Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘H.P. Lovecraft’

The Fallen: Life In and Out of Britain’s Most Insane Group, Dave Simpson (Canongate paperback 2009)

I enjoyed this book a lot when I first read it a few years ago. This time it was less fun. It didn’t seem as well-written and there was an occasional nasty edge that I didn’t remember from the first read. But I can still recommend it as an entertaining guide to a very strange band.

I’m not a fan of The Fall myself, though I think I can see why so many people are. And why they tend to be so devoted. Mark E. Smith, the “non-musician” who has led the band through decades of line-up changes, is himself a fan of both H.P. Lovecraft and Captain Beefheart. And it shows. Some of his song-titles could stand by themselves without any lyrics or music: “Rowche Rumble”, “How I Wrote Elastic Man”, “Mr Pharmacist”, “Why Are People Grudgeful?”.

The album titles are good too. Live at the Witch Trials was the first Fall album (it wasn’t live). Then there are Hex Enduction Hour, Code: Selfish, Imperial Wax Solvent, Sub-Lingual Tablet. A strange and interesting mind chose or came up with those. Dave Simpson encounters that mind at the beginning of the book, when he spends hours drinking in a Manchester pub with “Mad Mark”, as Mark E. Smith is known in his home-town of Prestwich. Why has Smith fired so many musicians? “It’s like football. Every so often you’ve got to change the centre-forward.”

But there’s more to it than that, as Simpson discovers in the rest of the book. He set out to track down all of The Fall’s many ex-members, from the most famous and long-lasting to the most fleeting and obscure. Even as he’s ticking names off his list, Smith is lengthening it. As the cover of this paperback says: “NOW with Added Ex-Members!” But everything Simpson writes about the Fallen is also telling you something about the Feller (in both senses of the word). Mark E. Smith is at the centre of everything, hiring, firing, drinking, prodding – something he likes to do to musicians on-stage.

It unsettles them, destroys routine and monotony, encourages the spontaneity that Smith thinks is essential to musical creativity and performance. And his unpredictability seems to work: although The Fall have often fallen fallow and released weak albums, they’ve always burst back to life with new members and new material. Or so Simpson says. He’s been a fan for a long time. So was his girlfriend when he started writing the book. They’d broken up before he finished it, which was appropriate.

Was it the Curse of Smith at work? Mad Mark certainly didn’t like being analysed or having light shed on his work and the many misfortunes that have dogged his group. Some of them seem to be have been deliberately engineered. Smith doesn’t want superstardom or great wealth. He wants to remain an Outsider. Lovecraft wrote about one of those and so did Camus. The Fall were named from Camus’s novel La Chute (1956) and perhaps Smith thought he’d die young just as Camus did.

He didn’t. The Fall have always been one of England’s strangest groups; now they’re one of the longest-lasting too. And the only ever-present is Smith. If you’re a fan, you’ve probably already read this book. If you aren’t, you may become one by doing so. It’s sometimes very funny and, like a biography of AC/DC I’ve reviewed, has a lot of sociological interest in it. You can’t understand Smith without understanding north-west England and Manchester in particular. And like a biography of Iron Maiden I’ve also reviewed, it teaches you a lot about historiography, or the process of writing and researching history. The Fall were formed in a rich country in peaceful times. But no-one can be sure what exactly happened to who, why, when and how. Some stories come in many different versions. Some stories may reverse the truth. And according to Marc Riley: “There are a lot of skeletons in The Fall cupboard and stories that haven’t been told.”

If Mark E. Smith has his way, they never will be. But I can foresee this book being updated again. And perhaps even again.

Read Full Post »

Note: Post the appalling news from America, we in the close-knit Papyrocentric community feel this is a highly appropriate moment to re-publish this searing indictment of racism, hate and Other-phobia first issued in 2005 by the literary activist Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum (who is, of course, the life-partner of longstanding Papyrocentric favorite Dr Miriam B. Stimbers).


Faut-il Brûler Smith? (Con)futing the Hate Speech of Klarkash-Ton

by Dr Nigel M. Goldbaum

The Other is a liminal mirror in which we see reflected nothing other than the faces, distorted with rage, fear, and doubt, of the sentries patrolling the ambiguous and disputed frontiers of the Self. — Michel Foucault.

In terms of key issues maximally impacting committed members of the equality-activist community in the opening decade of the twenty-first century, there can be little doubt that the keyest is the confrontation with hatred of the Other. Be it in the form of antisemitism, racism, xeno-, gyno-, homo-, and/or lesbophobia, Other-directed prejudice and bigotry is a feral cancer whose seething tentacles cement a visceral shadow as much over the future of western societies as over their past. Yet members of the literary-scholarship community find that their field of critical and theoretic focus, one of the principal means of leveraging progressive ideas/attitudes in terms of the body (socio-)politic, often proves a double-edged discourse.

In short, and to be blunt, many past writers/authors were vicious bigots and/or racists. Nor are participants in “fringe” genres such as Weird fiction, themselves marginalized by mainstream literary discourse, innocent of an identical charge. Members of the Internet community, whether knowingly or unknowingly, can access the following on the Eldritch Dark, the premier web-resource devoted to maximalizing engagement with the literary legacy of Clark Ashton Smith, a core member of the seminal 1920s/1930s Weird Tales literary community:

The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow.1

I return the Ullman-Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.2

Antisemitism, arguably the most feral of all Other-phobic discourses, is a pivotal strand in the fluidic œuvre of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961), a California poet/author now arguably most famous for his association with New England author/poet H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Texas writer/author Robert E. Howard (1906-36). Lovecraft’s and Howard’s own and more obvious Other-phobia has been the epicenter of an unswerving critical dissection for a not inconsiderable time-period post the Civil Rights era/epoch, and I would suggest that Smith’s less obvious but arguably, for that very reason, even more pernicious Other-phobia has fallen into the penumbra cast by the brickbats rightly focused around Lovecraft and Howard. The present essay is an attempt, however tentative, inchoate, and embryonic, to corrective this situation and foreground the urgent need for unacceptable components/elements of Smith’s literary/epistolary output to be engaged on multiple levels by committed members of the anti-racist community.

Accordingly, I shall interrogate the conte fantastique by which arguably more than any other the feral parameters of Smith’s visceral Other-phobia can be mapped and/or charted: “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” (1936). Experienced literary exegetists need engage with no more than the title of this fictive discourse prior to commencing a deconstruction of its probable Other-phobic narrative strategies. We confront not ‘simply’ a chromatically unmarked “The Abbot of Puthuum,” nor a chromatically ‘neutral’ “The Red/Yellow/Blue Abbot of Puthuum,” but “The Black Abbot of Puthuum,” and the title immediately and explicitly conjuncts the racial Other of socially constructed Blackness with the textual Other of fictively constructed “Puthuum,” a factitious confection of visceral vocables nevertheless harboring feral echoes of “putridity-putrescence-putrefaction.”

Who could doubt, prior to embarking around a full engagement with Smith’s core narrative structure, that “The Black Abbot” will prove ‘Black’ by both socially constructed race but also by ideologically constructed nature, reinforcing/buttressing traditional Other-phobic discourses whereby Blackness is insolubly conjuncted with notions around soi disant ‘deviance’ and ‘criminality’? It comes as no surprise, then, for the attentive lectrice/lecteur, post reading-commencement, to confront the following literary tropes within the central core segment of the narrative proper:

The black man grinned capaciously, showing rows of discolored teeth whose incisors were like those of a wild dog. His enormous unctuous jowls were creased by the grin into folds of amazing number and volume; and his eyes, deeply slanted and close together, seemed to wink perpetually in pouches that shook like ebon jellies. His nostrils flared prodigiously; his purple, rubbery lips drooled and quivered, and he licked them with a fat, red, salacious tongue before replying to Cushara’s question.3 (Emphases mine.)

