Category Archives: Science Fiction and Fantasy

The thin grasp of reality (Ray Bradbury’s poetic SF)

In my first year of undergrad, I was deeply offended by a dismissive sentence in my English lit textbook, setting aside all ‘genre fiction’ — mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, horror — as not being for the literati or being great, interpretive, artistic literature. It’s been 15 years, so I honestly don’t recall the wording. But something to that effect.

I was offended, of course, because I was 18 and a science fiction and fantasy fan, and all 18-year-olds are easily offended by people who challenge the stuff they like. Nonetheless, even if a lot of SF is pure escape (which may still be art, after all), a lot of it is also great literature. If only more people read it!

I am slowly, one story every once in a while, working my way through Ray Bradbury, Stories, Vol. 1. Whenever anyone disregards the entire genre of science fiction, dismisses it with a sniff, looks down his’er nose at it in scorn, I think fondly on Ray Bradbury and his poetic science fiction. This morning, I read his story ‘No Particular Night or Morning’. This is a snapshot of life aboard a rocket ship in the vast emptiness between the stars. One character, Hitchcock, has started to lose his grip on reality. If he can’t see it, can he know it’s real? Does earth exist — has it ever existed? The sun? Yesterday?

Soon, he begins to doubt the very fabric of the present moment. Are the people in the next room real? Is his friend Clemens, standing in front of him, real? How can Clemens prove his reality to Hitchcock?

One of the things that makes good science fiction very good is when it is a story that needs its imagined context. That’s a tall order at times. One could imagine a similar story to this aboard a sea vessel. Yet in the sea there is still day and night. In space, there is nothing but an endless night. The psychological effects of long-term, interplanetary space travel would probably be grievous. But they are rarely explored in the staples of our SF diet, not in Star Trek, barely in Battlestar Galactica.

You can read this story as just a psychological thrill, the horror of deep space.

But it penetrates to one of the big questions of human existence, interstellar or earthbound.

How do we know what is real? Why do we trust our memories? Why do we trust our senses? Why trust our reason? Indeed, can we trust our memories, senses, reason? Pontius Pilate comes to haunt us, ‘What is truth?’

Ray Bradbury thus brings us from simple entertainment to the horrors of our own inner life, into the realm of psychology, philosophy, theology. This is the sub-branch of philosophy called epistemiology.

How do you know you are real? How do you know that I am real? Least real of all, this digital life. Go feel the sun, kiss your children, eat some pie. Hope that it’s real before it’s all gone…

The Mighty Thor as told by Walter Simonson

I almost entitled this post ‘The Mighty Thor as told and drawn by Walter Simonson’, but the drawing is part of the essence of the medium of the comic book; it is part of how the story is ‘told’ in a broad understanding of the verb ‘to tell’. And Simonson both wrote and drew The Mighty Thor, issues 337-382 (Nov. 1983 – Aug. 1987).

I recently finished the fifth volume of the collected work of Simonson’s Thor saga by Marvel Comics. It was a great ride. I like comic books from the 1980s. There was a strong emphasis upon telling a story, as well as about making each issue count; you don’t have to buy four issues to get a story. However, if you do read four issues of Simonson’s run on The Mighty Thor, you’ll find yourself reading many stages of one big story. Any issue can be your first, but if you stick with it, the story continually expands from the point where you began.

It is, of course, this interconnectedness that makes Simonson’s telling of Thor strong. From the first issue, we see the sword of Surtur being forged, but have no idea what this means, who this is, where this is going — or even what is being forged, at first. Only over the span of multiple issues does this become clear. Meanwhile, we have Thor and Beta Ray Bill; we have Loki scheming; we have monster battles in New York; we have Malekith the Accursed. Yet there is a trajectory for each individual story, tying it into the wider story.

Thus, Malekith leads to Surtur which leads, on the one hand, to Loki almost succeeding at his conquest of Asgard, and on the other hand, Thor and co. riding to Hel. This latter leads to Thor’s curse, which leads ultimately to new armour, Jormungand, and the end of Simonson’s run. Loki seeking Odin’s throne connects us with Balder the Brave (whose miniseries is included in the collected volumes). As I say, it’ s a good ride.

And it should be! J.R.R. Tolkien presents the argument in his essay ‘On Fairy Stories’ that English literature, because it’s greatest writer was a poet and playwright (Shakespeare), has missed the importance of good stories, with real plots (good plots, complex plots, entertaining plots), overvaluing the internal psychology of characters, which is the sort of thing plays lend themselves to. It’s an interesting hypothesis. Simonson has given us plot, story, a wild ride.

