Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Collected Short Stories of Philip K. Dick: Roog (1951).

It's one of those images that stays with you.  There's this field, somewhere in the middle of nowhere, USA.  There's not enough detail to tell just where all this takes place, however from the look of the faded, Autumnal orange of the trampled or wild fields of grain or grass that surrounds the main setup on all sides, it looks very much as if we're situated somewhere in or at a cornfield, located somewhere in Nebraska.  It's nighttime outside, and while there aren't that many stars out, one or two can definitely be seen shining above in the night sky.  The field has a plowed up look to it.  It's not the appearance you might associate with the look of scorched earth.  This one is a lot more natural.  You're able to get a sense of tranquility from it.  It takes a while before you mind registers that it's the same type of cultivation that is sometimes used for bits of pasture that have been converted into a baseball field.  There's no Major League quality to be seen anywhere.  This is the sort of ballpark designed so that maybe the neighborhood kids will have someplace to go, or maybe even a dream to shoot for, if the mood is ever right.  There's even some equipment to be seen in the picture, though it's not the stuff you can play a good game with.

Instead, it's a motley assortment of items.  One might even call them somewhat eyebrow raising.  The easiest pieces to discern, the ones closest to the viewer, are one of those old, Red Ryder style firearms, the ones you literally could have just sent for in the mail.  Beside it to the viewer's right is what looks like an oversized Jack-in-the-Box, designed to look something like a pre-schooler's alphabet block.  If the sight of the latched lid of the Box wasn't visible for all to see, we might be wondering what we're looking at.  Located just a foot or two away from the Red Ryder gun is an old library book, one of those, old, faded shelf dwellers with the paper well on its way to becoming parchment with the passing of years.  I can't tell if there's anything on the cover, and that's sort of a shame.  You never know, it could have been a good story.  Located just to the left of the book is a combination football, complete with helmet.  What's notable about it is the headgear looks like the kind they used to have for the game way back before the 1950s or something.  It served its purpose well, and its still so out of date that it almost looks like the sort of thing a space pilot would where in one of those old, cheesy matinee serials.  A few feet further away is what looks like either a bicycle, or some kind of engine device.

All of this is dwarfed, however, by the final prop.  It's the one image that helps define the picture, and let's us know just what it all amounts to.  Situated a few good yards away from all this pop-cultural detritus is the looming figure of a rocket ship.  It's not the viable, scientific, space-worthy type we know from NASA.  This is one of those sleek, dynamic models, the kind you can still find on the covers of old pulp magazines, the type of design you'd find in the work Norman Saunders or Frank R. Paul.  This is the image that adorns the cover of an old, 1995 anthology edited Kim Mohan.  It was called Amazing Stories, as I recall.  This is a picture I ran across some time ago, and it's always managed to stick with me, for some reason.  I guess a lot of it has to do with the way it acts as a neat summation, of sorts.

To me, that picture (illustrated by an artist named Susan Hood, as I later found out) just managed to sum up the nature of Science Fiction to me.  Come to think of it, it probably still does.  What I like about it is that the picture was done by someone who knows there's nothing simple about the genre, not as it stands after the passage of so much history.  That's because of the way history keeps catching up with Sci-Fi.  There is a sense in which it is always out of date, because it deals more in myths, rather than any single scientific fact.  I'm guilty for the sin of trying to pin a label on things, here.  Of trying to to give the category a frame which might take the wind out of its sails.  This is the kind of dirty little secret that's guaranteed to tick off anyone who still hopes for the paradigm where the genre is always trying to stay one step ahead of the technological curve.  This was the ideal that the initial premise of the genre seems to have been based on, and popularized by the likes of John W. Campbell.  For the longest time, you had editors of old pulp magazines proclaiming that what they were publishing amounted to stories about "the World of Tomorrow", in bright, bold letters of glowing neon.

The trouble is that sooner or later the future is always going to catch up with such proclamations, and, yeah, let's just say what's interesting about the way the future was is not so much how it all seems quaint in its plethora of outdated qualities, but rather this lingering sense of naivete about the capabilities of technology, which not even the most persistent of human efforts will likely ever be able to achieve.  In that sense, any remaining zeal for such concepts is probably more of a dinosaur than the old magazine issues in which they originally appeared.  The funny thing is how none of this really seems to bother the silent, yet ever growing number of fans who are willing to flock to these old fancies, now captured forever on yellowing leafs of cheap paper that have still miraculously outlasted all the artists who helped bring it together.  There is a possible sense of glory somewhere in all that.