We see here an ‘optimal’ conflation of feral Other-phobic narratives of race whose visceral impaction on the reader is rather increased than lessened by the formalism of Smith’s conflicted, eurocentric prose. Indeed, we note that the Abbot becomes not merely the racial Other but the mammalian Other: his dentition is that of a “wild dog,” not that of a human being, and the sexual components of the ‘discourse of deviance’ long woven by white Other-phobes around members of the Black community are signalized in the “fat, red, salacious tongue” with which the Abbot animalistically “licks” his “purple, rubbery lips.” Soon post this passage, the Abbot’s unbridled Other-sexuality is further emphasized/foregrounded as he becomes not merely the mammalian but the vertebral Other:

Neither he nor Zobal was reassured by the look of lust in the abbot’s obscenely twinkling eyes as he peered at Rubalsa. Moreover, they had now noted the excessive and disagreeable length of the dark nails on his huge hands and bare, splayed feet: nails that were curving, three-inch talons, sharp as those of some beast or bird of prey. (Emphases mine.)

His visceral Otherness has become too ferally impactive to be confined within the anatomic/behavioral parameters of the class Mammalia (mammals) and is transferred even further, to those of the class Aves (birds). The Abbot’s subsequent attempts to both rape Rubalsa, the “queenly maiden” around whose non-consensual purchase and sex-trafficking the narrative centers, but also to murder and devour her ‘protectors’ are further cementings of Other-phobic racist discourses of Black promiscuity, violence, and cannibalism.

The multiply-stranded question that is begged by even a cursory interrogation of the soi disant “Black Abbot” is identical, mutatis mutandis, to that raised by French philosophe / critic / cultural commentatrice Simone de Beauvoir (1908-86) in a key mid-twentieth-century text of theoretic and societo-literary engagement: the essay «Faut-il Brûler Sade?» (1951), or “Must We Burn de Sade?”. Here I ask «Faut-il Brûler Smith?» (2005), or “Must We Burn Smith?”. That is, is our objective of a progressive, egalitarian society in which the optimally-diverse value and contributions of all are of equal worth and standing maximally advanced by a visceral suppression of such feral tropes in the work of such writers/authors as Clark Ashton Smith?

Or must we seek another — and indeed anOther — means of transitioning key societal components to our desired post-racist, post-white-hegemonic end(s)? Attractive though the strategy of suppression must appear to those members of the progressive community who fully recognize the dangers of such hate speech, it is nevertheless incumbent on us to engage with issues around pragmatism and acknowledge the impossibility, at the present stage of societal evolution, of successfully fruitioning such a strategy.

Instead, we must adopt the strategy of confrontation and confutation, theorizing/triangulating Smith within the poly-dimensional temporal, societal, and ideological co-ordinates/parameters of his fluidic, polymorphic fictive and meta-cultural identities/personae and explicating, if by no means excusing, his profoundly regrettable co-optioning of Other-phobic discourses of antisemitism and racism.


Notes

The following CAS texts and letter can be found online at The Eldritch Dark.

1. “The Corpse and the Skeleton.”
2. Letter to H.P. Lovecraft, c. mid-October 1933.
3. “The Black Abbot of Puthuum.”

© 2005 Nigel M. Goldbaum

Read Full Post »

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. ClarkeThe Collected Stories, Arthur C. Clarke (Victor Gollancz 2000)

Do you want to know the difference between ingenuity and imagination? Between literary competence and literary genius? Then compare Arthur C. Clarke’s short stories with J.G. Ballard’s short stories. Reading Ballard is like exploring a jungle; reading Clarke is like touring a greenhouse. Ballard is haunting and head-expanding in a way that Clarke isn’t, much as he might have wanted to be.

You could say that the difference between them is like the difference between wizardry and engineering or poetry and prose or madness and sanity. Clark Ashton Smith and J.R.R. Tolkien are different in the same way. Ballard and Smith could conjure dreams on paper; Clarke and Tolkien could create realistic worlds. I like all four writers, but I don’t place them at the same level. There is a great gulf fixed between the wizards and the engineers. I’m reminded of it every time I read Clarke and Tolkien, so part of the value of their work is that it teaches me to appreciate Ballard and Smith more. Or to marvel more.

All the same, the engineers could do things that the wizards couldn’t. Clarke and Tolkien were better educated than Ballard and Smith, and Clarke knew more about hard science than Ballard. There are some ideas and images in this book that take realism to its limits. The life-form that Clarke invented for “Castaway” (1947) has stayed with me ever since I read the story as a child. It was thrown off its home-world by a storm – or rather, thrown out of its home-world. That’s because it was a plasma-creature living inside the sun until it was ejected by a solar storm and blown on the solar wind to the Earth:

The tenuous outer fringes of the atmosphere checked his speed, and he fell slowly towards the invisible planet. Twice he felt a strange, tearing wrench as he passed through the ionosphere; then, no faster than a falling snowflake, he was drifting down the cold, dense gas of the lower air. The descent took many hours and his strength was waning when he came to rest on a surface hard beyond anything he had ever imagined.

The unimaginably hard surface is actually the Atlantic Ocean, where the plasma-creature is detected by the radar of an overflying jet-liner. It looks like a giant amoeba to the wondering humans who are watching the radar, but they can’t see anything at all when they look at the water. The story is a very clever exercise in shifts of perspective and Clarke returned to these ideas in “Out of the Sun” (1958), in which the same kind of creature is thrown out of the sun and lands on Mercury, where it freezes to death in “seas of molten metal”. More wondering humans have watched it fly through space on radar from a solar-observation base. As it dies, the humans feel a “soundless cry of anguish, a death pang that seeped into our minds without passing through the gateways of the senses.”

There’s also alien life and clever invention in “A Meeting with Medusa” (1971), which is about a solo expedition to Jupiter that discovers giants in the clouds: browsing herbivores that defend themselves from swooping predators with electrical discharges. The explorer is called Falcon and is part-robot after an air-ship crash on earth. That enables him to survive “peaks of thirty g’s” as his air-ship, called Kon-Tiki, descends to the “upper reaches of the Jovian atmosphere” and collects gas so that it can float there and observe. The story takes you to Jupiter and teaches you a lot about Jovian physics, chemistry and meteorology: it’s realism, not reverie, and Falcon’s discovery of life is entirely plausible.

The story was probably influenced by Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Horror of the Heights” (1913), a proto-Lovecraftian story in which an early aviator discovers similar predators high in the air above Wiltshire. Doyle’s contemporary H.G. Wells was certainly an influence on Clarke: there’s even a piece here (not a proper story) called “Herbert George Morley Roberts Wells, Esq.” (1967). Clarke also knew Lovecraft and wrote a short parody of At the Mountains of Madness (1931) called At the Mountains of Murkiness, but the parody isn’t collected here and Lovecraft’s influence isn’t very obvious. Clarke had a sunny and optimistic personality and wrote few dark or depressing stories. There is a definite Lovecraftian touch, however, in one of the mini-stories collected under the title “The Other Side of the Sky” (1957). In “Passer-By”, an astronaut describes seeing something as he travels between space-stations on a rocket scooter. First he spots it on radar, then watches as it flies past:

I suppose I had a clear view of it for perhaps half a second, and that half-second has haunted me all my life. […] Of course, it could have been a very large and oddly shaped meteor; I can never be sure that my eyes, straining to grasp the details of so swiftly moving an object, were not hopeless deceived. I may have imagined that I saw that broken, crumpled prow, and the cluster of dark spots like the sightless sockets of a skull. Of one thing only was I certain, even in that brief and fragmentary vision. If it was a ship, it was not one of ours. Its shape was utterly alien, and it was very, very old.

