I used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit oI used to defend Lovecraft's reputation, arguing that he'd suffered the same fate as fellow pulp author Howard: that later writers, hoping to profit off of his name, put it on the cover of all sorts of middling short story collections--cliche and badly-written stuff that (if the reader is lucky) might actually contain one or two stories by the original author.
However, in this tale, Lovecraft proves that he can write just as badly as his gaggle of followers. It is meant to be a story of the fantastical, of the supernatural, of mystery and suspense--yet it is full of the very things that kill off any sense of wonder or the uncanny. Nothing demysticizes like familiarity, and this book is full of precise descriptions of his monstrous creatures, their histories, their habits--Lovecraft even spends a few paragraphs telling us how they like to furnish and decorate their living rooms. A tip for writers of the supernatural: if you want a being to be mysterious and unsettling, don't go off on a tangent about its commitment to feng shui.
In the Annotated Lovecraft, where I most recently read this story, noted critic S.T. Joshi claims that Lovecraft wasn't a pulp author, but something else, something greater--yet this story, one of Lovecraft's most well-known, is rife with all the worst habits of the pulps: pointless details, repetitive descriptions, crutch words, extensive exposition, little change in tone or voice, convenient plotting, and impossibly insightful protagonists. Beyond that, Lovecraft doesn't even deliver on those things that make pulps worth reading in the first place: verve, action, dynamic characters, and tension.
The whole story is basically a scientist explaining to the reader a series of carvings that he's looking at. The actual plot--the fact that he and his team of researchers are trapped in Antarctica and think that something is killing them off--is treated as a secondary concern.
The thin story is padded out by interminable details, the same comments and observations, repeated over and over, page after page. Like a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons, every new room is needlessly described: they entered a spheroid oblong, 63 yards long and 41 yards wide, the walls were worked stone, covered in carvings depicting some tentacled creature.
There are always carvings.
As we go along, the protagonist describes it all to us minutely, with a level of insight that grows increasingly laughable. At one point, he mentions that he can somehow tell, by a series of ancient stone-etched pictures left by an alien race, that they had lost the skill of telepathy and switched to spoken communication. In the real world, archaeologists struggle their entire careers to figure out what particular people, places, events, and objects are being represented in surviving remnants of murals, but our plucky narrator doesn't suffer a moment's confusion on how aliens artistically rendered telepathic powers some hundred million years ago.
Indeed, the entire expedition seems to have a level of knowledge and familiarity with 'eldritch tomes' and 'esoteric history' that is quite impressive. Keep in mind that these aren't paranormal researchers, but regular geologists, archaeologists, paleontologists, &c.--and yet, every time they enter a new room, they never fail to comment that this or that carving reminds them of something they once read in the Necronomicon. They throw off references to the mi-go and the shaggoth as if discussing nothing so remarkable as varieties of sparrow, and recall in detail historical events of a hundred million years ago with the utmost nonchalance.
Apparently, far from being an incomprehensible mystery the mere overhearing of which accursed syllables invokes incurable madness, the History of Cthonic Horrors is in fact a basic undergrad class required at all proper universities (and Marty's favorite topic when he's trying to impress drunk girls at the Young Scientists mixer).
Now, perhaps the fact that the narrator never fails to halt his headlong flight from horrid monsters in order to examine and explain the carvings is meant to represent the fellow's meticulous character--which brings up an important writing lesson: once a fact has been established in the text, it does not need to be reiterated ad nauseam. You don't have to mention the character's clothes and sword in every scene, because once those things have been described, the reader isn't going to suddenly assume the character is suddenly naked and defenseless just because the scene changed. Having the character demonstrate this trait once or twice in a story is perfectly effective, without wasting a lot of space reiterating.
Reading this interminably long list of details reminded me of nothing so much as discussing writing with a teenage would-be fantasy author: ask about his book, and he'll spend forty minutes telling you what color swords the southern nation has, how many priest-kings ruled in succession over the Lost Isles, what city-states exported the most grain in the decades since the mana-plague, and the convoluted rules he's put together for how a fire spell works.
In short, by the end, he hasn't mentioned anything that resembles a story: no sense of character, psychology, pacing, tone, plotting, structure, theme, climax, pivotal scenes, conflict, tension, style, language, dialogue--never forget that, when it comes to a good story, setting is irrelevant. Get together some costumes and props, build a set, arrange the furniture, get your lighting perfect, and guess what: you still don't have a play.