And this makes sense. Super hero comics were originally born as light reading for young boys. That mature women now also read them is good. But the increased sophistication of comic books should not mean a concurrent abandonment of story. Simonson shows us how you can tell a somewhat narratologically complex story through the visual medium of comics.

Such emphasis on a quality plot also makes sense because this is Thor. Walter Simonson knows his Norse myths. He draws his Asgard with an eye on Viking-age Scandinavian material culture. And he interweaves various aspects of Ragnarok into his run in The Mighty Thor, as well as other, broader characters, settings, themes, and stories from Old Norse mythology. There is a narrative realism to the mediaeval sagas — they and the Eddic poetry still tell good stories, whether we think of Njal’s Saga or the Volsunga Saga or the Voluspa.

Simonson also knows his superhero books. So we have traditional superhero tales alongside Viking-style tales alongside some sci-fi. It’s great.

In a very mediaeval sense, it’s romantic. And that’s, alongside the epic, is just what I love.

My review of The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe

The Citadel of the Autarch (The Book of the New Sun, #4)The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the fourth and final volume of Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun — I’ve already reviewed The Shadow of the Torturer which comes first. The first volume helped give us the lay of the land and introduced us to Severian and his far future Urth (that is, Earth) in the last days of the Sun. At the end of that volume, Severian enters exile.

The next two volumes follow the journey motif common to much fantasy — of course, as my review of the first says, this is not quite fantasy as we know it, but a sort of ‘science fantasy’ in the far future. This volume ends the journey motif, not that Severian stops moving around.

Honestly, I was not that interested in the chapters about the fighting in the war, which is why it took me so long to get through it. But immediately following those chapters, the knots start to unravel. Or maybe the loose ends start to be woven together? Whatever the metaphor, stuff happens, and things are revealed that make sense of episodes in the earlier books and various allusions Severian has made throughout.

For example, we learn about the New Sun and what it would take for it to come. We learn more about the ‘cacogens’. We learn about the Autarch and why that is his name. Big cosmic ideas come into play about time, dimensional travel, the universe. As well, my main suspicion about Dorcas was confirmed, but there was a further revelation I never suspected (ooo … the suspense!).

Tying together all these strands of narrative, of description, of enigmatic references from earlier volumes was done deftly. It could easily have descended into too much, too fast. Or large amounts of exposition. But it was done very well. However, I do recommend reading all four volumes in a short span of time. Because Wolfe ties all the strands together, and unloosens all the knots, by the end of volume 4, we have a complete but by no means exhaustive view of Severian’s society, its past, and its future. For those who like world-crafting, I believe Wolfe has done an extraordinary job in creating a rich tapestry without bogging us down all the time with explanations. Indeed, despite my reference to a ‘complete’ view, much is left unexplained — but that’s kind of the point.

All in all, a triumph.

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The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The Shadow of the Torturer (The Book of the New Sun, #1)The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book because it was amongst the interesting-sounding novels discussed in A Short History of Fantasy — of course, in certain respects this sounds more like science fiction, set as it is in the extremely distant future. Nonetheless, the feel of the novel is that of fantasy, with a certain amount of low-tech material culture.

As the title of the quadrilogy says, this is the the Book of the New Sun. Some of the fantastic elements derive from the transplantation of extraterrestrial species on Urth in the generations of human space travel. Other things are possibly due to evolution. The inorganic elements of fantasy are a similar combination — extraterrestrial artefacts and creations of the deep history of human tech.

But none of this is why I heartily recommend this book. All if it is, however, partly why this is not your run-of-the-mill piece of SF. Nevertheless, the unfolding of Severian’s narrative from the Citadel and beyond is itself compelling. Once it gets going, the plot hooks you and pulls you along with it; the world of Urth and its dying sun is revealed and unfolded before you as you learn more about the main character and the various other people with whom he interacts in the Citadel and city of Nessus.

I admit, though, that I found it awkward for the first few chapters. Part of the feeling of the exotic that Wolfe gives us is the use of Greek-based words for stuff that does not exist in our world, and not always with a description of this hitherto unknown plant/object/animal. This, and the whole in medias res made the very beginning a bit difficult. But once the scene is set, and the world unfolding, then the plot gets moving and hooks you, pulls you in, and you follow Severian on his journey…

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Ghostly logic

In The X-Files, Scully routinely states not simply her objections to paranormal or extraterrestrial explanations of otherwise unexplained phenomena in terms of ‘science’, ‘rationality’, ‘logic’, but also the fact that some of the things she has encountered cause her to doubt science, or something to that effect. She believes in reason, logic, science.

