Monthly Archives: August 2006

Magical books of childhood

I have fond memories of various books that seemed magical when I was a child. But a few hold pride of place, and several have shaped the person I am today.

Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door is the first science fiction book that took me away to a magical place. Its anti-establishment, pro-alien, longing-for-home message has stuck with me and no doubt led to many of my liberal attitudes today.

A wonderful third-grade teacher read Charlotte’s Web and The Secret Garden to our class, and I reread both for myself soon after. Those two books called forth deep emotions, teaching me about death and disability and the solace of gardens and friends. Today, I’m an avid gardener, I try not to kill spiders, I deal with disability in my family, and I value my friends.

I sucked down one after the other of Andrew Lang’s fairytale books in various colors (The Pink Fairy Book, The Orange Fairy Book, and so on), fascinated that people around the world have so many different ways of telling the same basic stories. That comparativist reading experience surely marked me, because when I grew up I wrote a dissertation on Lang’s fellow comparative anthropologist James Frazer. When I was young, the beauty-and-the-beast variants were my favorite, and I still deeply love that romantic motif in all its guises.

In kindergarten and first grade, my father read to me the Jungle Books and a talking-animal book whose name I can’t recall. It may have been part of a series of books: lots of forest creatures, owls that hunted mice, no humans. Rabbits featured prominently. (Not Watership Down—something earlier, aimed at a younger audience. Perhaps one of Thornton Burgess’s books, but certainly not Peter Rabbit.) These books seemed magical because he read them to me.

There are more books, many more, but these are the most special: magical doors, not forgotten, between the secrets of childhood and the webs I weave today.

V for Vendetta

I just finished watching V for Vendetta on DVD, and I found it extremely powerful. The question of one’s responsibility in the face of an oppressive regime resonates strongly for me, given the current political climate. References to “America’s war” and the fear-mongering that convinces citizens to give up their rights in return for supposed protection from chaos, terrorism, and biological attack have a chilling relevance today.

Natalie Portman’s performance as Evey is intelligent, nuanced, believable. Stephen Rea’s performance as Inspector Finch offers the audience a sane center in the storm to relate to. And V . . . is insane, dangerous, warped, but thought-provoking.

The film is visually stunning. I don’t know the language of filmography, but the blacks and reds of the high chancellor’s chamber are stark, cold, and scary. In contrast, the brown tones and classic art in V’s lair seem all the more earthy, comfortable, valuable, and human. So many memorable images: the dominos that topple and leave one standing at the end, V’s slow-motion final fight, the pastoral setting and sun-saturated colors in Valerie’s movie, the overhead shot of Evey in the slowly falling rain paralleled by the shot of V emerging from the fiery wreckage of his prison, and the opening shots that show V donning his mask and weaponry intercut with Evey donning her makeup and work clothes. All these have strong emotional appeal.

The script contains nuggets worth mining. I particularly appreciate the line that says artists use lies to tell the truth, but politicians use lies to cover it up. If we citizens are denied the truth by our governments, we cannot make informed decisions; we become disposable pawns, collateral damage, or tools to ends that are not our own.

Personally, I don’t think blowing up Parliament is the way to solve our problems. But I respect the film’s message that we must not be passive as our governments make choices we may not agree with or as individuals consolidate their power over us by concealing truth and pretending to act in our names or our best interests.

Comparisons between the film and Alan Moore’s graphic novel are inevitable. But in this instance, I think the film stands on its own.

Hope Mirrlees’s Lud-in-the-Mist

I see why many laud Hope Mirrlees’s fantasy novel Lud-in-the-Mist. The prose is as delicious as fairy fruit, the sentences in the style of Virginia Woolf—intricate, laden with clauses like grapes on the vine, and as heady as wine, full in the mouth and producing a ringing in the ears that lingers long after you’ve closed the book.

The ambition is likewise admirable: philosophically meaningful commentary on the human condition, the importance of art in mundane life, the equally delusional nature of law and fantasy, and so much more, climaxing in clever tail-swallowing exhortation to beware the lying written word.

Yes, it’s the kind of book that one can write a dissertation on, find levels of meaning and message in, revisit and dissect and be enriched by. But it’s not one I can love, not one I can feel in my bones, not one I can don like a skin and walk the world in.