Yet you can perform Shakespeare in a blank room, all the actors dressed in nondescript black, and you'll still get a great story, great characters and emotions and moments. Change the setting to a space station, an elf kingdom, a Wild West boomtown, a port full of pirates, and it doesn't matter--the story is still the thing that carries it.
It's frustrating to watch an author just obsess over details, because overall, it's something they do to please themselves, not their audience. It's like a set dresser carefully filling all the drawers on set with realistic, accurate props that will never be used in the play, never seen by the audience. At some point, it's just a self-indulgent game.
However, that doesn't mean I don't understand the appeal of this story--indeed, it has consistently been popular, republished over and over throughout the years as a 'Lovecraft classic'. It's chock-full of exposition and explanation, and there are few things that fandom likes more. To have Lovecraft's world, his mysteries, his horrors laid out so simply, so fully, makes them easy to understand, easy to tie together--and easy to obsess over. That collection of little details, of the inner-workings of a fictional world is what much of fandom is built on.
A proper mystery, a story of true terror and fantasy doesn't give out simple explanations, because that would undermine the very sense of terror, of the fantastical on which such a story is based. Mystery and explanation are antithetical to one another: once the mystery has been explained, then the mystery has ended. Yet, there are many readers who come away from a fantastical story asking 'what really happened?'--which, of course, is the wrong question, because what really happened was that an author sat down and created a piece of fiction from his imagination. There is no reality outside of the story, the story exists to be a good story, to have feeling, pacing, and structure that works. A story does not actually exist in any concrete world 'out there' to be discovered and enumerated.
The error Lovecraft makes here (the same error Mike Mignola made with Hellboy recently) was taking a strange and fantastical world and trying to 'lock it down', to make it into something explicable, predictable, fundamentally known. Some might suggest that this urge opens up that world to other authors, by allowing them to know what 'really happened', but in truth, it closes off the world, it limits fundamentally what that world can be, and what stories can take place within it--not only for other prospective authors, but also for readers.
It shrinks the whole thing down and makes it more easily digestible--which is diametrically opposed to the supposed theme of Lovecraft's stories: that there are things, both objects and ideas that are larger than we are, that are too grand for us to ever truly understand, things that cannot be simply encapsulated through a simple summary of events. This story, more than any other, is a betrayal of the very thing that set Lovecraft's work apart, that made it interesting and influential in the first place. Instead, we get something along the lines of 'true tales' of Atlantis and the Hollow Earth that charlatans were peddling at the time, and which have since transformed into shows about 'Ancient Aliens' on the History Channel--and it's quite sad that that's the most visible legacy of Lovecraft's work--well, that and cute Cthulhu plushies....more
As ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would letAs ever, Moorcock is a wry, clever author full of ideas and insights, but he ends up rushing from one moment to another when I wish that he would let his stories play out. The characters and their relationships were intriguing and promising, but Moorcock tends to fall back on exposition instead of showing the development of his characters and plot through interaction and carefully-constructed scenes. The scope of his tales rarely seem to match the length of his books.
I have great appreciation for the freedom he allows his imaginative drive, so that he has no compunction about sticking a bit of inexplicable Lovecraftian time travel in as a framing story for his zeppelin combat narrative. That sort of pulp zaniness combined with an authorial voice that can be subtle and clever and precise will keep drawing be back to Moorcock's writing--indeed, he is an inspiration for authors of speculative fiction, if only he'd spend a little more time polishing up.
Some of his political satire was a bit rough, lacking in the precision that makes satire truly effective, but other sections showed a much lighter, knowing touch. Likewise, there were errors in his structure, particularly the killing off of a certain character in a large battle that seemed entirely unnecessary--there was no apparent reason that he needed to be sent into sudden danger when he was, especially as the conflict could have been (and eventually was) resolved by a much simpler method. It seemed he was only thrown to the wolves to procure a bit of drama, which seemed rather cheap to me.