It’s Lovecraftian to compare the portholes of a space-ship to the eye-sockets of a skull. So is the idea of a “very, very old” wreck flying between the stars. The uncertainty and doubt are Lovecraftian too, but you could also say that they’re scientific. Clarke often emphasizes the fallibility of the senses and the uncertainty of inferences based on them. Science is a way of overcoming those sensory limitations. In Lovecraft, science is dangerous: that uncertainty would slowly give way to horror as the truth is revealed. Clarke’s protagonist experiences no horror and though he’s haunted for life by what he might have seen, he feels that way because he didn’t learn enough, not because he learnt too much.

That story may have been the seed for Rendezvous with Rama (1976), which could be seen as a more optimistic re-working of At the Mountains of Madness. Puny humans explore a titanic alien artefact in both stories, but Clarke’s humans aren’t punished for their curiosity and at the end of the novel they look forward to indulging more of it. Clarke is good at grandeur and invoking the hugeness of the universe. He wrote about galaxy-spanning empires, giant scientific discoveries and struggles to save the universe.

He wrote about the multiverse too and there’s a story that makes the multiverse seem big by portraying a very confined part of it. This is the opening paragraph of “The Wall of Darkness” (1949):

Many and strange are the universes that drift like bubbles in the foam upon the river of Time. Some – a very few – move against or athwart its current; and fewer still are those that lie forever beyond its reach, knowing nothing of the future or past. Shervane’s tiny cosmos was not one of these: its strangeness was of a different order. It held one world only – the planet of Shervane’s race – and a single star, the great sun Trilorne that brought it life and light.

Shervane is a young man who makes a very strange discovery when he tries to cross a giant wall that circles his home planet. What is on the other side? In a way, everything is. This is another story that has stayed with me from my first reading of it as a child. And it could almost have been written by Ballard: like Ballard’s “The Concentration City” (1957) or “Thirteen to Centaurus” (1962), it’s about trying to escape from confinement and making an unexpected or ironic discovery about the true nature of things. Unlike Ballard, Clarke didn’t spend the Second World War locked in a prison camp, but he could get big ideas from a wall and the limit it imposed.

Neither he nor Ballard always wrote about big and serious ideas, however. Many stories here are deliberately small and silly, or big in a ludicrous way. P.G. Wodehouse seems to be an influence on the stories that come under the heading of Tales from the White Hart, in which Harry Purvis spins fanciful yarns for an audience of scientists and science-fiction writers in a pub in London. One story has an exploding moonshine still, another a giant squid that’s angry about its brain being manipulated, another a fall of twenty feet during which an unfortunate scientist doesn’t merely break the sound-barrier, but travels so fast that he’s burnt alive by air-friction.

It’s a horizontal fall too, although the story is called “What Goes Up” (1956). Clarke was playing with science there; elsewhere, in stories like “Green Fingers”, part of “Venture to the Moon” (1956), he’s making serious suggestions. The story is about a botanist on the moon who is killed by his own ingenuity, but it’s not a gloomy, Lovecraftian doom. Risks are part of exploration and adventure and Clarke presented space-travel as a new form of sea-faring. He loved both the sea and the sky and his love shines brightly here. So do “The Shining Ones” (1962), the intelligent cephalopods who end the life of another of his protagonists.

The premature death of adventurous young men is a theme he shared with A.E. Housman, whose poetry he greatly admired, but Clarke could also write about the rescue of adventurous young men, as in “Hide-and-Seek” (1949), “Summertime on Icarus” (1960) and “Take a Deep Breath” (1957). And deaths in his work aren’t futile or proof that man is always ultimately defeated. If Clarke had written pessimistically like that, he wouldn’t have been so popular among working scientists or inspired so many children to enter science. But he could appeal to children partly because he never properly grew up himself. Unlike Ballard, he never married or had any children of his own and his decision to live on Sri Lanka was probably inspired in part by paederasty, not just by his interest in scuba-diving.

My final judgment would be that he was an important writer, not a great one. I’ve enjoyed re-reading the stories here – even the numerous typos were fun – but that’s partly because they’ve sharpened my appreciation of J.G. Ballard. Clarke had no spark of divine madness: he was Voltaire to Ballard’s Nietzsche. His work does sparkle with intellect and ideas, but he made more out of science than he ever did out of fiction.


Previously pre-posted on Papyrocentric Performativity:

Clarke’s Arks – reviews of Imperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972)

Read Full Post »

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe 2The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe, Edmund Glasby (Linford 2013)

A patchy book that will be best appreciated by those who know the north-west of England and the seaside town of Morecambe (pronounced MOR-kum). It will be best un-appreciated by that group too. As you might expect, some people will find The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe funny and some will find it insulting. Any Lovecraft fan who has visited the town since the 1960s, when cheap air travel ended its popularity as a resort, will have been strongly reminded of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. In Lovecraft’s story, an outsider discovers that the crumbling town of Innsmouth is full of strange, fish-faced folk and swirling with undercurrents of madness and menace. That’s a lot like Morecambe, believe me. One of those Lovecraft fans has now based a novel on the parallels. These are the opening lines:

For past eighteen months, the old man had wandered the streets of the increasingly derelict Lancashire coastal resort of Morecambe – contender for the unenviable title of “The most depressing town in Britain”. None of the Morecambrians knew where he had come from, for none had ever stopped to speak with him, his mysterious background becoming the stuff of local lore. The few who were aware of him speculated that he was a re-housed murderer or paedophile living out his miserable existence in a nondescript squat somewhere along the West End – the great haven for dole-dossers, junkies and other down-and-outs.

It’s not surprising that The Visitor, Morecambe’s local newspaper, hasn’t reviewed this book, because it doesn’t paint an attractive picture of the town and its southern neighbour, the village of Heysham. The old man is Professor Mandrake Smith, once Professor of Anthropology at Oxford University, now an alcoholic tramp squatting in an abandoned hotel in the “largely gerontocratic dump” of Morecambe, whose “lifeblood” is “anti-depressants and cheap booze” (pg. 25) and whose “xenophobic” inhabitants are “morose and unwilling to embrace change”, “content almost to wallow in their pervasive, impoverished despair” (pg. 83).

Edmund Glasby, who grew up in Morecambe according to this web-page, has fun letting Nyarlathotep and other Lovecraftian monsters loose on the gerontocratic dump and its xenophobes. “Pervy” Stan, as Professor Mandrake is now known, is ready to top himself at the beginning of the story, but finds new purpose in life by joining the battle against the eldritch horror of “darkness and insanity that awaits Morecambe – and the entire world…” Other characters fare less well, like “Heysham’s ugliest and fattest man, ‘Big’ Barry Crowley” (pg. 25), who is eviscerated and turned into a zombie; “The Troll”, an otherwise nameless “benefit-scrounging misfit” and single mother of eleven, whose mind is destroyed by a “gigantic octopoid head” peering over the hills to the north of Morecambe’s famous bay as the tide pours in; and Bill Draper, a “cantankerous old sod” who owns a newsagent’s in Morecambe’s misleadingly named West End, enjoys reading the “large obituaries section” in The Visitor, and makes the mistake of opening the door to his storeroom, despite the “overpowering fishy stink” that is leaking through it.

