McReady was a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life and walked.
—John W Campbell, Who Goes There?
McReady was a figure from some forgotten myth, a looming, bronze statue that held life and walked.
—John W Campbell, Who Goes There?
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization by Roy Scranton.
The short treatise Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization is pulled together from earlier articles and presentations by Roy Scranton, but it does cohere as a single piece. I found the title irresistible: not only does it evoke the deep philosophical tradition of “learning to die,” but the indefinite article in the subtitle serves as a hopeful reminder that our civilization is not the first, and with luck, won’t be the last.
Scranton is not sanguine about prospects for addressing the anthropogenic degradation of climate. He recognizes the socio-economic operations of the current global system as inherently unsustainable and incapable of effective reform. His chapter on “Carbon Politics” points up the attractiveness and the futility of protest-based efforts to inspire political change with respect to the energetic-material basis of our societies. This analysis is paired with “The Compulsion of Strife,” which traces the war and vengeance inherent in the origins of carbon politics, as well as imminent in the demise of civic structures.
Finally, his “New Enlightenment” calls for an embrace of the humanities, in order to maintain the memory of the dead. If we who will inevitably die are to have a further future, it will depend on our participation with the dead in systems of culture. This sort of humanism is needed in order to transcend the fear and aggression that our networked world propagates with nearly instantaneous speed through the nodes of our individual lives.
The book is bracketed by sections both called “Coming Home.” In the introduction, Scranton is coming home to the US, to witness in the devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina the same phenomena he had seen in Baghdad in the wake of Operation Shock and Awe. In the coda, he gestures to a mystical homecoming, in which we realize our identity with the fundamental mechanisms of change and perpetuation, under the figure of light.
To all the monsters hiding in this world, I hope the children will skin you alive. To the children in the world, let no one say you can’t make your monsters bleed.
—Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone
My definition of good management is the achievement of objectives through the manipulation of others.
—Jon Taffer, Raise the Bar
This second volume of Anthony’s Tarot trilogy is mainly made up of episodes powered by the exo-planet’s mysterious “Animations,” providing a curious course in comparative religion. There are episodes treating Buddhism, Vodou (elliptically via syncretistic religion on an alien world), and the initiatory mysteries of ancient Egypt. A secular two-chapter arc focuses on the protagonist’s college, with a set of recollections of his student career and a return visit in the future. This pair of chapters seem to have been derived from Anthony’s own experiences at Goddard College, and they sit awkwardly in the future history that the books have provided so far.
Four out of the eleven chapters treat the history of Christianity, with an unusually perspicacious reading of the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, a fair measure of “shaggy god story” in which Anthony’s hero strangely usurps the role of John the Baptist, and some not entirely faithful rehearsals from such visionary literature as Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The book’s hero is a liberal Christian with a strong streak of skepticism, and so this section of the book, as much as any, has him addressing his own religious preconceptions.
After all of that, I began to harbor doubts that there will be a satisfying development of the plot in the frame of Planet Tarot and its society. The Animation concept seems to be largely a device for Anthony to supply himself with a narrative sandbox for discussing social issues and history of religions. In a prefatory note, he writes, “this segment is unified around the social and religious theme,” so perhaps the resolution of the main plot in the next book will supply the coherence that the first two have lacked.
This book definitely had a few high points. The alien sexual ethics of the Nath were cleverly developed, and I especially enjoyed the ritual ordeals under the Sphinx at Giza. The Christian material was about equal measures of hits and misses, but I’m not at all discouraged from moving on to the third and final volume.
Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Strange Stars: David Bowie, Pop Music, and the Decade Sci-Fi Exploded by Jason Heller.
Strange Stars is a study of genre in 1970s mass culture, specifically science fiction in the dialogues among various media: music and printed literature, film, and television. Mostly, the influence runs from the literature to music, often through the other media, but there are significant reversals and loops.
The book is organized chronologically, with a chapter for each year from 1970 through 1979, and bracketing chapters for the late 60s and the 80s and beyond. David Bowie’s journey from the folksy rock of “Space Oddity” to the new-wave-infused “Ashes to Ashes” supplies something like a narrative framework, but much of the book consists of a sprawling inventory of any music or musicians engaged with science fiction. Despite “Pop Music” in the subtitle, the treatment is in no way confined to a Top-40 milieu. Prog, metal, glam, krautrock, funk, and disco were all key subgenres in the proliferation of sci-fi notions through music.
I read much of this book with the other hand driving the YouTube search on my computer, since it cites a fair amount of music previously obscure to me. I think that’s an optimal way to read this sort of music criticism, which demands a multi-media sort of engagement for full appreciation.
Strange Stars includes frequent discussions of the sci-fi sleeve art for music records, a topic that could justify an entire book of its own, and none of the actual images are reproduced. Heller aptly observes that the most iconic sci-fi album image of the era was the guitar ships of Boston (1976), a record which had nothing at all science-fictional about its lyrics or musical style. He suggests that the fact represented a watershed moment, when sci-fi packaging became a modish selling point as opposed to a hazardous design option (137). Certainly, with the release of Star Wars shortly thereafter, the trend was consolidated.
Heller has done an impressive job of sleuthing out webs of personal association as well as artistic influence. Next to Bowie, perhaps the second most conspicuous figure in the book is science fiction author and sometime musician Michael Moorcock, whose enthusiasms and lyrics, starting in the Ladbroke Grove bohemian scene of the late 60s, were perpetuated through his collaboration with Hawkwind, Blue Öyster Cult, and others.