Hopefully as the series continues Moorcock will take a bit more confidence in his voice and let the story play out instead of interposing interesting scenes and rather more bland exposition....more
Why is Hesse's concept of enlightenment indistinguishable from mental illness? First, in The Glass Bead Game, we get the depiction of a 'secular saintWhy is Hesse's concept of enlightenment indistinguishable from mental illness? First, in The Glass Bead Game, we get the depiction of a 'secular saint', and the signs of his enlightenment are that he has stopped all his creative work, often sits lost in thought, making no sign he understands anyone speaking to him, and when he does respond, it is with a brief non-sequitur. He otherwise wanders the gardens day and night with a bland smile frozen to his face. Perhaps it's only me who looks at those symptoms and sees not enlightenment, but full-fledged dementia.
In this work, we get a picture of a secret organization of enlightened individuals who seem to be a collection of homeless vagrants that wander the countryside obsessed with certain mythical objects, and convinced that an ancient, powerful conspiracy is running the world. Once again, my brain keeps telling me that Hesse must be writing satire, since there is nothing that separates this vision of enlightenment from mental disorder.
The secret organization itself is the most interesting part of the narrative. It is a fantasy of magic, time travel, and Illuminist philosophy reminiscent of Italo Calvino's 'magical realism'. This odd vision of a world- and time-spanning sect of spiritual sorcerers was the most enjoyable and promising aspect of the book, so it was disappointing to me that it served only as a backdrop for a fairly bland story.
The narrative is also full of allusions to various historical and literary figures, events, mythologies, and philosophies, but I didn't feel that Hesse did enough to connect them together into something meaningful. As usual, his spiritual philosophy was only as powerful as its vagueness. I did like the notion of a narrative which created allusive meaning like a metaphysical poem--combining references with a central argument to create depth--but Hesse failed to resolve it into anything so insightful.
The weakest aspect of his presentation was the single-voiced, confessional style--something like a journal. Our narrator is constantly referencing interesting things that happened to him, but we don't actually get to experience them or understand them. Once again, vagueness is mistaken for profundity.
I would have been interested in seeing more of this journey, and the odd experiences that made it up, instead of them being merely name-dropped. I'm not saying Hesse should have made everything clear or provided some grand meaning--I think an in-depth description of these fantastical events would have helped deepen his conceptual world, and provide for the reader symbolic examples to help lead us along.
It's like those Lovecraft stories where the hero says 'the vision was too horrible to describe, its terror was beyond the meagre power of words to encapsulate it'--but then Lovecraft usually goes on to explain it, anyways--or at least he has an exciting, fast-paced story to make up for it. No such luck in Hesse.
Once again we have a central, masterful figure who knows all but reveals little--the notion of the great teacher who has the greatest of reputations, despite the fact that we never see him do anything to deserve it. Hesse helpfully tells us that people like him and feel comfortable around him, but I wish he had just made the reader feel that way about him instead of trying to convince us of the inner life of a flat character. If you cannot believably write the Master, then do not make him a character. As depicted, he could have easily been a charlatan as a guru.
Once again, I am reminded why I do not find bland spiritual wonderment enticing: the world is full of joy and wonder and mystery in infinite variations, so it always feels petty and false to me to try to encapsulate that in a vague symbolic experience, asking no questions and revealing nothing. I find it more enlightening to read an author with a hundred powerful and contradictory insights rather than a single, unified, featureless vision like this....more
I didn't realize that I had actually read something by Stephen King. I am quite familiar with a number of his stories from discussion; others from filI didn't realize that I had actually read something by Stephen King. I am quite familiar with a number of his stories from discussion; others from film adaptations. I know him chiefly as an amazing font of poorly-executed ideas and The Man Who Cannot End A Story.
Apt Pupil does not suffer as greatly as his others, though much of the psychology is quite silly and overwrought. As someone who finds WWII and the Holocaust to be blown out of proportion (especially in comparison to other, ignored genocides) the book's fixation did not resonate with me. However, the exploration of the darker side of man, especially as it relates to obsession with death, did. Another work that acted as an early representation of the 'kid with a gun' who has so captured the most frightened attentions of our society....more
Like the rest of the early books in the Hainish series, this one has a very familiar tone and plot. We have our isolated, alienated protagonist on hisLike the rest of the early books in the Hainish series, this one has a very familiar tone and plot. We have our isolated, alienated protagonist on his quest for one single goal through an unpredictable world which he cannot comprehend, making strangely disconnected romantic liaisons on the way, and constantly lost in thought about how human relationships are supposed to work.