The Weird Shadow Over Morecambe by Edmund Glasby

The Weird Shadow… (large print edition)

The characters are tongue-in-cheek but true-to-life. Even Jacob Wyzchyck could really exist somewhere in the town. He’s a voyeur who spends most of his time sitting in “dirty underpants” in his “squalid third-story bedsit” overlooking “Westminster Road”, equipped with a pair of “binoculars, bag of popcorn and large bottle of vodka” (pg. 242). He sees the first outbreak of homicidal violence that will soon erupt into “full-blown chaos”, as “lunatics and anarchists” rampage “largely unchecked through the streets”. This part of the book reminded me of Stephen King’s Needful Things (1991), in which King has fun destroying his invented town of Castle Rock: “Much of Morecambe was now ablaze, with fires burning uncontrollably from Bare to Heysham, from Torrisholme to the outskirts of Lancaster” (pg. 318).

But in the end the “Crawling Chaos” is beaten off and Morecambe is saved. In the epilogue, there’s even a “day of glamour and hope”, as the old Midland Hotel in which Professor Mandrake once squatted is re-opened after restoration: “psychic waves of goodwill and hope were transforming Morecambe, for one day at least” (pg. 353). If you get that far, you’ll find the book entertaining but unsatisfying. Too much Lovecraft is borrowed direct and the horrors are too crude and explicit. Morecambe will also remind some of a giant Alan Bennett play, and a subtler writer like Ramsey Campbell could have made more of the strange contrast between the urban decay of the town and the beauty of the bay on which it is set.

Read Full Post »

Sex/Dream Metaphors – Extreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

DNAncientNeanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes, Svante Pääbo (Basic Books 2014)

The Cult of CthulhuH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Rauc’ and RoleMortality, Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Books 2012)

#BooksThatShouldNotBe — Tip-top Transgressive Texts…


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

Read Full Post »

Extreme Metaphors Interviews with J.G. BallardExtreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

This book reminded me of one of Ballard’s most remarkable stories:

People were now clambering all over the giant, whose reclining arms provided a double stairway. From the palms they walked along the forearms to the elbow and then crawled over the distended belly of the biceps to the flat promenade of the pectoral muscles which covered the upper half of the smooth hairless chest. From here they climbed up on to the face, hand over hand along the lips and nose, or forayed down the abdomen to meet others who had straddled the ankles and were patrolling the twin columns of the thighs. (“The Drowned Giant”, 1964)

There are lots of interviewers in this book clambering over the gigantic person and work of J.G. Ballard. But Ballard is alive, not drowned, so he responds to the clambering feet and clutching hands. He laughs and wriggles. He offers a commentary on his own body, explaining his own scars and birthmarks, demonstrating his own reflexes and justifying the use he’s made of his muscles. By the time you finish the interviews, you’ll understand the giant better.

And you may have had some surprises on the way. Ballard liked Margaret Thatcher and didn’t like drugs:

This story [“The Voices of Time” (1960)] also came without drugs, and that, I believe, confirms what I’ve just said, that the human imagination is [capable of anything], it doesn’t have to fall back on artificial stimulants, on chemicals, to release something that the brain can do even on its own. A fertile imagination is better than any drug. (“1982: Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber. An Interview with J.G. Ballard”, pg. 145 – translated from German)

He didn’t practise what some thought he preached:

People used to come out to this little suburban house [Ballard’s home in Shepperton] expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. (“1995: Will Self. Conversations: J.G. Ballard”, pg. 315)

The giant was gentle, you see: he wrote a lot about violence, but didn’t believe in practising it or promoting it. Which becomes a bit of a shame in the interview by Will Self. How good would it have been if Ballard had lifted his gigantic fist and turned Self into a splot on the floor? Very. Alas, it didn’t happen.

And I must admit that the Self interview has some of the most interesting replies in it. But Self’s presence is a reminder that Ballard appeals greatly to the Guardianista community, which is not a good thing. Most of the interviewers here are Guardianistas or some overseas equivalent and they often pursue a Guardianista agenda. Fortunately, Ballard doesn’t say “in terms of” very often, but it would have been interesting to have questions about more things than are in the Guardian’s philosophy. Ballard shared that philosophy in some ways:

Of course men, on account of their greater physical strength, were the dominant figures in most social activities: commerce, industry, agriculture, transportation. Those activities no longer require a man’s great physical strength. A woman can just as easily fly a 747 across the Atlantic. A very small part of industry requires brute muscle. A woman computer programmer can control a machine tool that cuts out a car door. A large number of traditional male strengths, in both senses of the term, are no longer needed. The male sex is a rust bowl. (“1995: Will Self”, pg. 312)

There is much more to the difference between men and women than physical strength. It’s easier for a woman to use a gun than to fly a 747, but almost all gun-crime is committed by men. There are genetic, neural and psychological reasons for that. But men differ too, within races and between them, which is something else that Ballard and his interviewers don’t acknowledge. I’m puzzled by this, because Ballard saw big differences between races in his childhood: English, Chinese and Japanese. He later wrote about them extensively. Did he think they were simply due to upbringing and culture, that the human race was one-and-indivisible?

H.P. Lovecraft didn’t and Lovecraft is a regrettable absence from this feast of analysis, prophecy and metaphor – just as William S. Burroughs is, for me, a regrettable presence. It would have been good if the former had replaced the latter, with Ballard discussing and praising Lovecraft instead of Burroughs. After all, H.P.L., like J.G.B., drew on dreams, not drugs. But I assume Ballard never read Lovecraft and perhaps never even heard of him. That’s a shame, because Lovecraft might have fertilized Ballard’s work with even stranger and stronger ideas. And might have made him use mathematics more.

But Lovecraft wouldn’t have needed to fertilize Ballard with humour, because it was already there. The giant was ticklish. The world made him laugh and so did his own work. There’s a lot of fun in Extreme Metaphors:

Crash a corrupting book? I’ll take my younger self’s word for it. (“1984: Thomas Frick. The Art of Fiction”, pg. 185)

There’s also a detailed index and a clever cover: a crashed, overturned car, a mysterious solar/sanguinary glow and some blue inviting sky. If I wish that Lovecraft had fertilized Ballard, I also wish that Ballard could have fertilized Lovecraft with gusto, joie de vivre and optimism:

I would say we were moving towards an era where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the very first time. The enormous, detailed, meticulously chosen reruns [of everyday life] that I have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically important reasons, have been trained to exclude. […] After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive. (“1979: Christopher Evans: The Space Age Is Over”, pg. 131)

If you’re interested in the giant, you can clamber all over him here.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands – review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

Read Full Post »

Classic Horror Stories by H.P. LovecraftH.P. Lovecraft: The Classic Horror Stories, edited by Roger Luckhurst (Oxford University Press 2013)

Lovecraft has come a long way. From the margins to the mountebanks, you might say, because he’s getting serious interest from American and British academics nowadays. In France, he got it a long time ago:

In the late 1960s, the French academic Maurice Lévy wrote a thesis on Lovecraft as a serious fantasiste, continuing the French love of all things tinged with Poe. In turn, the radical philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used Lovecraft as a touchstone for notions of unstable being and becoming-other in their revolutionary manifesto, A Thousand Plateaus (1980). (“Introduction”, pg. xiii)

I didn’t realize it was as bad as that. Then again, I already knew that the Trotskyist gasbag China Miéville had been influenced by Lovecraft and had intensively interrogated issues around Lovecraft’s racism and xenophobia. Roger Luckhurst interrogates them too. After all, they’re a glaring flaw in an important and highly influential writer. How could HPL have been so egregiously wrong and in such an offensive way?