It's the sort of achievement which I'm willing to bet may even outlast all the various comings and goings of technology as a whole.  For better or worse, this is the Sci-Fi I grew up with.  In a lot of ways, it was sort of right there for me, in at the beginning.  I have a very vivid set of early memories about this.  Part of the reason they are so easy to recall is because they consist, in essence, of a number of well known films.  In chronological order, these are Lawrence of Arabia, Return of the Jedi, Amadeus, and Back to the Future.  These made up my first impressions of the world, the somewhat natural enough result being an outlook that combines a quirky taste for popular entertainment, that is somehow able to exist right alongside a somewhat literate sense of artistic sophistication.  It's weird, in other words, and perhaps not all that common, yet it can still happen, just here and there, is all.  One of the other results of this very young introduction to Science Fiction (from two of its flagship representatives, no less) was the also somewhat natural enough desire to seek out more where that came from.  Here's where I think the limitations of time and place have played a decisive factor in my exposure to the tradition.

My first impressions of Sci-Fi came at a pretty interesting time for the genre.  These days we like to say that Star Wars revitalized things, or broke new ground.  The funny thing is how I was sort of there when this was all happening, and so it's possible for me to tell another story about it.  One that is far different and removed from the standard pop culture narrative, which in itself is probably more of a recent invention, more than it is an established, historical fact.  The truth is that this sense of 80s Sci-Fi and Fantasy as this game-changing juggernaut is a late-come phenomena, at best.  The inevitable result of my generation reaching its brief period of cultural influence, resulting in the still current wave of retro 80s nostalgia on all the major media fronts, with the likes of Stranger Things, and Synthwave music.

What I find interesting about this is how it amounts to a desire for that past, and yet with few exceptions, there's this strange halting quality to the whole thing.  It creates an unintentional sense of irony, when you stop and think about how a natural enough ache for nostalgia has created some less than stellar consequences.  We 80s kids have been given however brief a window of time to demonstrate to the world how much of a Golden Age our pop culture was, or used to be, and yet we seem to have trouble realizing it on various screens, or printed media, for the most part.  This can be seen in the fortunes of the aforementioned Stranger Things, or the recent attempts to revive the Star Wars and Trek franchises.  Sooner or later they reveal that a vital quality has been left out of consideration, and it isn't surprising if the final products have no other choice except to suffer on the crucial artistic level, the one where it counts the most.  If this were just a one thing, then I could always write it off.  The fact that it keeps happening time and again all points to a continuing trend.  What that tells me, in turn, is that there's a sense of imaginative possibilities that's been lost, somehow.

I'm afraid I can't say why this should be the case.  Nor is there any good reason for why these results should be in any way inevitable, except that we choose to let it happen this way.  As I've said already, however, this is all just recent events.  A look back at the way the actual cultural impact of history played out tells a different story.  I should know, because as I said, I was there to see it happen, and it determined the only ways I seemed able to hunt down any more Science Fiction media, if I wanted it.  The truth, as far as I could tell, is that franchises like Star Wars always left a very muted impact once you reached street level.  Stuff like that was left to flicker across the movie or TV screen as far as the adult world was concerned.  Back then, if you wanted more where that came from, you were pretty much on your own.  See, we didn't have anything like a global network of fan communities when I was growing up.  Each Sci-Fi geek, or genre nerd was a collective series of lone voices in the desert.  

The reason for that is pretty simple if you just take a moment to try and remember that there was a time before the internet as we now know it.  In that respect, I'm something of a living artifact.  I have to be one of last remaining fossils of a time gone by.  If you had to give a name for the type of phenomena I represent, then I guess that makes me an Analog Man, or at least a vestige of it.  What it means in practice is that I might have liked Star Wars, and was interested in finding more where that came from, and so I had almost no resources.  There was no real demand for that kind of thing like there is now, and I knew I was just one voice with no real say in the matter.  Instead of the benefits of a time when whole centuries of lost media can be unearthed at the almost literal click of a button, I had to make do with whatever there was on brick and mortar bookstore racks, and anything I might find hanging around an old junk shop.  That's the way the 80s truly was for any devoted pop culture geek.