But of all the series, this book uses these recurrent themes in the most interesting and naturalistic ways. The first half of the book, where the post-apocalyptic theme is most prominent, is the stronger portion. LeGuin gives us many brief vignettes of our protagonist's journey across the world, each one different in tone, each one modifying the character's overall experience and giving new insight to his fundamental quest of self-discovery.
Every encounter seems to reveal some aspect of the madness of humanity, but always remembering that in our mad obsessions and unpredictability lie also our wisdom, our unique experiences--something to be learned. It seems telling that LeGuin's standard character psychology of an emotionally stunted paranoid works best in a story about a complete amnesiac lost in a post-apocalyptic world of deadly dangers, but kudos to her for writing to suit her habits; it's a trick more writers should use.
The dystopian aspect comes on rather suddenly and completely changes the tone of the story, almost as if each half were a separate short piece loosely connected, except that the first half does not have a conclusion without the second to cap it. The dystopia of hidden psychics bears a definite resemblance to Slan, though LeGuin's is a more subtle and practised hand.
This latter arc is fairly exciting and interesting, but has less of the unique vision. Its tone of oppressive confusion is also somewhat repetitive, and might have benefited from the character actively switching between options rather than sitting inactively avoiding either one. The character does eventually come to a conclusion, but it would have helped the depth of the conflict if the character had more actively explored the sides rather than sitting and ruminating.
Then again, a lot of LeGuin's conflicts play out internally as struggles within the characters' minds. This is not a bad method, but I think such conflicts play out better when such conflicts are clearly demonstrated by the character's actions and patterns of speech and behavior, bolstered here and there by a thought, rather than descending entirely into the character and leaving the plot behind for the period of digression.
But despite these caveats, I found this the most varied and imaginative of LeGuin's books, with a truly engrossing combination of verisimilitude and hallucinatory imagery from the cusp of madness. I look forward to more LeGuin in the future, especially if this work is an indication of her evolution as a writer, who here seems almost to have found her ideal voice, if sometimes fleetingly....more
In my review of Left Hand of Darkness, the first of LeGuin's works that I read, I wondered whether she had the authorial depth to create another unusuIn my review of Left Hand of Darkness, the first of LeGuin's works that I read, I wondered whether she had the authorial depth to create another unusual vision, or whether her books were all of a similar tone. I admit I did not expect them to be quite this similar.
The first four Hainish stories, despite taking place on different worlds with different characters, all share tone, plot, theme, and character types. We have a male protagonist who has an important position in his society, but who is living through a period of upheaval and unsurety which renders his high position less useful.
He wanders through a strange world, lonely and confused, unable to connect with anyone around him. Despite this lack of connection, he still develops an obsessive romance with a woman despite remaining alienated from her. He continues to follow a path towards a single, constant goal for which he must sacrifice his love, his friends, and his sense of self.
Throughout the story, there will be hints and inferences about homosexuality, but despite foreshadowing, any such relationship will melt away shortly before the climax, never to be mentioned again. There will be a tone of fundamental isolation as the protagonist frets and ruminates about his relationships, which will always remain laconic and strained. He will form a relationship with a mentor character who will either die or disappear before he is ready.
It works better in some stories than in others. In the true isolation of a man alone on an alien world in Left Hand of Darkness, it is understandable, if still somewhat overwrought. In The City of Illusions, the story of a man who has lost himself in a world where he can rely on no one, it seems the logical conclusion for a protagonist who is fundamentally paranoid and truly alone.
However, in this book, it is less effective. We also do not have the interesting conceptual story of Rocannon's World, ingeniously blending fantasy with sci fi, so of the series, this book is the most flat. All the books are rather detached and stoic, so without a unique concept to explore, there is not a lot left.
Likewise, the story does not develop a coherent reason for the protagonist to remain so detached and unsure, even within his own society. If LeGuin is depicting a character with some sort of social disorder, she never depicts any of the other characters as finding his mode off-putting, which I certainly did. And beyond that, all the protagonists in the series have the same social problems.
Guilelessness is rarely good for an author, since they end up injecting themselves, their assumptions, desires, philosophies, and worldviews into their character without accounting for how it affects the story. For an author with a dull, stilted personality, this is a death sentence: no matter their intention, they will write a hidebound, dull book, returning always to their own natural level.