Well, perhaps he wasn’t wrong and perhaps he wouldn’t have written so imaginatively and powerfully without his crime-think. The psychologist Hans Eysenck suggested that psychoticism — which is distinct from psychosis – was essential to genius. But was HPL a genius? In his way, I think he was. It wasn’t a purely literary way and perhaps HPL is bigger than literature. He wasn’t a genius like Dickens or Kipling, because you don’t read Lovecraft for literary skill, psychological subtlety and clever characterization. No, you read him for sweep and scale, grandeur and grotesqueness, darkness and density. You should also read him for humour:

In February the McGregor boys from Meadow Hill were out shooting woodchucks, and not far from the Gardner place bagged a very peculiar specimen. The proportions of its body seemed slightly altered in a queer way impossible to describe, while its face had taken on an expression which no one ever saw in a woodchuck before. (“The Colour out of Space”, 1927)

Like J.G. Ballard, Lovecraft is often misread as lacking humour. In fact, like Ballard, he’s often very funny. This book is a joke he would have appreciated: there’s something blackly humorous about his posthumous elevation to hard covers and high-quality paper under the auspices of the Oxford University Press. His work is now getting more care than his body did: as Luckhurst notes in the introduction, HPL died of stomach cancer at 47 as “an unknown and unsuccessful pulp writer” (pg. xii). Is he better in a pulp paperback, with battered covers, yellowing paper and no notes? Yes, I think he is, but he’s best of all when he’s both paperback and hardback. I don’t like literary studies in their modern form, but Roger Luckhurst doesn’t slather HPL in jargon or suffocate the stories with notes.

So the notes aren’t intrusive, but they are instructive – for example, about HPL’s modesty and self-doubt. Did he really think “At the Mountains of Madness” (1936) “displayed evidence of a ‘lack of general ability’ and a mind corrupted by ‘too much reading of pulp fiction’” (“Explanatory Notes”, pg. 470)? Then he was a giant who mistook himself for a pygmy. But that’s better than the reverse. Most of his greatness is collected here, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “The Shadow Out of Time”, though I would have dropped “The Horror at Red Hook” and included “The Music of Erich Zann”. I would also like to drop China Miéville and include J.G. Ballard, but unfortunately HPL didn’t influence Ballard. I wish he had. Mutual influence would have been even better.

Nietzsche did influence Lovecraft and Lovecraft’s work can be read as, in part, an attempt to confront the death of God. Spirit departs the world; science invades. Where are wonder and horror to be found now? In “The Call of Cthulhu” or “At the Mountains of Madness”, stories that draw on astronomy, geology and biology to awe us with space, time and organic possibility. And Lovecraft, unlike Nietzsche or Ballard, recognized the importance of mathematics. That’s most evident here in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933), which mixes trans-Euclidean geometry with ancient superstition. But maths isn’t the only influence on this story: so is M.P. Shiel’s novel The House of Sounds (1896). I didn’t know about that and I’m glad to have learnt it. That’s good scholarship, introducing readers to older authors and deeper influences. It still doesn’t feel right to read Lovecraft on clean white paper in a heavy book, but it’s good that he’s come up in the world. Let him bask in the sun before the Übermensch arrives.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Conan the Indomitable by Robert E. HowardConan the Indomitable, Robert E. Howard (Orion Books 2011)

This collection contains probably the best Conan story, “The Scarlet Citadel”, and certainly the longest, The Hour of the Dragon. It was also one of the last: the Texan Robert E. Howard would kill himself a few months after the final part appeared in the April 1936 issue of Weird Tales. He was only thirty, which means that he may one day have had more readers than he lived seconds (60 x 60 x 24 x 365 x 30 = 946,080,000). If re-readers count towards the total, he’ll get there a lot quicker: Howard is a writer you can return to again and again. He’s one of the Weird Tales Big Three with H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. He’s the least intelligent and imaginative of the three, but he’s a better writer than HPL and a more stirring writer than CAS:

“Again, nay!” snapped Tsotha, swinging down from his horse. He laughed coldly. “Have you not learned by this time that my brain is mightier than any sword?”

He passed through the lines of the pikemen, and the giants in their steel caps and mail brigandines shrank back fearfully, lest they so much as touch the skirts of his robe. Nor were the plumed knights slower in making room for him. He stepped over the corpses and came face to face with the grim king. The hosts watched in tense silence, holding their breath. The black-armored figure loomed in terrible menace over the lean, silk-robed shape, the notched, dripping sword hovering on high.

“I offer you life, Conan,” said Tsotha, a cruel mirth bubbling at the back of his voice.

“I give you death, wizard,” snarled the king, and backed by iron muscles and ferocious hate the great sword swung in a stroke meant to shear Tsotha’s lean torso in half. But even as the hosts cried out, the wizard stepped in, too quick for the eye to follow, and apparently merely laid an open hand on Conan’s left forearm, from the ridged muscles of which the mail had been hacked away. The whistling blade veered from its arc and the mailed giant crashed heavily to earth, to lie motionless. Tsotha laughed silently.

“Take him up and fear not; the lion’s fangs are drawn.” (“The Scarlet Citadel”, 1933)

Like Alistair MacLean, Howard is good at describing violent action and at painting powerful word-pictures. The wizard’s full name is Tsotha-lanti, which is an unusual invention for Howard: unlike CAS and HPL, he usually drew on real history and mythology for his names. This is part of why “The Scarlet Citadel” is probably the best Conan story: its wizard really seems part of a mysterious ancient world, many thousands of years before the present. It’s a pity the story contains borrowed names too: Set, Ishtar, Rinaldo, Pelias and so on. “Conan” itself is taken from Irish history, for example, in tribute to part of Howard’s own ancestry. Like his talent, his early suicide and his popular appeal, Howard’s ancestry links him to Kurt Cobain, the lead singer and guitarist in the band Nirvana. And would Howard have been a rock-musician if he’d been born later in the twentieth century? Maybe. He’s certainly contributed to rock music: by helping to shape sword-and-sorcery, he influenced heavy metal and its imagery.

His stories have the incongruity of heavy metal too: heavy metal uses advanced technology to sing about sword-and-sorcery, Howard used modern English to write about sword-and-sorcery. His archaic vocabulary is decorative, not fundamental, and his prose is too direct and efficient to truly evoke otherwhen and elsewhere:

Through the black arch of a door four gaunt, black-robed shapes had filed into the great hall. Their faces were dim yellow ovals in the shadows of their hoods.

“Who are you?” ejaculated Thutothmes in a voice as pregnant with danger as the hiss of a cobra. “Are you mad, to invade the holy shrine of Set?”

The tallest of the strangers spoke, and his voice was toneless as a Khitan temple bell.

“We follow Conan of Aquilonia.”

“He is not here,” answered Thutothmes, shaking back his mantle from his right hand with a curious menacing gesture, like a panther unsheathing his talons.