The book views art and sensitivity to art as a melancholic, vexed, even hexed, exchange that leaves one longing through a sleepless night, flinching at a harmless word, haunting a graveyard in nameless dread and envious of the impervious dead as one anticipates—oh! how sensitively!—loss of the present’s joys. If one suppresses one’s sensitivity, the agony intensifies, and one suffers—oh! how one suffers!—by turns achingly nostalgic for the prosaic present and drawn inexorably toward the tantalizing, fatal lands of Fairy. Feverish. Fearful.

But mine is a lumpen soul. These melancholic, elevated sensitivities do not speak to me. And thus, although the characters are fulsomely drawn, I don’t feel their plight: instead, I stand outside and observe them in their drawing rooms or kitchens or huddled in their beds, and I watch as the author shines her light on this foible, on that longing, on a curious admixture of base and noble, or ordinary and extraordinary, or philosophical and practical—and I think, yes, intellectually, I recognize these attitudes, these attributes, the arms and legs and flashing teeth of characterization. But I don’t feel them.

Preference: fantasy, or science fiction?

Overall, I prefer science fiction to fantasy.

One reason I prefer science fiction, although I love both genres, is because (generalizing wildly) science fiction can (more easily) incorporate aspects of fantasy, but fantasy can’t (as easily) incorporate aspects of science fiction.

But if I poke at that reason, it starts to fall apart. So maybe it’s just the intriguing aliens and the unexplored frontiers and the mysteries of the future—not the hardware so much as the heart of science fiction—that satisfies me. I grew up during the Kennedy administration, I wanted to be an astronaut, and I believed the dream of shiny space ships going to the stars. Tiptree’s “The Only Neat Thing to Do” made me cry.

Nowadays, when I write novels, I write science fiction. When I write short stories, I tend to write fantasy. I’m not sure why that is, but I suspect it is because science fiction sustains me, and I can sustain it for the length of a novel, whereas fantasy comes in flashes of inspiration that would fade away under lengthy scrutiny.

Science fiction is for building on.

Prophetic dream

I had a prophetic dream—one that came true the very next day—once and only once. And it was rather significant.

To understand the dream, you first need to know that I was looking for professors who would serve on my doctoral dissertation committee, and that several years before as an undergraduate I had taken a course in folklore from the internationally acknowledged expert Alan Dundes, but I had never talked to him in person (there were several hundred people in the class, and he just stood in front of us and lectured), I hadn’t seen him since then, and I hadn’t thought of him as a possible committee member.

The dream: I was in the stacks in UC Berkeley’s huge, multistoried, cavernous Doe Library, and I saw Professor Dundes. I went up to him and asked if he would serve on my dissertation committee. He said yes.

Reality, the next day: I was in the stacks in Berkeley’s huge, multistoried, cavernous Doe Library, and I saw Alan Dundes. I thought, “Weird.” But I was too chicken to go up and talk to him, so I walked away. About half an hour later, as I was leaving, I saw him preparing to exit the stacks. I went up to him, babbled about the dream that I’d had the night before, and asked him if he would serve on my dissertation committee. He said yes.

Mind you, this was back in the days before Doe Library was remodeled. At that time, the stacks were a fairly dark warren of metal caging approximately nine stories tall—or, rather, deep, because they descended underground. Cramped stairwells led from one story to another, and overburdened shelving ran in all directions, leaving little room to navigate. The flooring was made of clanky metal and disconcerting greenish glass. The overall effect was otherworldly and dungeonous—an atmosphere enhanced by the relative absence of other living souls, because in those days the stacks were accessible only to a limited number of people.

Which is to say that encountering anyone in the stacks, let alone Professor Dundes, was neither a frequent nor predictable occurrence.

Strange, then, that I was writing my dissertation on Sir James Frazer’s twelve-volume encyclopedia about magic, when I had a dream that magically came true about a man so steeped in folklore.

SF about the SF Bay Area

Science Fiction :: San Francisco —that has a certain capitalized symmetry, right? So I’m wondering how many science fiction books have been set, in whole or in significant part, in the San Francisco Bay Area.

I can think of six off the top of my head:

1. George R. Stewart, Earth Abides
2. Michaela Roessner, Vanishing Point
3. Pat Murphy, The City Not Long After
4. Lisa Goldstein, Mask for the General
5. Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
6. Mark Budz, Clade

Strangely enough, of those six, four are postapocalyptic, and a fifth could be included in that category if you push the definition. I don’t know what that says about the Bay Area—or, more likely, about my memory.