For an author with a skewed, unusual way of looking at things, it is somewhat less problematic, since their book and characters will tend to be interesting and unpredictable, but the problem is to keep things fresh while writing what are fundamentally the same characters, themes, and story over and over.
Ironically, this can sometimes be more of a problem for an idiomatic author, since their habitual stories and types will stand out more, not being able to fade into the background as easily as more common and recognizable character types and stories. It is easier to write repetitive stories when those stories already have an accepted place in the culture.
Most authors have a type, a mode which they write in, as evidenced by the 'Byronic hero' or 'Lovecraftian horror', but it is important for an author to challenge themselves, pushing the limits of what they can do, ensuring that each story is, in some way, fundamentally different, and to avoid writing a story which is a watered-down version of something they have already written.
LeGuin is usually good at creating differentiation in her stories; even if she keeps returning to the same character types and themes, at least the settings and subgenre material are different. As an adventure, this book is not bad, and we get some of LeGuin's odd world-building.
In addition, this story provides the background for the conclusion of the next book in the series, City of Illusions, which may be why it is a less in-depth story, itself. Though happily, the next book has some of LeGuin's best writing, so this one is hardly a sign that her talents are on the wane....more
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Scientific Prediction
It is easy to point to ce"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."
-Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Scientific Prediction
It is easy to point to certain works and state 'this is sci fi' or 'this is fantasy', but this has more to do with traditions and habits than with strict definitions. Fantastical works ostensibly look the the past, science fiction to the future, but both operate around grand myths, social meanings, and items of inexplicable power. Often, these items act as tangible moral forces, metaphors-made-real.
Each subgenre has pilfered from the other, so we have seen the tales of John Carter of Mars and Star Wars, fantasy stories with sci fi trappings, and also fantasy stories where magic becomes a replacement for technology, operating by a system of rules as thoroughly described as any technophile digression.
But there has always been room for stories which work between these genres, which use the concepts of both in conjunction, producing from the combination of things familiar a story which feels novel. Lovecraft played often with this line, indicating that every superstitious fear had a rational explanation--a system--even if we, as lowly humans, could never really understand it.
And some modern authors have taken this idea more literally, creating worlds which seem in every way to be magical fantasies, but which actually operate on far-advanced technologies. This was the twist of a certain author's famous series, but I found his execution much less interesting than LeGuin's take.
This story is anchored by an impresive prologue which rewrites a recognizable English fairy myth, seamlessly combining it with the corresponding sci fi tropes. Thus each instance of superstition or impossibility becomes something forward-looking and inevitable.
The story takes some cues from Lovecraft, showing how the disparate knowldege of the interacting cultures becomes the myth of one and the politics of the other. The reader is, of course, from a culture that lies somewhere between mythic past and star-spanning future, but still finds mutual sympathy with both despite the great distances involved.
LeGuin's knowledge and use of the tropes of each genre sets her apart as a conscientious, clever writer, and her ability to weave them together into a single story is even more impressive. Unfortunately, as she expands from the prologue to the story itself, she loses some of the drive of the shorter form.
The story is interesting, thoughtful, and continues to display those little gems of insight which tie the myths of magic to the myths of technology, but she does not take advantage of the longer form's strengths. She seems to feel the need for more and deeper character interactions, but never quite manages to demonstrate them.
As in Left Hand of Darkness, I felt a need for more: for her to plunge deeper, to take more risks, and to give us more of the moments she only hinted at. We also get a similar story of an alien lost in a strange world, traveling ever on with a specific but impersonal mission. He makes friends, but always distantly, and in the end, must give them up to achieve his ends. This method would have been more effective if those relationships had been more developed.
Likewise, we get a bit of telepathy here and there, but yet again, it is not important to the story, nor does she use it as an opportunity to explore something difficult. Even as she cleverly turns magic into technology, she fails to do much with the bits of sci fi magic that remain.
I appreciated what she achieved, but she extended the story to a length which exceeded its depth. Everything is laid out so exquisitely in the opening chapter that nothing after quite measures up to it....more
This novella collects two of Heinlein's earliest stories, both from 1941, but unlike other such combinations, the two stories were originally meant toThis novella collects two of Heinlein's earliest stories, both from 1941, but unlike other such combinations, the two stories were originally meant to go together, and form a continuous narrative. As this is a very early attempt from Heinlein, it wouldn't be surprising to find his writing rough and flawed, but it's an unexpectedly solid yarn.
