Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘realism’

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 (1973), 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 (1973)

Read Full Post »

Void Moon by Michael ConnellyVoid Moon, Michael Connelly (2000)

This novel has two of Connelly’s greatest virtues: clever plotting and compulsive readability. But it’s marred by perhaps his biggest vice: his failure to remember that more is often less. Like The Black Echo (1992), it grabs you at the start with the small story of a failed criminal. The Black Echo has a dead Vietnam vet called William Meadows; Void Moon has a living parolee called Cassie Black. She’s just done years in jail for burglary and is trying to start her life again as a saleswoman at a luxury car-dealer in Los Angeles.

Why was she caught? What happened to her male accomplice? Connelly cleverly leaves things unexplained and draws you in. Cassie is a sympathetic character and you start worrying as you realize that she’s planning to go back to burglary. She’s risking a quick return to jail, because Thelma Kibble, her probation officer, is an “obese black female” and therefore very good at her job. She’s becoming suspicious of Cassie, who likes her all the same. Kibble “wasn’t easy but she was fair.” Connelly’s political correctness can’t really be called a vice, because it’s so common nowadays and isn’t in fact very annoying in this book.

There are even two good white men to offset all the evil white men. And the chief villain is one of Connelly’s best. He’s a psychopathic magician called Jack Karch. That’s magic as in card-tricks and rabbits-from-hats: Karch’s father once performed in Las Vegas on the same bill as Frank Sinatra. Like money and greed, legerdemain and misdirection are important parts of the plot. Las Vegas is where Cassie was caught, trying to rob a high-roller at a casino, and where she returns for another attempt at another high-roller. That’s why Karch, who’s working as a casino detective, gets on her trail and that’s when the book begins to lose its realism. There are too many dead bodies in the second half and too much of the action might have come from a James Bond movie. Like The Black Echo, the plot starts small, believable and compelling. Like The Black Echo again, it becomes big, unbelievable and no longer compelling.

But the plot is undeniably clever, with plenty of twists and surprises, and Connelly skilfully uses the characters and setting to explore themes like loyalty, deception and ego. Another part of his literary skill is apparent only when you read more of his books. His chief character is the LAPD murder-detective Harry Bosch and although Bosch doesn’t appear in Void Moon, it’s set in the same world. All his characters are linked in some way and Cassie turns up in a Bosch book. She’s a minor character there, a major one here.

That’s like life and so was the opening of Void Moon. When the bodies start piling up, the credibility is gone. I wouldn’t have minded so much if Thelma Kibble, the obese and highly competent probation officer, had been one of Karch’s long list of murderees. She isn’t, but she has more than a waddle-on part in the book and I’m not sure that Connelly was entirely sincere in making her such a stereotype of Black female virtue. If Void Moon had ended as it began, mindful that less is more, it would have been a much better book. But it’s still good and if you like hard-boiled crime fiction, Michael Connelly is definitely someone to try.

Read Full Post »

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (French)Treasure Island (1883) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson

These two books contain two of the greatest stories ever written. But they’re curiously different in style, despite the brief time that separates them. Treasure Island has deep pages, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has shallow ones – paper-thin, you might say. In the former, the prose vividly evokes the sounds, sights and smells of the eighteenth century: there’s a three-dimensional world beneath the words and you read almost as though you’re looking into an aquarium. When you’ve finished the story, you feel as though you’ve lived it, as though you’ve really met the characters who moved through it, really had the adventures that Jim Hawkins describes. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t like that. I read it, I don’t live it, because the words don’t transcend language and I don’t forget the printed page as I do in Treasure Island. The closest the story comes to conjuring a moment of reality is perhaps here:

They mounted the stair in silence, and still with an occasional awe-struck glance at the dead body, proceeded more thoroughly to examine the contents of the cabinet. At one table, there were traces of chemical work, various measured heaps of some white salt being laid on glass saucers, as though for an experiment in which the unhappy man had been prevented.

“That is the same drug that I was always bringing him,” said Poole; and even as he spoke, the kettle with a startling noise boiled over.

This brought them to the fireside, where the easy-chair was drawn cosily up, and the tea-things stood ready to the sitter’s elbow, the very sugar in the cup. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

It’s a clever domestic touch amid the horror that has gone before and the horror that is to come. But Treasure Island is full of touches like that, bringing the world of the story before the mind’s eye or ear or nose: the notch in the “big signboard of Admiral Benbow”, left by Bill’s cutlass as he aims a blow at Black Dog; the “five or six curious West Indian shells” in Bill’s sea-trunk and the “piece of pigtail tobacco bitten away at the end” in his pocket; the “smell of sodden leaves and rotting tree trunks” at the Hispaniola’s first anchorage; the death-shriek that sends marsh-birds whirring aloft when a loyal sailor is murdered; O’Brien’s red cap floating on the surface and the baldness of his bare head beneath the rippling water; Long John Silver’s parrot’s “pecking at a piece of bark” in the dark; the “wood ash” on the black spot handed to Silver, which soils Jim’s fingers; the “heavy-scented broom and many flowering shrubs” on Spy-glass Hill; the grass sprouting on the bottom of the “great excavation” where Flint’s treasure had been; the “strange Oriental” coins “stamped with what looked like wisps of string or bits of spider’s web”; and many more.

