grow their harem and prestige, carving their way up the social ladder. Women, naturally, transfer upon victory. One is solemnly assured women “are never taken against their will in Fremen society”, but this is only because they are presumed not to possess any. All the repression gives way to ritual orgies every so often, but the setup is, on the whole, depressingly medieval. Some of this is attributable to psychology: the Fremen are history’s victims, fleeing from planet to planet till they find a refuge on Dune.  They are not the most open or adventurous of societies, preferring to hide and scatter rather than unite and respond. Racial memory apart, is it really possible that a planetary society can be forced into statis the way Fremen society appears to have been? Can that be true of people living on a planet as pivotal to civilisation as Arrakis?


Saddle-bag gaurdian, "Algerian Pictures"

It is certainly true that people don’t have to benefit from the riches under their feet, and usually pay the highest price for it: one need look no further than the 20th century on planet Earth for confirmation. Raw material extraction profits the few-who-rule and grinds the rest of humanity to dust, and  it is not all that shocking to find the system replicated in the distant future on another planet. Until the wise and benevolent Atreides arrive, I presume Herbert is arguing, only the vile Harkonnens and the indolent Corrinos ruled Dune, and obviously they wouldn’t bother with the decor and sight-seeing. The Atreides had only planet, and cared for it; the others had so many they lost sight of the only important one.

Herbert’s universe, unlike Le Guin’s, is a profoundly human universe: one species spreads itself obsessively, never encountering an alien intelligence. There are hints of another ‘jihad’ in the pre-imperial past, but that was against the self imposed monster of artificial intelligence. (A word to the wary: Herbert’s “Jihad” is fictional orientalism such as to make Bernard Lewis proud, invoking stereotypes of howling hordes and flammable fanatics.  He takes his inspiration from Huntington rather than Hourani, and is woefully ignorant about the word’s Arabic homophone) The brutal experience pushed humanity on the road to self reliance, and for ten millennia human ability has steadily been developed. There are now human computers, ninja women, and cloned slaves to make up for the benefits of most sentient furniture.

Duneverse is remarkably relatable, for all the far-future trappings:  an empire, an obsession with eugenics and racial purity, patriarchy, an arcane class system (the feudal “faufreluches”), fencing. The core thesis seems to be that humanity is so inert it can’t grow past 19th century blueprints. The only creativity evident in governance across the aeons is skill at repressing populations scattered around a hundred thousand stars. Herbert’s reticence with revolution is, to some extent, a necessary plot device:  the Atreides needed to have a decrepit, complacent tyranny to destroy in order to be heroes rather than mere opportunists.  But that makes it no less weird that Herbert acknowledges such paltry portions of socio-political change.  Picture the vast changes pressed upon human society over a mere 3,000 years, or just in the comparatively few decades post the onset of technology: how is Dune-verse so technologically ahead and so politically naive? It is like nothing has changed, except for technology and DNA, furthering the illusion that science can happen without politics pursuing (and occasionally leading).

Consider duneverse diplomacy. Surely human networks would have moved beyond “balance of powers” as a way to govern galaxy-spanning affairs in 10,000 years? The powers are more elaborate than granted by most present theory: CHOAM (Capitalism Inc.), The Spacing Guild (orange mutants), Bene Tleilax (slimy gnomes), Bene Gesserit (weirding women), the Emperor (boys are heirs, girls bear ‘em) and the Houses (the ruling class of “Families”, whose fiefs are usually solar systems); yet it retains the sense of acute claustrophobia modern international law evokes. Herbert handed out one token to each player in his political game, and left matters there. I guess I expect the universe to tend to complexity while Herbert does not. It baffles me how there are no powerful women who are not, effectively, promiscuous nuns; or geneticists who are not necrophiliac midgets; or more than one financial megalith.  Every enterprise in the Dune-verse is its own damn cult: it accounts for no people with cross purposes and meandering brains. Some monopolies I can explain with context: the Spacing Guild (it’s only fair to give addicts who live in fishtanks something for their troubles); others with rueful resignation: the Bene Gesserit (just be glad he snuck women onto the table); the Emperor is clearly conveniently around for Paul to usurp, but the aristocracy and attendant class system always stump me.

A classic aristocracy, with its elegant knights and deadly minstrels, the kind Herbert puts in charge of the entire galaxy, died long before he did. Assuming brevity demanded a  simplistic model government, why not make the ruling body a corrupt Galactic Parliament, rather than the House of Lords in space? If an institution has proved incompetent on one planet, it is hardly likely to win successively across hundreds of them, however desperate mankind gets. One gets the feeling that Herbert came up with the whole boiling just so he had a fool proof route to his theory of plotted out evolution. Herbert’s politics is a gift to his genetics: in a hurly-burly galaxy full of wildly careening sexual antics and gene-pools, the Bene Gesserit would never be able to collect enough data for their genetic banks.  An aristocracy, on the other hand, is certainly good at inbreeding, if little else. The nobles did the ‘sifting’ of genes so important in the Bene Gesserit weltenschauung: predicated as that cult’s existence is on the boundary between ‘human’ (a refined person, or a trained seal- it depends on one’s perspective) and ‘animal’ (everyone else, and, presumably, animals), the good horse-wives created a breeding index for mankind. The nobles ‘preserved the bloodlines’, while the Bene Gesserit harvested them and the Bene Tleilax experimented.


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Things I miss about fiction.

15 Jun

It’s been years since I read fiction seriously- not as a fly-by night affair punctuating ‘real reading’ but fully awake, pencil in hand. The novel is Hilary Mantel’s  Wolf Hall, set in Tudor England, focused on the ascendancy of Thomas Cromwell, the minister who got Henry VIII his first divorce (and lost his life after the fourth). I shall put up a proper (if terribly elliptical) review, but the novel has made me powerfully nostalgic for the rhythm and nuance of fiction: the most vivid non fiction cannot match the pleasure of an intricate plot and interesting people. I thought a miss-list might help exorcise my system and lead me back to histories and polemics. It didn’t, but here it is anyway, in no particular order, with excerpts for every mood.

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