I grew up in the detritus of a number of eras.  The personal home computer was a relatively new invention that consisted of a black screen with green letters.  Meanwhile, my paternal grandfather was the type who was always on the lookout for a bargain, which means if he had charge of me for a day, then it meant being carted along to old used car lots, or scrap metal dealerships in search of whatever was affordable under Reaganomics.  The result is that my memory is now a collage of assorted bric-a-brac from various, interweaving timelines, the future and the past mingling together for one brief moment of transition before being swept under the rug of history.  In that sense, it was almost like living in a Sci-Fi story.  It was also mainly through this junk shop route that I was able to advance my knowledge of the genre.  What this meant in practice is that before I could ever learn about the future of space fiction, I was more or less stuck having to dig up its past.  This resulted in my making acquaintance with a list of names that I'm pretty mean next to nothing now, and yet the genre wouldn't exist without them.  Some of the names are still relatively well known, such as Arthur C. Clarke.

However, what about someone like Murray Leinster?  Ever heard of him?  How about Clifford Simak, or Hugo Gernsback?  Or what about scientific fantasists like A.E. Van Vogt, Diana Wynn Jones,  C.M. Kornbulth, Margaret St. Clair, James Blish, Eric Frank Russell, Catherine L. Moore, Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Leigh Bracket, or L. Sprague de Camp?  These are the voyagers who made Sci-Fi what it is.  I got to know them all, and they do not deserve to be forgotten.  

Of course its always possible to demand otherwise, this is an observable fact.  Even if Marjorie Nicolson was one of the few women scholars of the 1940s who was not just a writer, but a recognized scholar who did her best to champion the genre to an academic audience way before it was popular.  You do you, however.  The way I got to know the majority of these overlooked names was through the auspices of an antiquated device known as Old Time Radio.  Peter Falk once observed that back before our age, TV was known as books.  It was also sometimes known as the Theater of the Mind, on occasion.  It was what households turned to whenever there was no stack of paper to hand.  For a good chunk of the early 20th century, Dramatic Radio was the closest thing to a national, mass communication.  It's also the other medium, besides books, where I learned about Sci-Fi.

The way it happened for me was through what " has been described as one of the finest offerings of American radio drama and one of the best science fiction series in any medium (web)".  It was a program called X Minus One, and in many ways, I'd still have to call it something of an ideal beginner's course for any young kid who has a burgeoning interest in the Sci-Fi genre.  What makes it such a good starting point is given by the Old Time Radio Plot Spot blog.  It notes that the program was a "direct tie-in with Galaxy magazine, a popular Sci-Fi digest of the period. Most of the stories were culled directly from the pages of Galaxy, or remakes of stories produced for Dimension X (of which X Minus One was originally a revival series). Many of Sci-Fi's most popular authors got mass exposure through this series, and even today X Minus One is still generally considered a cornerstone of radio drama (web)".  The upshot is something of an all-purpose nexus for days of the future past.

At least that's how I got my genre literacy, anyway.  All of this is kind of like stage setting, however.  I've gone into all this history because I felt what was needed more than anything for this post is a sense of the proper context that allows us the best possible doorway into our main subject.  This happens to be another author I discovered through the help of X Minus One.  It was an adaptation of a short story by an author known simply as Philip Kindred Dick.  I'm not here to talk about that radio adaptation.  Though it thought it is good jumping off point to talk about the first story he ever wrote.  Part of the reason for doing this was already explained, in a sense.  Here's the one hard truth I've learned from being a pop-culture junkie all my life.  The dirty little secret is it can only take you so far.  Once you've gone past the point of various trivial facts about the books and movies you enjoy, it's kind of like entering a blank slate space, if that makes any sense.  It's the sort of thing that tends to leave everyone with an empty-handed lack of knowledge that I for one, find downright aggravating.

What it does is leave both artist and audience in the lurch, when I'll swear on a stack of Bibles that there's always more to be uncovered, and that genuine talents shouldn't or can't summarized in the space of a phone tweet.  PKD is one of those Big Names who's suffered from the same flattening effect.  For instance, here's what I mean.  The next paragraph you read will be taken from the Dec. 1st, 2003 issue of a Wired retrospective of the author in question.  "Philip K. Dick liked nothing better than to toy with the fundamentals of human existence, reality chief among them, so what better for the movie than a bullet that may or may not be tearing through the main character's flesh? Like other Dick protagonists – Tom Cruise in Minority Report, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall, Harrison Ford in Blade Runner– Affleck finds himself struggling for equilibrium in a world where even the most elemental questions are almost impossible to answer. Can the senses be trusted? Are memories real? Is anything real?