I was recently reminded of Scully’s attitude whilst staying in a reputedly haunted research institution. One night over a conversation where the local ghosts were raised, one of my friends expressed disbelief not simply in those particular ghosts, but all ghosts in general. When asked why, the response was quite Scullyan: Because I believe in logic and science.

This led me to attempt some sort of annoying Socratic questioning of the premisses that lie behind such statements. What, precisely, is illogical about ghosts? As such conversations do, my (perhaps) aggressive line of enquiry went nowhere, and a plea of, ‘It’s late,’ led to mercy on my part.

I think, however, that ghosts are a good test case for questioning the Scully approach to unexpected, extraordinary phenomena and what we think we mean when we claim belief in ‘logic and science’. Why? Because few people are especially emotionally invested in the question of ghosts, unlike the questions of God or specific miracles. I, myself, find most ghost stories suspect.

First of all, what are ‘ghosts’? Ghosts are the disembodied spirits of the physically dead. In the context of The X-Files and haunted research institutions, ghosts are specifically the disembodied spirits of the physically dead who are in some way present in physical locations and who can make their presence known through certain auditory and tactile phenomena.

Why might one reject ‘ghosts’ altogether? Reasons to reject the notion of such ghosts altogether are an unthoughtful rejection of all extraordinary phenomena unexperience by oneself. Thoughtful people will similarly reject ghosts on the premiss simply that the supernatural or numinous does not exist — or a belief that the human person has no spirit. Others will reject ghosts on the premiss that we live in a two-storey universe; even if the physically dead persist in a spiritual existence, they cannot interact with us, nor we with them, like the gods of Epicureanism. A fourth group will reject ghostly encounters as representing contact with the physically dead on the grounds that divine judgement does not leave a place for such spirits to roam free amongst the physically living.

All of these belief systems, as it turns out, require a set of assumptions well before one approaches the stories of ghostly phenomena and extraordinary encounters.

What is necessary for a belief in ‘ghosts’?

First, one must recognise some sort of supernatural/numinous/spiritual element to the composition of the universe. The true atheist or the committed agnostic, the materialist, will not believe in ghosts. However, there is room within theism, even deism, and animism, for the presence of the ghostly dead amongst us.

Belief in the numinous, contrary to what the New Atheists tell us, is not itself irrational or contra-rational; contrary to the Christian apologists, it is also not the most perfectly logical way of believing. No such perfectly logic worldview exists, for humans and reason and our ability to experience phenomena, are flawed. To date, the best argument for the supernatural I have met is C. S. Lewis, Miracles, although there is a chapter in N. T. Wright’s methodology section of The New Testament and the People of God that also presents a different approach that can be helpful to some.

Second, after believing in the supernatural, one must be willing to believe that the physically dead have a spiritual, or ‘ghostly’, existence beyond the death of the body.

Third, one must believe that said spirits can, and sometimes do, co-exist with the physically alive on this plain of being.

Fourth, one must believe that a being normally invisible and intangible can, under some circumstances, be able to make itself known to those of an ordinary physical existence through visual, auditory, and occasionally tactile phenomena.

All four of these are not scientifically verifiable. This is the problem with metaphysics and ghostly logic. Science, formerly ‘natural philosophy’, has as its purview the ordinary workings of the physical universe as verifiable through controlled and precise observation, measurement, and experimentation. Science, as a field of human knowledge, can tell us nothing about the possibility of ghosts.

These premisses do, however, have logical arguments both for and against them. Since science cannot help, all such arguments will remain inconclusive. That’s part of the fun of being human.

Some people, however, have tried to prove ghosts scientifically. I’ve watched some of their ghost-hunter documentaries, and none of them is convincing. Perhaps I remain unconvinced because I do not share their premiss — the presence of spiritually active psychological entity will leave behind some sort of physically verifiable trace such as energy or hot and cold or suchlike other scientifically verifiable phenomena.

Returning to the haunted research institute, one of my other friends responded that he also had not formerly believed in ghosts. However, his encounter in the library at 4:00 AM with a non-visible person who had the auditory phenomenon of coughing directly behind him has changed his mind.

If one accepts enough paranormal/supernatural premisses to believe that spirits of the physically dead may sometimes roam the earth with the physically alive, the question remains of how to deal with the ghost stories. Logic and rational enquiry can help us here. For example, alleged photographs of ‘ghosts’ have often turned out to be distortions in the cameras field of vision that have a non-supernatural explanation within the physical world as verifiable by science. I believe they are sound-waves.