His writing is direct and unobtrusive; something many authors aspire to, but few ever manage. Even at this early stage, his naturalistic prose sets him above van Vogt or other pulp authors.
The story, itself is straightforward; an adventure with some light politics and quite a bit of violence. It is also one of the earliest depictions of a 'generation ship' on a mission to colonize far worlds.
There is also a central philosophical theme, a staple in Heinlein, this time concerning the fact that the crew have grown exceedingly detached from reality, thanks to the long voyage. Numerous generations pass in space and the crew forget their mission, their history on Earth, and the most basic tenets of science. Instead they persist in a murky feudalism, fighting over territory in ship and considering 'Earth', 'The Trip', and the destination (Proxima) to be mystical, supernatural concepts.
Heinlein is able to play a quite amusing satire on religion, tradition, and ignorance here, successfully providing the characters with very realistic and unusual responses to the world based on their own limited understanding. They are not merely modern characters transplanted in place and time, Heinlein works hard to give them a psychology fit to their situation.
Unfortunately, in this brutal, superstitious, uneducated, warlike place, women are fully second-class citizens. Heinlein doesn't harp on this--in fact it rarely comes up--but when it does, it is not entirely pleasant to see. However, it's not an unrealistic portrayal, and it would hardly have made sense to depict a violent, ignorant society as having modern, egalitarian social mores.
Heinlein could have tried to make some stronger female characters living under this repressive structure; or alternately, used this as another opportunity to indulge in satire, but instead, we get a bit of the old sci fi boys' club. However, these occurrences are few and late in the book and hardly detract from the story, as a whole.
This is a well-crafted adventure story with satire, politics, and intriguing, active characters. Certainly not Heinlein's strongest work, but not without its charm....more
The problem with writing a racially-charged tale of madness and death, lost deep in an alien and antagonistic jungle is that you're going to draw compThe problem with writing a racially-charged tale of madness and death, lost deep in an alien and antagonistic jungle is that you're going to draw comparisons to 'Heart of Darkness', and that's not a comparison from which many novelists are going to emerge unscathed. The white men lose themselves in the brutality of the primordial past, going 'native', or even beyond native, but Ballard cannot match the furious voice or psychological insights of Conrad.
Ballard distinguishes himself as a competent and bold author, his style easily outdistancing his sci fi contemporaries. His prose is strong, his use of science thoughtful and inspired, and his setting intriguing. Of course, the very notion of a 'drowned world' is a bit suspect, as any researches into Nasa's water level software show: even with the most generous estimates, there just isn't enough water to cover it all. In a more fantastical book, like Kavan's Ice, we can take for granted that the setting is symbolic, not literal, but Ballard takes a more realistic approach. His use of constant, running floods alleviates some of that problem, and there still is land, made remote not just by water, but by temperature.
Generally, as temperature rises grow more extreme, they tend to affect colder regions more than warm ones. In the Eocine, when the poles were warm year round and the ice caps entirely melted, the temperature variance from equator to pole was relatively slight--a continuous rainforest ran from pole to pole. The temperature increase had a more pronounced effect on the cold areas than the warm ones, meaning temperatures at the equator rose a small amount, while those at the poles rose a great amount.
In the Mesozoic, a great deal of the high temperatures were the result of a combination of carbon effects and the fact that there was only a single landmass surrounded by water. Coastal regions always have less temperature variance, especially with the sorts of constant storms described in Ballard's book. These storms would also act to deflect a great deal of the sun's heat, especially as they seem to be concentrated around the equatorial regions. But these are relatively minor concerns, and Ballard's setting was strong enough to suspend disbelief, and did not delve too deeply into explanation or theory.
His sweltering jungle world is reminiscent of Armina's Garden: the place which is too green, too full of life, so vibrant and pulsing that it grows dangerous. Everything is wet, overgrown rot, the sort of place that birthed malaria, an overabundance of frantic, competitive live for which soft man is hardly suited. His sci fi contribution to this trope is the metaphor of the primordial womb: the return to an earlier state. In this he evokes the early Twilight Zone notion of 'reversible evolution', though his depiction is less ridiculous.
But Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' also posits a return to an earlier psychological state, a reversion in which the 'civilized' white men grow even more brutal and depraved than they imagine the natives to be. And like Conrad, Ballard tries to trace this reversion through the psychology of his isolated, increasingly inhuman characters.
But Ballard's psychology is not as variable, not as complex. The characters all speak in the same tones, all make the same sorts of observations, and all seem instantly to comprehend one another's minds. He seems to be trying to build a continuous, shared psychology for these latter men, to paint his reversion in absolute terms, but it is all a bit convenient, and undermines the conflicts between the characters. Their inner thoughts are explained to us, their speech prefaced by redundant adverbs.
And this exposition is a part of his general style. His great central metaphor is also brought up often, then explained matter-of-factly. It is not an undercurrent but a tangible presence in the book, something overt which all the characters seem to understand implicitly. Yet each time we see it, we are not getting a new, contrasting view, as Conrad would give us, but the same images and observations, over and over.
His use of figurative language is mixed. Though it sometimes hits the right mark, the constant repetition means that much of it becomes stale. some authors use such repetition to lull us, to create a poetic style where certain words, through repetition, gain more meaning over time. The author can use the word to invoke a series of related ideas and then add another layer or provide a contrasting observation.
Through such a style, authors can create a dreamlike feel, pervaded with ideas. While Ballard can be dreamlike, he breaks up this mood by his over-explanation. The problem is, if a motif must be explained every time it is brought up, that indicates that the author has not properly established it. Instead of progressing through the idea as the story goes on, the author keeps dragging us backward.
It felt like Ballard wanted to talk about it, but every time he returned to it, he found he had nothing new to say. Part of this might be because the book was expanded from a smaller story, but I'm not convinced it needed expansion. If anything, it could use some editing down.
Ballard does have a literary sensibility that I respect, and I appreciated his mythological allusions, but I didn't feel like this book was a concise exploration of the concepts he brought up. We start off hard sci fi, then quickly drop into what seems like a mystical exploration of the mind, then Ballard leaves that on the back-burner for a bit of suspenseful adventure.
There isn't really a good balance between the slow, psychological introspection and the basic adventure plot, and due to repetition, the introspection rarely elevates the story above what it might otherwise be....more
An unexpectedly delightful book, one of the first I've read that really captures what I've come to think of as quintessentially British humor, the sorAn unexpectedly delightful book, one of the first I've read that really captures what I've come to think of as quintessentially British humor, the sort later typified by Wilde and Wodehouse. The pointlessly loyal teller of this tale is one of the best examples of the 'Unreliable Narrator' that I've seen in fiction, and seems to be a prototype for a similarly humorous servant in Collins' 'The Moonstone'. Add in the political and social satire concerning Anglo-Irish relations and you've got quite the solid little novella....more
Like most people, my familiarity with Conrad began and ended with 'The Heart of Darkness', a famously dark, brooding, visceral dredging up of human flLike most people, my familiarity with Conrad began and ended with 'The Heart of Darkness', a famously dark, brooding, visceral dredging up of human flaws. While I certainly enjoyed the moral explorations and stylistic form of the work, I didn't feel the call I feel after reading some authors that leads me to seek out their other works. 'Heart of Darkness' had plunged fully into its themes, it touched the murky bottom of the human soul, and returned with a handful of black silt for the reader to bear with them through life. Not only was the book complete, but it was a rather emotionally overwhelming experience, providing a lifetime of retrospect. What is gained by taking the plunge again, under a new title?
Little enough, I thought. Other than his magnum opus, Conrad is rarely shown the light of day, having been grouped with other 'colonial' writers like Haggard and Kipling. Yet after watching Ridley Scott's film adaptation of this story, my imagination was piqued. It is extremely true to the original story, and though there are some grim glimpses of war, it is by and large a humorous (if somewhat sardonic) story of the Napoleonic wars.
His historical romp feels much like a simplified 'Three Musketeers', and shows off Conrad's excellent pacing and sense of place. Like Melville, he also gives us a rather unique and precise historical view, replete with details and mood. It still retains much of the realism and grit of 'Heart of Darkness', but while that presents a failed adventure that soon spirals out of control, 'The Duel' takes a more romantic tack.