"Dick died shortly before Blade Runner's release in 1982, and, despite a cult readership, he spent most of his life in poverty. Yet now, more than two decades later, the future he saw has made him one of the most sought-after writers in Hollywood. Paycheck, based on a 1953 short story Dick sold to a pulp magazine for less than $200, will bring close to $2 million to his estate. And movies based on more than a half-dozen other stories and novels are in the works – among them "The King of the Elves" at Disney, "The Short, Happy Life of the Brown Oxford" at Miramax, and A Scanner Darkly at Warner Bros.

"Dick's anxious surrealism all but defines contemporary Hollywood science fiction and spills over into other kinds of movies as well. His influence is pervasive in The Matrix and its sequels, which present the world we know as nothing more than an information grid; Dick articulated the concept in a 1977 speech in which he posited the existence of multiple realities overlapping the "matrix world" that most of us experience. Vanilla Sky, with its dizzying shifts between fantasy and fact, likewise ventures into a Dickian warp zone, as does Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, and David Cronenberg's eXistenZ. Memento reprises Dick's memory obsession by focusing on a man whose attempts to avenge his wife's murder are complicated by his inability to remember anything. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey discovers the life he's living is an illusion, an idea Dick developed in his 1959 novel Time Out of Joint. Next year, Carrey and Kate Winslet will play a couple who have their memories of each other erased in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Memory, paranoia, alternate realities: Dick's themes are everywhere (web)".

This is the reputation that PK has managed to hold onto to this very day.  We'll have a chance to come back to that Wired article.  For right now, all that should be noticed is that while it's far from wrong, like all things associated with pop culture, it can only go so far before losing sight of the rest of the story.  I want to know if there's more to the author than just the troubled paranoiac of popular conception.  The best way I can figure how to do that right now is to start at the beginning, and see what, if anything, it has to tell us about one of the creative minds whose efforts can be said to have gone a long way towards helping to define the possibilities of Science Fiction.  In my mind, at least, that means the best candidate for examination ought to be a simple short story with a very unassuming title.  It's a quick piece known as "Roog", and it first saw light in the 1953 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.  As for where the weird sounding title came from, well, you better let me explain.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

The Collected Short Stories of Vladimir Nabokov: La Veneziana (1924).

Mind if I talk about genre for a minute?  I mean those collections of assorted orders and categories that most stories tend to get lumped into, whether written or filmed.  It's a relatively modern innovation, or at least I think it is.  Near as I can tell, the whole thing got started the moment someone noticed that most works of fiction often wound up sharing a lot of similarities when it came to actions, plot beats, or various tropes that still repeat themselves from one narrative to the next.  I think the biggest reason for the creation of the concept, however, was down to just how many stories wind up with this sense of a shared setting, even if they had nothing in common with one another.  What I mean is that if one writer hits upon an idea featuring rocket ships traveling through space, that's not the same thing as claiming that its part of the Star Trek universe, or anything like that.  It is more than possible to create a work of Science Fiction, and let the finished product stand as its own, individual creation.  However, the one thing that Trek and, say, a novel like Frank Herbert's Dune have in common is this shared sense of a generic background.

Most viewer and readers would know that each qualifies as a work of Sci Fi without even having to be told.  It's one of those phenomenon of the artistic life which is so basic at this point that it's almost like breathing oxygen.  It's part of the very air we breath when it comes to art in general.  It's so basic, in fact, that it's only at this late date it occurs to me to realize we haven't given much thought to genre categorizations for quite a while now.  I think the answer her amounts to a matter of practical necessity.  If you come across more than one story featuring the same backdrop setting, that can only mean a small amount of things in terms of shared generic traits.  It's the very proliferation of fictional works set in Outer Space, or the Wild West, which kind of forces the reader's hand, almost by default.  In that regard, it does make sense to argue that genres are just this semi-natural sort of recurring phenomenon, like the turning of the seasons, only some more mysterious for some reason.

If that's the case, then you could say there's not much to complain about or argue over.  It's a sentiment I tend to agree with, in the long run.  I've read from authors who have tried to make the case that sometimes talk of genres can be a writer's worst enemy.  In an introduction to a book called The Rim of Morning, Stephen King claims that when a story is able to grow in importance and impact, it's newfound quality is, or should be, enough to allow it to be able to transcend all talk of mere "genre".  In addition, literary critic Michael H. Means is able to leave us with some interesting food for thought, with an idea he mentions in passing during what is otherwise a straightforward study of medieval texts.