What of the many anecdotes? First, ask whether the person is reliable. Some people fib. Other people exaggerate, whether purposefully or accidentally. Second, if the storyteller is a known, reliable person who seems, by and large, rational in their approach to the world, ask whether or not there is another, and preferably better, explanation for the phenomenon described. A house creaking at night as it settles. A physical person in the shadows but unseen to the storyteller. A small earth tremor that caused something to move.

Of course, even if a story meets such criteria, the encounter may not be supernatural; it may simply be currently inexplicable by science’s measure, or it may have been a misdiagnosis of the facts by the one reporting it. Furthermore, a paranormal or supernatural encounter need not include a ‘ghost’ as narrowly restricted to the spirit of a physically dead human person. Traditional Christianity believes at least in angels and demons. Many Irish believe in a variety of paranormal beings conveniently labelled ‘fairies’ in English. Most ancients and animists also believed in a variety of non-visible, supernatural beings, including the invisible dead.

I, myself, have yet to hear a story about ghosts that leaves me entirely convinced that the spirit of a physically dead human being manifested itself to someone. But I also remain unconvinced by the premiss that the spirits of the physically dead roam the earth. This has nothing to do with ‘science’, however, but to do with a variety of other premisses and pieces of logic from elsewhere in my worldview.

Nonetheless, I am open to being convinced.

Elves are not men – Tolkien

In a note to letter 212 in The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, the master of fantasy writes:

In narrative, as soon as the matter becomes ‘storial’ and not mythical, being in fact human literature, the centre of interest must shift to Men (and their relations with Elves or other creatures). We cannot write stories about Elves, whom we do not know inwardly; and if we try we simply turn Elves into men. (p. 285, second note)

This footnote caught my eye. Preliminaries are: Hobbits are men. Tolkien says as much in his letters, that Hobbits are part of the world of Men, not of Elves or of Dwarves. They a particular culture and breed of person who is, inwardly, human. This is important because the success of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings lies in their being told from a Hobbit’s-eye view. You start small, local, parochial, and expand into a much bigger, broader, badder world, hopefully changing for the better along the way.

Second preliminary is that here we see that Tolkien is well aware of the psychological aspect of the novel. In his famous essay ‘On Fairy Stories’, Prof. Tolkien is keen to point out that the main point of a story — fairy story, short story, novel — is not the exploration of the human psyche but the telling of a story; this is made as a genre distinction agains the more psychological mode of storytelling found on the stage, as well as the at times purely psychological world of poetry. Of course, the stage used to be filled with naught but poetry. (Something T. S. Eliot tried restoring with Murder in the Cathedral.)

Preliminaries aside, as a reader of fantasy and science fiction and occasional dabbler into world building (or ‘sub-creation’ in Tolkien’s terms), this is an important point that could be forgotten. When you read Tolkien’s descriptions of who Elves are, what their function in the Creator’s world is, what their nature/substance is, what little is utterable about their culture and society, it is clear that they are not human beings. They are Elvish beings.

This means that, besides immortality and a longing for a world where time stands still, alongside a capacity for sub-creative art and linguistic generation, Elves are psychologically distinct from humans. Their ways are not our ways. Their thoughts are not our thoughts. Their reasoning may be different from ours. Certainly their emotions are. Their longevity also means that they have an entirely different approach to memory, I have no doubt.

Tolkien is aware of the world he has made, as well as the limitations of the authorial act.

When I think on the Dragonlance novel Dragons of Autumn Twilight that I read aeons ago, it strikes me that the half-elven character was little more than a man with pointed ears and elf-skills. That is — his psychology was entirely human. This is no fault of the authors. I have a feeling it would take extraordinary dexterity that few, if any, authors have to be able to render an entirely alien psychology.

And if one were to succeed, I think the story would become much less accessible to the reader.

Here we see, yet again, the wisdom and care of Tolkien not just in creating his world but in writing his novels.

The Ages of Men (and Elves)

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

Fresco in Pompeii; makes me think of Paradise

One element I wanted to highlight in my last post, but couldn’t find a good place to do it, is Tolkien’s use of the term ‘Age’ to refer to the great epochs or periods of the mythology outlined in Letter 131 and given in full in The Silmarillion. When I think of ‘ages’ in mythology, I cannot but help of Hesiod. First, Tolkien’s ages:

  1. The First Age is the Age of creation and of the Silmarils, of the Valar and the creation of Elves and Men, of war against Morgoth. It ends in cataclysm and destruction.
  2. The next, the Second Age, is ‘on Earth a dark age, and not very much of its history is (or need be) told.’ (The Letters of J R R Tolkien, p. 150) The land is still ravaged by the enemy and war against him; this is the Age when the Rings of Power are forged and when Men are still living great and mighty, close to the Elves and the Valar in Númenor. It, too, ends in cataclysm, and the destruction of Númenor and the sealing off of Valinor from Men — the movement of all Men to Middle Earth.
  3. The Third Age is the Age of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, when Sauron’s power grows again and the War of the Ring is waged, the Ring finally being destroyed.