It's surprising to see such a delicate and varied hand from Conrad, especially as he rarely gets credit for it in literary discussion. 'Heart of Darkness' is such a powerful and contentious book that it seems to have taken over Conrad's reputation. He is so often the touchpoint of post-colonial, post-feminist, multicultural debates that he becomes merely a symbol. It is unfortunate that he is not looked on more often as simply a writer, and not a bad one, at that....more
A good book to be taught in tandem with Lolita, methinks. A literary achievement with the psychology of Tolstoy and a Greek commitment to The Story; aA good book to be taught in tandem with Lolita, methinks. A literary achievement with the psychology of Tolstoy and a Greek commitment to The Story; and that is not the only thing about this book that is 'Greek'. A treatise on Death, Life, Sex, Desire, and Fear, Death in Venice is both enticing and terrifying, and for the self-same reason.
Here is the face of wretched animal man, teeth bared, cloudy desperation mocking his vision. Mann's succinct and powerful images are always reversed: the raw and brutal emotion herein is become feral, mitigated only by how it twists back upon itself as only such a morally indistinct, labyrinthine mass may so twist.
Eminently pleasing and disturbing, this battle between the barely-restrained Epicurean and the resignedly Absurdist meets the latter's comic fruition in the former's faux-tragic inaccessibility....more
By the latter part of the 19th Century, the colonial spread of European powers across the world was in full swing. The British ruled India and AustralBy the latter part of the 19th Century, the colonial spread of European powers across the world was in full swing. The British ruled India and Australia and had gone to war with China to force opium on the population. Africa, South America, and the Philippines had been portioned out for Western rule and control of resources.
But tyranny does not travel only in one direction, from conqueror to subject. When Medieval European knights returned from the crusades, they brought with them mathematical principles, Greek and Roman texts, and thus was the European Renaissance kindled by the Light of Islam. Africans were brought to America as slaves, but even being scattered and mistreated did not prevent them from changing the culture, gifting us with blues, jazz, and African-descended words like 'funk', 'mojo', 'boogie', and 'cool'.
It was the same with the colonial powers of the fin de siècle , who brought back stories, myths, fashions, art, and philosophies from all over the world. Many Europeans grew obsessed with these foreign religions, finding in them both universal truths of human existence and completely new modes of thought. Organizations like the Theosophical Society were formed to explore these religions--it was all the rage.
But there was a problem: they got almost all of it wrong.
A Frenchman could spend his entire life learning the intricacies of Greek and Hebrew in order to study Catholicism--its origins, philosophies, schisms, heresies, and history--and still find that, in the end, there is much he does not know, and that he'd made many errors along the way. This, despite the fact that his culture is already steeped in it, he can go and speak to one of hundreds of experts any time he has a question, and has access to a complete library of texts on the subject written in his own language, and by people of a similar culture.
Now, imagine our 19th Century Gascon trying to do the same thing with Buddhism, where not only the original texts on the subject but the histories and analyses are in not merely a foreign language, but a completely different language branch, where the experts are from a different culture and speak a different language, and where the complexity and depth of history are just as vast.
It's no wonder that the Theosophists and similar groups ended up with garbled, mistranslated, simplified versions that combined opposing schools of thought haphazardly. As an old philosophy professor of mine once said: "You can learn a great deal about German Protestantism from reading Siddhartha, but almost nothing about Buddhism".
What ultimately emerged from the Theosophist movement was not a branch of Western Buddhism, but the 'New Age Movement': a grab bag of the same old Western ideas dressed up as mystical Oriental wisdom. Indeed, the central idea of the inane self-help book 'The Secret' and of Siddhartha are the same: the 'Law of Attraction', which is not a Buddhist principle.
Like most of Hesse's work, it belongs in the 'Spiritual Self-Help' section, where vague handwaving and knowing looks are held in higher esteem than thought or insight. It's the same nonspecific mysticism he shows us in The Journey To The East and The Glass Bead Game, where the benefits of wisdom are indistinguishable from the symptoms of profound dementia.
If you want to understand Buddhism, start somewhere else, because you'd just have to unlearn all of Hesse's incorrect arguments and definitions. Happily, we have come a long way since Hesse's time, with experts and commentaries in many different languages available to the avid student. But, if you'd like to see someone try to explain the principles of Lutheranism using only misused Hindu terms, this may be the book for you....more