“You lie. He is in this temple. We tracked him from a corpse behind the bronze door of the outer portal through a maze of corridors. We were following his devious trail when we became aware of this conclave. We go now to take it up again. But first give us the Heart of Ahriman.”

“Death is the portion of madmen,” murmured Thutothmes, moving nearer the speaker. His priests closed in on catlike feet, but the strangers did not appear to heed.

“Who can look upon it without desire?” said the Khitan. “In Khitai we have heard of it. It will give us power over the people which cast us out. Glory and wonder dream in its crimson deeps. Give it to us, before we slay you.” (The Hour of the Dragon, 1935)

The Hour of the Dragon would make a good computer-game: it’s a detailed but fast-moving quest-story, with Conan pursuing the great gem that has resurrected an evil wizard from the far past. But if it were made into a computer-game, I wouldn’t want to play it. Writing is still the strangest and most mysterious of the arts: black marks on white paper can conjure an infinite variety of sights, sensations and emotions. Hour isn’t concentrated Conan like “The Scarlet Citadel”, but it’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it every time I re-read it. Howard doesn’t transcend his genre, so he can’t be placed at the level of Clark Ashton Smith. And he didn’t have Lovecraft’s subtlety, invention or sly humour, so he never wrote anything to match “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or “The Call of Cthulhu”. But he deserves to be one of the Weird Tales Big Three and this collection proves it.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Imperial Earth by Arthur C. ClarkeImperial Earth (1976) and Rendezvous with Rama (1972), Arthur C. Clarke

I was a pretty little boy once, before all the drink, drugs and debauchery. Arthur C. Clarke would have been pleased by this, because he liked pretty little boys and in those days he was my favourite writer. Alas, I’m no longer pretty and he’s no longer my favourite writer. I see the flaws in his writing too clearly now and I don’t like his optimistic liberal politics or his piety about One Humanity. But I see the virtues of his writing too: its intelligence, clarity and scientific acumen, for example. If you put aside anthropology and genetics, Clarke knew what he was extrapolating about and his books have aged well. Nothing dates faster than the future, but Clarke’s various futures aren’t wholly ridiculous yet.

For example, Imperial Earth was published in 1976 and is set in the twenty-third century, but it’s still possible to suspend disbelief while you’re reading the book. It’s getting harder, however, and one thing must have been hard to accept even in 1976. The novel is about the Makenzie clan, who live in an underground city on Saturn’s moon Titan and are unique because of two allegedly uncorrectable errors. First, a computer has accidentally altered their surname and second, a photon has adventitiously ended their lineage:

The fault lay in Malcolm’s genes, not Ellen’s. Sometime during his shuttling back and forth between Earth and Mars, a stray photon that had been cruising through space since the cosmic dawn had blasted his hopes for the future. The damage was irreparable, as Malcolm discovered when he consulted the best genetic surgeons of four worlds. (ch. 1, “A Shriek in the Night”)

So Malcolm Makenzie has to clone himself to produce his son Colin, and Colin has to clone himself to produce Malcolm’s grandson Duncan. Rubbish! Men have colonized the solar system and can produce clones, but can’t repair simple damage to sex-cells? And the clones, produced from somatic cells, have the same defect? That Malcolm, Colin and Duncan are all black-skinned isn’t incredible, just irritating: like Ursula Le Guin’s fantasy, Clarke’s future is a Star-Trekkian, rainbow-of-races one and he likes being ironic about racism and prejudice. It’s also a disenchanted future: there’s nothing supernatural in it and man’s power over nature is increasing all the time.

But Clarke still wants to invoke old emotions. So where is sublimity – awe, mystery and wonder – to come from in a universe without God or gods? This problem has existed for a long time: the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) identified the phenomenon of Entzauberung, or disenchantment, at the beginning of the twentieth century, as science advanced and God retreated. Where do atheists find awe?

The poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) faced the same problem in the same era and Arthur C. Clarke was familiar with Housman’s solutions. Clarke even took the title of a novel, Against the Fall of Night (1948), from one of Housman’s poems:

Smooth between sea and land
Is laid the yellow sand,
And here through summer days
The seed of Adam plays.

Here the child comes to found
His unremaining mound,
And the grown lad to score
Two names upon the shore.

Here, on the level sand,
Between the sea and land,
What shall I build or write
Against the fall of night?

Tell me of runes to grave
That hold the bursting wave,
Or bastions to design
For longer date than mine.

Shall it be Troy or Rome
I fence against the foam,
Or my own name, to stay
When I depart for aye?

Nothing: too near at hand,
Planing the figure sand,
Effacing clean and fast
Cities not built to last
And charms devised in vain,
Pours the confounding main.

(XLV in More Poems, 1936)

Housman uses the sea as a metaphor for time, which conquers all things and all men. We are dwarfed by time just as we are dwarfed by the sea. Both can invoke awe even in atheists. Housman also sought awe in the ungovernable chances that rule our lives and in the thought of death being the final and irrevocable end. But Clarke, a much more optimistic and cheerful character than Housman, did not dwell so much on death. It appears in his work occasionally, not obsessively:

Grandma had met Captain Kleinman only a year after the final parting with Malcolm; she may have been on an emotional rebound, but he certainly was not. Yet thereafter the Captain had never looked at another woman, and it had become one of those love affairs famous on many worlds. It had lasted throughout the planning and preparations for the first expedition to Saturn and the fitting-out of the Challenger in orbit off Titan. And as far as Ellen Makenzie was concerned it had never died; it was frozen forever at the moment when the ship met its mysterious and still inexplicable doom, deep in the jet streams of the South Temperate Zone. (ch. 5, “The Politics of Space and Time”)

Mysterious and inexplicable dooms are very old themes, but Clarke still wanted to use one, despite his optimism and belief in science and reason. But he preferred Housman’s awe-by-dwarfing and awe-by-chance. In Imperial Earth, communication is by hyper-scientific, unenchanted “viddyphone”. But one day, by “pure chance”, Duncan Makenzie finds a “magic number”, accidentally misdialling when he is trying to call his step-grandmother. The circuit is “live immediately”, but there is “no ringing tone” and “no picture”:

Then he noticed the sound. At first, he thought that someone was breathing quietly into the microphone at the far end, but he quickly realized his mistake. There was a random, inhuman quality about this gentle susurration; it lacked any regular rhythm, and there were long intervals of complete silence. As he listened, Duncan felt a growing sense of awe. Here was something completely outside his normal, everyday experience, yet he recognized it almost at once. In his ten years of life, the impressions of many worlds had been imprinted on his mind, and no one who had heard this most evocative of sounds could ever forget it. He was listening to the voice of the wind as it sighed and whispered across the lifeless landscape a hundred meters above his head.

Duncan forgot all about Grandma, and turned the volume up to its highest level. He lay back on the couch, closed his eyes, and tried to project himself into the unknown, hostile world from which he was protected by all the safety devices that three hundred years of space technology could contrive. (ch. 1, “A Shriek in the Night”)

Safety devices disenchant; the wind’s randomness re-enchants. Wind combines both power and chance: it’s a chaotic and sometimes destructive phenomenon. But there’s more to come for Duncan on the “magic number”:

As luck would have it, the wind must have slackened at about the time he [began to record its sounds], because there was a long, frustrating silence. Then, out of that silence, came something new. It was faint and distant, yet conveyed the impression of overwhelming power. First there was a thin scream that mounted second by second in intensity, but somehow never came any closer. The scream rose swiftly to a demonic shriek, with undertones of thunder – then dwindled away as quickly as it had appeared. From beginning to end it lasted less than half a minute. Then there was only the sighing of the wind, even lonelier than before.