Stewart’s Earth Abides is a classic, detailing the well-realized consequences of a plague that wipes out almost all of humankind. The characters have depth, and the decline that follows a brief period of hopeful community-building is heart-wrenching. The setting and the ecology is no less thoroughly realized than the characters; to this day, some twenty years after first reading the novel, I vividly recall Stewart’s depiction of the various plagues of vermin and former pets sweeping through the Oakland hills.

Roessner’s Vanishing Point, set in the South Bay, features the Winchester Mystery House. This excellently creepy setting enhances the mystery at the heart of the novel: the inexplicable disappearance of nearly the entire human race. Most postapocalyptic novels explore only the day-to-day physical struggles of characters who survive the disaster, but Roessner explores the psychological consequences as well, making us feel how traumatic it would be to never know why—or how—so many of your loved ones have vanished, leaving you and a few others behind.

Murphy’s The City Not Long After is set primarily in San Francisco, where a band of artists cope with the aftermath of a plague that decimated most of humankind. The novel offers an enchanting vision of San Francisco, as art and science mingle in the fog to combat an invading army from across the bay. As with much of Murphy’s work, there’s an appealing fantasy flavor to her science fiction.

Goldstein’s Mask for the General tells the tale of a young woman who comes to Berkeley after an economic collapse has left a totalitarian dictator in charge of the United States. Animistic religion and animal masks are set in opposition to the general’s totalitarian rule—a hippies-against-oppression plot that suits the Berkeley setting. I enjoyed Goldstein’s depiction of the changes wrought by the economic collapse—especially her idea that people would live in the drained Hearst Gym pool, where I swam for years.

Dick’s Man in the High Castle isn’t postapocalyptic, per se. But it postulates an alternate-history San Francisco in which the Nazis and Japan won World War II, so it certainly belongs with the others in a larger category of Places After Disaster.

Budz’s Clade is more recent than the preceding five novels on the list. Set in the South Bay, specifically San Jose (where I was born and raised), it depicts a “gengineered” society of people trying to climb the social ladder—a plot that resonates with the South Bay as it exists today, packed with technological entrepeneurs mere streets away from barrios and immigrant enclaves.

There must be other science fiction novels that feature the SF Bay Area, but I can’t name them. If you can, please comment, to add to the list.

Geoff Ryman interview

Geoff Ryman is a Canadian writer whose novels and short stories have won several awards. He writes science fiction and fantasy as well as more straightforward literary work–and sometimes he gets downright experiemental, as he did when he wrote 253, one of the earliest online hypertext novels. He has taught many writing courses, including a workshop at Clarion, four workshops at Clarion West, a week’s writing course with Colin Greenland for the Arvon Foundation at Lumb Bank, and three writers’ workshops in Cambodia. And yet I am astounded (and somewhat ashamed) to say that I’d never heard of him until early this year, when I read his beautiful novel Was.

Was is a gorgeous, intricate, moving work that combines several narrative threads into one unified, powerful hole. The central “what if” postulated in the novel, which ties together the various threads, is that the Wizard of Oz is based on the real, entirely mundane life of a young, abused girl in 1870’s Kansas. Ryman interweaves the tale of that girl, who is slowly driven insane and ends up in a mental asylum, with three other narratives: one, about the making of the movie in the 1930s and Judy Garland’s life both before and after the movie; two, about a former horror star who is dying of AIDS in 1989 and is obsessed with Judy Garland and the search for the historical Dorothy; and three, about a psychologist who cares for the institutionalized Dorothy before she dies.

As you might expect from such a work, there are layers within layers. Overriding them all is the theme of the destruction of childhood—the childhood of individuals, and the childhood of a nation. But the novel doesn’t lack hope; it offers moments of grace and redemption. In an intriguing afterward to Was, Ryman discusses how U.S. fantasies and U.S. history collide, corrupt, and can serve as antidotes to one another.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Geoff Ryman for the Chronicles Network. If you’d like, you can read the interview online by using the link embedded in this sentence. Then, if Ryman’s thoughts about writing, teaching, and reading grab you, pick up a copy of Was. I dare you not to weep, as I did, all through the final eighteen pages of that novel—for what might have been, and for what was.

Joss Whedon and comics

I’m an enormous fan of all things Whedon—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and Serenity, of course, but also any other tossed-off bit of creative genius Joss Whedon cares to grace the universe with. And many years ago, I used to work in a comic store, spending much of my salary every week on comics that I would read and then seal lovingly in plastic bags. So you will understand my delight when I discovered that Joss also writes comics.