The Fourth Age is whatever comes next, I guess? Does it commence with the reign of Aragorn? There are no more Elves, the last having sailed West to Paradise. I believe the Fourth Age is our own.

In one of the earliest poems of the great western tradition, Works and Days, by Hesiod (a near contemporary of Homer), we read of the ages of man, lines 106-201. The five ages in Hesiod are:

  1. Gold — the age of Kronos/Saturn.
  2. Silver ‘less noble by far. It was like the golden race neither in body nor in spirit.’ (Hesiod, trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)
  3. Bronze, ‘sprung from ash-trees; and it was in no way equal to the silver age, but was terrible and strong. They loved the lamentable works of Ares and deeds of violence’ (Hesiod)
  4. The Heroes of mythology, ‘the fourth, upon the fruitful earth, which was nobler and more righteous, a god-like race of hero-men who are called demi-gods, the race before our own, throughout the boundless earth.’ (Hesiod)
  5. Iron. Us. ‘Would that I were not among the men of the fifth generation, but either had died before or been born afterwards. For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. But, notwithstanding, even these shall have some good mingled with their evils.’ (Hesiod)

Plato also discusses the Ages of Man in Cratylus, with explicit reference to Hesiod. When Ovid went through the Ages of Man in Metamorphoses 1, he took out the age of the heroes (logically enough), reducing them to four. Tolkien’s mythology is not, of course, primarily interested with Men but with Elves. Most natural-born mythology, on the other hand, has a primary concern with human beings as well as with gods (Elves are not gods; the Valar are).

The gods, of course, have their generations as well. Hesiod tells us of them in his Theogony. Ouranos begets the Titans who overthrow him. Kronos, a Titan, begets the Olympians who overthrow him.

We are all seeking the Golden Age, though, aren’t we? Here is the Garth and Dryden translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 1, on the subject:

The golden age was first; when Man yet new,
No rule but uncorrupted reason knew:
And, with a native bent, did good pursue.
Unforc’d by punishment, un-aw’d by fear,
His words were simple, and his soul sincere;
Needless was written law, where none opprest:
The law of Man was written in his breast:
No suppliant crowds before the judge appear’d,
No court erected yet, nor cause was heard:
But all was safe, for conscience was their guard.
The mountain-trees in distant prospect please,
E’re yet the pine descended to the seas:
E’re sails were spread, new oceans to explore:
And happy mortals, unconcern’d for more,
Confin’d their wishes to their native shore.
No walls were yet; nor fence, nor mote, nor mound,
Nor drum was heard, nor trumpet’s angry sound:
Nor swords were forg’d; but void of care and crime,
The soft creation slept away their time.
The teeming Earth, yet guiltless of the plough,
And unprovok’d, did fruitful stores allow:
Content with food, which Nature freely bred,
On wildings and on strawberries they fed;
Cornels and bramble-berries gave the rest,
And falling acorns furnish’d out a feast.
The flow’rs unsown, in fields and meadows reign’d:
And Western winds immortal spring maintain’d.
In following years, the bearded corn ensu’d
From Earth unask’d, nor was that Earth renew’d.
From veins of vallies, milk and nectar broke;
And honey sweating through the pores of oak.

I cannot leave unmentioned Vergil’s fourth Eclogue, where the poet imagines a world where a recently-born child will usher in a new Golden Age for the world. It is not, of course, a longing deep in the heart of the Greco-Roman soul, as Isaiah 11:1-9 remind us:

And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots:
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord;
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord: and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither reprove after the hearing of his ears:
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and reprove with equity for the meek of the earth: and he shall smite the earth: with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked.
And righteousness shall be the girdle of his loins, and faithfulness the girdle of his reins.
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.
And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’ den.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain: for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

Throughout the New Testament as well, there is a hope of undoing the curse from Genesis 3 and returning to the state of Paradise, the Golden Age of Adam and Eve.

This rests in all our hearts, and it is a driving force for us to see it realised to some small degree here, now, in this world. We all want Eden, the Saturnian lands — we all want Valinor in the West, where we can sail with the Elves and walk with the servants of Ilúvatar (God).

Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
-William Blake