The shriek conveys “overwhelming power” and sounds “demonic”, but Duncan doesn’t believe in demons and the overwhelming power turns out to be wielded by man: the shriek was made by a “ram-tanker” scooping hydrogen from Titan’s atmosphere to use as fuel. Clarke’s future runs partly on Promethium, which would have pleased Marx:

I was standing on a beach in Siberia when this book [Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents Of Marxism, Vol I, II and III, (1978)] was recommended to me. The wavelets of a small artificial ocean made by damming the river Ob were splashing on the sand, and I was wondering out loud about the roots of the Soviet passion for making grand modifications to nature. “You need to read Kolakowski,” said the person I was with. “He’s got a great chapter about what he calls ‘the Promethean motif’ in Marxism – the idea that it’s the destiny of humanity to steal fire from the gods and make the world whatever we want it to be.” (“Book Of A Lifetime”, Francis Spufford)

The Promethean impulse in incompetent communism led to horrendous pollution and a world that people didn’t actually want. In capitalism, it hasn’t been as destructive so far, but the world it creates still leaves people wanting sublimity. Housman taught Clarke some ways of invoking that, but Clarke had his own way too: mathematics. In Imperial Earth, Duncan’s grandmother introduces Duncan to pentominoes, or shapes made by fitting five squares together edge-to-edge. Only twelve pentominoes are possible and they can arranged to make a ten-by-six rectangle. But it’s not as easy to make the rectangle as it looks:

For a long time, Duncan stared at the collection of twelve deceptively simple figures. As he slowly assimilated what Grandma had told him, he had the first genuine mathematical revelation of his life. What had at first seemed merely a childish game had opened endless vistas and horizons – though even the brightest of ten-year-olds could not begin to guess the full extent of the universe now opening up before him. This moment of dawning wonder and awe was purely passive; a far more intense explosion of intellectual delight occurred when he found his first very own solution to the problem. For weeks he carried around with him the set of twelve pentominoes in their plastic box, playing with them at every odd moment. […] And once in a sort of geometrical trance or ecstasy which he was never able to repeat, he discovered five solutions in less than an hour. Newton and Einstein and Chen-Tsu could have felt no greater kinship with the gods of mathematics in their own moments of truth… (ch. 7, “A Cross of Titanite”)

The gods are gone from Clarke’s universe, but he still uses them as a metaphor for the way mathematics dwarfs man. Note the final ellipsis too: it’s Clarke’s own, because he likes trailing dots and leaving things unsaid. In mathematics, trailing dots are used to represent indefiniteness or infinity: 1, 2, 3… Infinity is another source of the sublime and Clarke invokes it regularly in Imperial Earth. This is Duncan looking at the strange mineral Titanite under a microscope:

A hexagonal corridor of light, dwindling away to infinity, outlined by millions of sparkling points in a geometrically perfect array. By changing focus, Duncan could hurtle down that corridor, without ever coming to an end. How incredible that such a universe lay inside a piece of rock only a millimetre thick! (ch. 7, “A Cross of Titanite”)

This is Duncan hearing the engine that powers the space-ship taking him to Earth:

From an infinite distance came the thin wail of the [Asymptotic] Drive; Duncan told himself that he was listening to the death cry of matter as it left the known universe, bequeathing to the ship all the energy of its mass in the final moment of dissolution. Every minute, several kilograms of hydrogen were falling into that tiny but insatiable vortex – the hole that could never be filled. (ch. 15, “At the Node”)

And this is Duncan actually on Earth:

It was even worse when he looked up at the sky, so utterly different from the low, crimson overcast of Titan. He had flown halfway across the Solar System, yet never had he received such an impression of space and distance as he did now, when he stared at the solid-looking white clouds, sailing through a blue abyss that seemed to go on forever. It was useless to tell himself that they were only ten kilometres away – the distance a spaceship could travel in a fraction of a second. Not even the starfields of the Milky Way had yielded such glimpses of infinity. (ch. 19, “Mount Vernon”)

In the main hall of the Administration Building, Duncan paused for a moment before the giant, slowly rotating DNA helix which dominated the entrance. As his gaze roamed along the spokes of the twisted ladder, contemplating its all-but-infinite possibilities, he could not help thinking again of the pentominoes that Grandma Ellen had set out before him years ago. There were only twelve of those shapes – yet it would take the lifetime of the universe to exhaust their possibilities. And here was no mere dozen, but billions upon billions of locations to be filled by the letters of the genetic code. The total number of combinations was not one to stagger the mind because there was no way whatsoever in which the mind could grasp even the faintest conception of it. The number of electrons required to pack the entire cosmos solid from end to end was virtually zero in comparison. (ch. 42, “The Mirror of the Sea”)

So it’s too awesome to be awesome. Which is awesome. Duncan is dwelling on DNA because he’s at the cloning-centre, overseeing the fourth generation of Makenzies. Because a clone is a copy, the possibilities of recombination are over, but there will be a twist at the end of Imperial Earth whereby possibility is renewed and life comes out of death in a way it never did in Housman. There’s also a clever link in Imperial Earth between Clarke’s two great alien loves: the sea and the heavens. Something apparently small and earth-bound turns out to be gigantic and otherworldly. Clarke used marine and extra-terrestrial themes in all his books, but there’s another clever link in Rendezvous with Rama, where the sea is actually waiting in the heavens. Or a sea is waiting, at least.

And it’s a cylindrical sea, extending right around the interior of a gigantic alien space-craft whose ultimate purpose and destination are never discovered. Or not in this first novel of the Rama series, at least. I haven’t read any of the other books, which Clarke wrote in collaboration with Gentry Lee, and I don’t want to. I don’t want answers to the questions raised by Rendezvous with Rama, just as I don’t want answers to the questions raised in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931):

Some of the Old Ones, in the decadent days, had made strange prayers to those mountains — but none ever went near them or dared to guess what lay beyond. No human eye had ever seen them, and as I studied the emotions conveyed in the carvings, I prayed that none ever might. There are protecting hills along the coast beyond them — Queen Mary and Kaiser Wilhelm Lands — and I thank Heaven no one has been able to land and climb those hills. I am not as sceptical about old tales and fears as I used to be, and I do not laugh now at the prehuman sculptor’s notion that lightning paused meaningfully now and then at each of the brooding crests, and that an unexplained glow shone from one of those terrible pinnacles all through the long polar night. There may be a very real and very monstrous meaning in the old Pnakotic whispers about Kadath in the Cold Waste. (At the Mountains of Madness, 1931)

Lovecraft was another writer who faced a Godless universe and the dilemma of disenchantment. He invoked sublimity and dwarfed the puny ambitions of man by mixing astronomy with biology and inventing sky-spanning, dimension-demolishing monsters. Clarke was familiar with Lovecraft – he wrote a Lovecraftian pastiche called “At the Mountains of Murkiness” – but his optimism kept him from imitating Lovecraft’s monstrous, quasi-supernatural solutions. All the same, the giant alien artifact of Rama is reminiscent of the vast alien city discovered by Antarctic explorers in At the Mountains of Madness. That is perhaps Lovecraft’s best and most successful book, just as Rendezvous with Rama is perhaps Clarke’s best and most successful. There’s much less reference to infinity in Rendezvous than in Imperial Earth, probably because Clarke has enough on his hands as it is. When Rama originally appears in the solar system, it is so large that it is mistaken for an asteroid:

The object first catalogued as 31/439, according to the year and the order of its discovery, was detected while still outside the orbit of Jupiter. There was nothing unusual about its location; many asteroids went beyond Saturn before turning once more towards their distant master, the sun. And Thule II, most far-ranging of all, travelled so close to Uranus that it might well have been a lost moon of that planet.