Recently, I gobbled up the comic prequel to the movie Serenity, then sank my teeth into Joss’s Astonishing X-Men. Way back when, I wasn’t a devoted X-Men fan; I appreciated them, but never got manic. (My mania was for the Avengers, their close mutant kin less beloved by most comics geeks.) But Joss’s version of the X-Men left me salivating for more.

In that messily drooling state, I trolled the web for tasty Joss crunchies and found a hilarious interview. If you’re a Joss Whedon fan, or you like to see comic and fantasy fans dressed up in costumes, you might get a kick out of the Geek Week video podcast called “Geek Week at Wizard World 2006.”

The podcasters had planned to film a joke about wanting to interview Joss Whedon but failing to find him. But Joss really showed up, pretended to be a fan dressed up as himself, and answered the interviewer’s questions. Much recursive nuttiness ensued. The rest of episode is chuckle-worthy, too: a guy dressed up as Wolverine is a hoot, and I laughed out loud as I watched a fan dressed as Mighty Thor carry a cafeteria tray and get ready to sit down to lunch while the theme music from the old Thor TV show blasts on the soundtrack. (No, I wasn’t laughing at the fan. How could I? I once attended a con dressed as Wanda the Witch: imagine my fat thighs in tights! Or better yet, don’t imagine.)

Here’s the link to the video podcast of the Joss Whedon portion of the episode. (If the URL changes, just go to search in “Geek Week Joss Whedon video.”)

If you’re a science fiction fan but haven’t yet watched Firefly, grab a copy on DVD and see what I’m raving about.

Pat Murphy’s Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell

I like to assign science fiction in my introductory college composition classes. The main reason is that I enjoy reading it myself and I’ve learned that students do, too. But I’ve got other, more pedagogical reasons. One is that science fiction empowers students who aren’t strong writers or readers but have strong skills in the sciences: the science majors can explain the science to the humanities students, and the humanities students can reciprocate by explaining the literature. Another more lofty reason is that science is important in today’s society, and I’d like all the students—even the science-averse—to see that there’s an accessible way to think about science without mastering equations.

Over the years, I’ve assigned a number of science fiction novels, including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Dennis Danvers’s The Watch, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, and M.T. Anderson’s Feed. But perhaps my favorite SF text to use in introductory composition classrooms is Pat Murphy’s Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell.

There are two things that make this novel so effective in the classroom. First, the students enjoy puzzling out the who-dunnit mystery at the heart of the plot, so they are quickly drawn into the novel and the reading experience without needing me to prompt them. Second, one of the main characters, Max Merriwell, is a writer who gives writing workshops aboard the ocean-going cruise ship on which all the characters are sailing.

In his workshops, Max ruminates on the nature of writing and the function of writing techniques, and he assigns writing exercises to his fellow passengers. His workshops not only offer clues to the mystery, but also function as explicit commentary on the writing techniques that Pat Murphy herself is using in the novel.

I bet you can tell where this is going . . .

Yep, I have my students perform the same writing exercises that Max asks his fellow passengers to perform. In doing these exercises, the wall between readers and characters collapses in interesting ways. The exercises give students another means to enter into the novel and to draw the novel out into their own lives. In doing the exercises, students discover ideas and techniques they can use in narrative or personal essays. And they gain insights into literary techniques, insights that they can use in literary analysis papers.

Another thing that absolutely tickles me about the collapsing of the walls is that the novel itself is about collapsing walls—walls between fact and fiction, between literary genres (the book reads like a cross between a mystery novel and science fiction), between hard physics and Eastern philosophy, between authorial and scientific creation, and more. If the book has a flaw, it is the ending, which some students find abrupt. But even that ending becomes a virtue, because it prompts a critical evaluation that reflects the students’ engagement and investment in the text.

I can’t tell you as much as I would like about how well this text works in the composition classroom, because I’d reveal too much about the mystery at the novel’s heart. Suffice it to say that, the more you unpack the text, the more pedagogically useful purposes you discover. (To tantalize you further with the possibilities of unpacking, I’ll just mention that Adventures in Time and Space with Max Merriwell is the third novel in a nonconsecutive trilogy by Pat Murphy: the first novel was supposedly written by Max using a female pseudonym; the second was supposedly written by Max under his own name; and the third is written about Max—and his pseudonyms—by Pat Murphy.)

If you’re searching for an engaging, thought-provoking, wall-collapsing novel to read either for your own enjoyment or to assign in a composition classroom, check it out!