"The term "genre" has fallen somewhat into critical disfavor partly because under the influence of Romanticism we tend to stress the unique nature of each work of literature at the expense of the qualities it shares with similar works.  More seriously, however, the term "genre" is often abused either by using it for the critically arid if pedagogically useful purpose of pigeonholing - disposing of a work by labeling it - or by the very dangerous practice of using genre tags as value judgments, both of which faults are clearly implicit, for example, in the recent controversy over whether Death of a Salesman is or is not a tragedy.  Any attempt to use the concept of literary genres in criticism must start with the recognition of the facts that many, if not most, great works of literature are composed of elements of more than one genre and that good and bad works can be composed of any genre (5-6)".

Here, then, is a pretty good overview of the so called "debate" over the question of genre.  I label it "so called" because to me a phrase by H.G. Wells sums it up.  There can never really be any kind of useful literary war over the concept of genres, "any more than there is a war between men and ants".  The truth is it all just seems to be a part of the natural bells and whistles that go together to make what is known as the artistic life.  It's just a naturally occurring part of the package, in other words.  Something in which none of the parts needed assembling, they just show up sooner or later of their own accord, apparently, more or less.  In that sense, I find myself perfectly at home with genre, while also being able to set it aside, and focus on the individual identity of the artwork in front of me.  It's a topic I can pick up and set down with equal ease, in that regard.  It's also what allows me to even admit that, yes, sometimes it is possible to run across the odd narrative, here and there, that seems to defy categorization.  These are the stories with a foot in several camps, and thus present a challenge.

A good example of what I mean is the very story I'd like to talk about today.  Vladimir Nabokov is one of those writers who wind up gaining their fame through the dubious award of scandal.  When his novel Lolita was published in 1955, there's no way a book like that wasn't going to leave the kind of impact that didn't feel like  punch in the gut.  It was almost guaranteed to receive the sort of backlash, or critical drubbing that was sure to make the rest of the world sit up and take notice, whether it was for the sake of being transgressive in the name of nonconformity, or else just to figure out what the hell all the fuss was about.  The result of such as a literary jolt to the system was predictable enough.  It was certain to etch it's author's byline for all time in the great catalogue of literary names.  It also wound up creating the most ironic pigeonhole for the writer, imaginable.  To this day, there are readers out there who are surprised to discover that someone who could write a book like that proves, on further inspection, to be one of the more saner, seemingly level-headed scribblers out their in the writing trade.

Perhaps the even greater shock is to learn that he had a whole career outside of Lolita, and the Kubrick film that resulted from it.  It turns out Nabokov was one of those "literate" writers whose output is generally considered to be "respectable enough" by the Ivory Tower establishment (or whatever is left of it).  The irony is that this leaves the writer stuck in yet another familiar pigeonhole.  Under this critical-aesthetic lens, Nabokov is seen as something like the final product of the tail-end of the Modernist Movement in 20th century literature.  If poets like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were the opening vanguards of works about the state of man in modern, alienated society, then most tend to believe that Nabokov was somewhere there in at the end, as the grand project in letters came to a close.

It's one of those interesting conclusions, that type which tend to be on the money enough to be labeled as essentially correct, and yet there's always something that's been left out at the same time.  In which case there's very little to be surprised about.  It seems almost like a natural inevitability of literary criticism.  While the big picture is being assembled, the fine details often tend to get lost in the shuffle.  This doesn't necessarily invalidate the big picture as an overall image, though it does tend to leave the final painting somewhat incomplete.  This is something Nabokov would have been happy (perhaps the better term is vehement) to point out to you.  This is true especially when you turn to look at his own opinions on the nature of genre.  He was at least some kind of an expert on this matter.  You don't manage to hold down a career as an English teacher at Cornell University without knowing something of your way around the written word.  That's why, when we turn to one of Nabokov's collected Lectures on Literature, we find him making a very surprising statement about the nature of fiction in general.

During the course of his introductory lecture on English Literature, we find Nabokov confronting us with this very basic claim.  "The truth is that great novels are great fairy tales - and the novels in this series are supreme fairy tales....literature was born on the day when a boy cried wolf...and there was no wolf behind him (xxv-xxvi)".  It's a maxim which he seems to have been contented to live by.  Even his works of fiction display this curious blending of the real and unreal.  A good example of this can be found in one of his earliest short stories, "La Venezianza", and it goes something like this.