But a first radar contact at such a distance was unprecedented; clearly, 31/439 must be of exceptional size. From the strength of the echo, the computers deduced a diameter of at least forty kilometres; such a giant had not been discovered for a hundred years. That it had been overlooked for so long seemed incredible.

Then the orbit was calculated, and the mystery was resolved – to be replaced by a greater one. 31/439 was not travelling on a normal asteroidal path, along an ellipse which it retraced with clockwork precision every few years. It was a lonely wanderer between the stars, making its first and last visit to the solar system – for it was moving so swiftly that the gravitational field of the sun could never capture it. It would flash inwards past the orbits of Jupiter, Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury, gaining speed – as it did so, until it rounded the sun and headed out once again into the unknown. (ch. 2, “Intruder”)

The year of discovery is 2131, so it’s easier to suspend disbelief in Rendezvous than in Imperial Earth, set in 2276. Rama keeps getting curiouser and curiouser: originally thought to be asteroidal, it’s soon discovered to be artificial on a scale far beyond man’s wildest ambitions. Furthermore, it’s hollow and when a spaceship called Endeavour is sent to investigate it, the crew discover an air-lock and can get inside. And “air-lock” is the word: Rama is full of air that men can breathe. Because it’s cylindrical and spinning on its long axis, it also has gravity and the crew of Endeavour are able to set up camp in the interior.
Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke
What they see when the lighting comes on is well-captured by the cover-artist of the first edition. However, the clouds are artistic licence, inspired by the section in which Clarke describes how the frozen interior of Rama and the ice of the Cylindrical Sea begin to thaw. There’s a scientific team on Earth called the Rama Committee, which is overseeing the exploration of Rama, and one of its leading lights is an exobiologist called Carlisle Perera. He is able to predict something others have missed. The crew of Endeavour have to abandon Rama while his prediction works itself out. On their return, they make more unexpected discoveries, sail the Cylindrical Sea, and fly to the far end of Rama, which is otherwise inaccessible because of the cliff on the opposite side of the Sea. Or one of the crew flies to the South Pole, at least:

Lieutenant James Pak was the most junior officer on board Endeavour, and this was only his fourth mission into deep space. He was ambitious, and due for promotion; he had also committed a serious breach of regulations. No wonder, therefore, that he took a long time to make up his mind. (ch. 24, “Dragonfly”)

He’s breached regulations by smuggling a “sky-bike” on board as “Recreational Stores”. A sky-bike is a man-powered flyer and he intended to use it in the Lunar Olympics. Now, he suggests to Captain Norton that he fly along Rama instead to the mysterious horns at the South Pole. Gravity will be lower near the axis of Rama and he’ll easily be able to keep aloft. This is an example of how Clarke, having imagined Rama, is able to add scientific detail to his creation: he can see how things might really be. But part of how things might really be, inside a giant alien spacecraft, is a lot that human beings can’t understand, like the structures Jimmy Pak flies to on his sky-bike Dragonfly:

In almost every way the southern and northern ends of Rama differed completely. Here was no triad of stairways, no series of narrow, concentric plateaux, no sweeping curve from hub to plain. Instead, there was an immense central spike, more than five kilometres long, extending along the axis. Six smaller ones, half this size, were equally spaced around it; the whole assembly looked like a group of remarkably symmetrical stalactites, hanging from the roof of a cave. Or, inverting the point of view, the spires of some Cambodian temple, set at the bottom of a crater… (ch. 26, “The Voice of Rama”)

Again the ellipsis is in the original: Clarke is trailing off into mystery, because no-one can understand what the spikes are for. But they become charged with electricity and produce giant bolts of lightning, which cripple Dragonfly and force Jimmy into a crash-landing on the southern half of Rama. He encounters more mysteries here and makes a startling discovery:

Not until he was only a few metres away could he be completely sure that life as he knew it had intruded into the sterile, aseptic world of Rama. For blooming here in lonely splendour at the edge of the southern continent was a flower. (ch. 30, “The Flower”)

This is part of the revelation that Rama is a kind of space-ark and not as lifeless as it originally seemed. But the flower is inside “a trellis of wires and rods”, so when Jimmy decides to pick it, he has to travel light:

He stripped off all his clothes, grasped the smooth metal rods, and started to wriggle into the framework. It was a tight fit; he felt like a prisoner escaping through the bars of his cell. When he had inserted himself completely into the lattice he tried backing out again, just to see if there were any problems. It was considerably more difficult, since he now had to use his outstretched arms for pushing instead of pulling, but he saw no reason why he should get helplessly trapped. (Ibid.)

Jimmy is “the most junior officer” on Endeavour, remember, so I think Clarke’s Housmanesque, paederastic tastes were guiding his imagination there. But a Housman character wouldn’t be called “Jimmy” and wouldn’t survive his misadventure. Clarke raises the possibility of death, but doesn’t realize it: Jimmy is able to escape the southern half of Rama and return to his crewmates. Then there are more startling discoveries, more mysteries, and more touches of scientific verisimilitude, including “tidal waves” on the Cylindrical Sea, which is actually fitted with:

Anti-slosh plates, Norton told himself. Exactly the same as in Endeavour’s own propellant tanks – but on a thousand-fold greater scale. There must be a complex pattern of them all around the Sea, to damp out any waves as quickly as possible. (ch. 32, “The Wave”)

Rama has its own propulsion system, you see, and is starting to manoeuvre as it approaches the sun, so the Cylindrical Sea is starting to slosh about. As he describes Rama’s final hours in the solar system, Clarke comes up with some clever twists and misdirections and the last line of the novel is one of the best in science-fiction. You should have been expecting it, but you probably won’t have been, because it suddenly switches scale from the micro to the macro. Rendezvous with Rama is an admirable novel in a number of ways: easy and enjoyable to read, minutely imagined, cleverly plotted and plausibly detailed. I find its Star-Trekkian, rainbow-of-races, free-and-easy-sexuality society irritating nowadays, but that’s Clarke being Pollyanna or Pangloss.

It’s also Clarke being adolescent: if he’s your favourite author, you might be intelligent or an adult but you probably won’t be both. If the human race is still recognizably human in 2131 or 2276, I doubt it will take him seriously as a writer, but it might honour him as a prophet for his physics and astronautics, if not for his anthropology. There isn’t only one human race: there are lots and Clarke, like many other science-fiction writers, missed exploring a very interesting and complex world by being piously obtuse about humanity and its genetic variability.

But he explored other interesting and complex worlds, extrapolating and imagining and introducing millions of readers to the wonders of space, science and the sea. Rendezvous with Rama is about a giant and mysterious space-ark carrying a mysterious cargo to an unknown destination. It may also be an ark for Arthur C. Clarke’s reputation, carrying it down the decades until his hopes are realized or his creations confounded. He’s not my favourite writer any more but I still admire him and I’m grateful for the pleasure his books have given me.

Read Full Post »