I’m not sure that the rigorously chronological scheme that Heller used here makes for the most compelling reading experience. It imposes a need to leap around quite widely-separated developments in different musical genres and sometimes leads to a feeling of choppiness and atomization. In his acknowledgments, Heller credits his editor Ryan Harrington for transforming this work to narrative history rather than an “encyclopedia,” and traces of that original sort of reference-work composition persist in the finished book. Still, readers like me who forage for sub-cultural lore will find this book eminently satisfying.
Elric: The White Wolf is the third of the 21st-century French comics adaptations of Michael Moorcock’s anti-heroic sword-and-sorcery saga. The first two came out within a year of each other–at least their English translations did, in 2014 and 2015. But there was a wait of more than three years between the second and the third. I had been deeply impressed by the first two, and I’m happy to report that the third measures up nicely.
This volume does lack a foreword (the first two had them from Moorcock and Alan Moore) and for some inexplicable reason, publisher Titan Comics changed the design of the hardcover spine, so that it is not uniform with the earlier volumes. I’m very glad that the publisher is keeping these in a large page-format, rather than attempting to reduce them to American comics-sized pages.
The art is still highly imaginative and effective, and the writing continues to reinvent the Elric story in ways that depart from Moorcock’s original telling while only intensifying its underlying spirit. For anyone familiar with the original books, this volume of the graphic series will deliver a real sucker punch of a surprise ending! I hope that whatever trouble delayed this third number has been resolved, and that the fourth will follow apace.
Framed as an extended suicide note, the fictionalized memoir stylings of this James Morrow satire reminded me more than a little of the delightful novels of Lee Siegel. Topically, however, it was a fit with my recent read of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Lucky Strike, as science fictional reflections on human agency in the atrocity of the deployment of the atomic bomb.
The narrator of Shambling Towards Hiroshima is Syms Thorley, an emeritus monster actor of B-movie fame. While sometimes adverting to his 1980s circumstance in the wake of a fan convention at a Baltimore hotel, the book is mostly trained on his past involvement in a secret WWII military project intended to provoke Japanese military capitulation in the face of actual fire-breathing leviathans bred from iguanas.
The book is a quick read, with vivid, often hilarious episodes and an ultimately sobering message.
In Moondust, Thomas Burnett Swann chose to slot a novel fantasy into the biblical context of the sheltering of Joshua’s spies and the fall of Jericho (Joshua, chapters 2 and 6). It features a cryptid race, telepathic enslavement, an underground kingdom, and other standard tropes of the Edgar Rice Burroughs adventure yarn. “Moondust” is the true name of the harlot Rahab among her people, who are neither Hebrews nor Jerichites.
This is the second book I have read by Swann. The other was the later Cry Silver Bells, which had many points of similarity with Moondust in addition to being set in antiquity with fantastic creatures. Both books have an orphaned teen human protagonist, and a non-human female protagonist who is the love interest of the former. Each young man has an older sister who is a whore. In Moondust, a changeling/adoption scenario allows the sister-prostitute and the nymph to be collapsed into a single character, while the somewhat more sophisticated Cry Silver Bells distinguishes the two.
I gather that Swann’s work is now pretty thoroughly out of print, but I enjoyed this strange little book, and I expect to read him opportunistically in the future.
Irving Wallace’s novel The Fan Club was quite successful when it was published in 1974, spending nearly six months on the NYT best seller list and serving as the basis for a movie project that never got to the shooting stage. Like most popular novels of its period, it has since fallen into obscurity. It is a “thriller” about the abduction, rape, ransom, and rescue of a sex-symbol movie star. I read a portion of it in the 1980s and I came back to read the whole thing more than thirty years later.
Rather than a single psychopathic villain (cf. Straub’s Hellfire Club), the story offers a misfit team of perpetrators. This feature seems to be an indictment of masculine pack dynamics: the group is morally less than the sum of its parts, while operationally greater than them. This notion is bolstered by fact that the most practically capable and ethically depraved of the four culprits has a military background, having participated in atrocities as an American soldier in Viet Nam.
The four “fan club” malefactors are repeatedly identified by their roles, rather than proper names–first for purposes of concealment in the journal kept by their organizer, and then in the mental indexing performed by their captive victim. These roles–the Club President i.e. “Dreamer,” Accountant i.e. “Milquetoast,” Insurance Person i.e. “Salesman,” and Mechanic i.e. “Evil One”–seem to suggest an allegorical reading, where the diverse character types of the four could represent larger social functions, or even psychological components (e.g. self, super-ego, ego, and id).
Except for some passages from the notebooks of the Dreamer-instigator, the novel is told in an omniscient third-person voice, but using an assortment of characters for perspective orientation. For the most part, focus alternates between the fan club members on the one hand and their captive on the other, with all of the post-abduction rapes and assaults emphasizing her perspective. She does survive the ordeal, and it seems clear that she would not have done so without her own resourcefulness and personal agency.
By making his President/Dreamer character a writer, Wallace invites suspicion of an element of self-portraiture in this eventually declared anti-hero. This protagonist treats the predatory fan club as an “experiment” in the real-world manifestation of fantasy. Are we supposed to congratulate Wallace on having chosen to write a fiction rather than carrying out the sort of criminal acts about which he wrote? The decision here to leave the Dreamer at large and unrehabilitated may have been intended as a horror-style coda to signal the persistence of evil. But given the extent to which the entire novel might be construed as rape-as-entertainment, it does come off disturbingly as “no comeuppance!”–especially in today’s interpretive climate. While I do not myself insist on moral justice in fictional narrative, Emma Bovary this fellow is not.
In any case, I do think the book was more interesting than the only other Wallace novel I’ve read, the later Celestial Bed, which shares some of its preoccupations–even signaling them in the title, which featured as an invocation (with the same historical referent) in The Fan Club.