The characterization is excellent too. Treasure Island is full of memorable figures, cleverly seen from (mostly) a boy’s perspective: Bill, Blind Pew, the Squire, Ben Gunn, Israel Hands and, most memorable of all, Long John Silver, the charming backstabber and affable rogue. They’re good, evil, pathetic, frightening, cunning, stupid, murderous, brave and more. Hands’ mind and motives are captured in a single line: “I want their pickles and wines, and that.” And here’s Ben Gunn’s long exile evoked in tragicomic dialogue: “Well, many’s the long night I’ve dreamed of cheese — toasted, mostly — and woke up again, and here I were.”
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The characters in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde don’t live on the page like that: Hyde is described as evil, but he isn’t frightening like Blind Pew. Hyde is words on a page; Pew wrenches arms and skips nimbly from the parlour of the Admiral Benbow. His stick goes “tap-tapping” on a “frozen road”. He lives, and dies, before the mind’s eye. But one thing the characters of the two books have in common is that they’re almost all male. There’s a cook and a housemaid in Jekyll and Hyde, Jim’s mother and Silver’s “old Negress” in Treasure Island, and that’s it, unless you count the Hispaniola, Silver’s parrot and the sea.

This paucity of female characters links Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1924). Those two books also have shallow pages. Billy Budd, in fact, is the shallowest book I’ve ever come across. All I found in it was words conjuring nothing: there were no sounds, sights or smells to the story:

The lieutenants and other commissioned gentlemen forming Captain Vere’s staff it is not necessary here to particularize, nor needs it to make any mention of any of the warrant-officers. But among the petty-officers was one who having much to do with the story, may as well be forthwith introduced. His portrait I essay, but shall never hit it. This was John Claggart, the Master-at-arms. But that sea-title may to landsmen seem somewhat equivocal. Originally, doubtless, that petty-officer’s function was the instruction of the men in the use of arms, sword or cutlas. But very long ago, owing to the advance in gunnery making hand-to-hand encounters less frequent and giving to nitre and sulphur the preeminence over steel, that function ceased; the Master-at-arms of a great war-ship becoming a sort of Chief of Police, charged among other matters with the duty of preserving order on the populous lower gun decks. (Billy Budd, chapter 8)

I found the book boring and a chore to read. That’s not true of Stevenson’s and Wilde’s stories, which are both about temptation and damnation. But the reality conjured by those two authors is almost a theatrical one, as though the characters are on a stage surrounded by props and special effects:

It was a wild, cold, seasonable night of March, with a pale moon, lying on her back as though the wind had tilted her, and a flying wrack of the most diaphanous and lawny texture. The wind made talking difficult, and flecked the blood into the face. It seemed to have swept the streets unusually bare of passengers, besides; for Mr. Utterson thought he had never seen that part of London so deserted. (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, “The Last Night”)

The wind shook some blossoms from the trees, and the heavy lilac-blooms, with their clustering stars, moved to and fro in the languid air. A grasshopper began to chirrup by the wall, and like a blue thread a long thin dragon-fly floated past on its brown gauze wings. Lord Henry felt as if he could hear Basil Hallward’s heart beating, and wondered what was coming. […] “How horribly unjust of you!” cried Lord Henry, tilting his hat back and looking up at the little clouds that, like ravelled skeins of glossy white silk, were drifting across the hollowed turquoise of the summer sky. […] There was a rustle of chirruping sparrows in the green lacquer leaves of the ivy, and the blue cloud-shadows chased themselves across the grass like swallows. (The Picture of Dorian Gray, chapter 1)

Lord Henry ponders the “subtle magic” of language and asks himself: “Was there anything so real as words?” Yes, I would say, and things more real too, but the attempted paradox is a reminder that Wilde is not striving for realism. I don’t think he could have achieved it as Stevenson could and often did. Stevenson was a better writer, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a more fully realized book. It’s longer, after all. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is as short as the dream or nightmare it resembles: it offers the ingredients for horror, but you have to cook some of them for yourself. Treasure Island isn’t a dream: it’s an aquarium or a magic mirror. All three are books to return to again and again over a lifetime, but for me Stevenson’s literary stature seems to grow, Wilde’s to shrink, each time I do so.

Read Full Post »

Front cover of Van Eyck by Simone FerrariVan Eyck, Simone Ferrari (Prestel 2013)

Even if you look at the paintings in this book so closely that your nose touches the paper, you’re still looking at them across a vast distance: the centuries that separate the highly religious, proto-scientific age of Jan Van Eyck (c. 1390-1441) from our own post-Christian, science-saturated age. We can’t see them as Van Eyck meant them to be seen and his contemporaries did see them, because the old beliefs and certainties have vanished or changed. Perhaps the portraits – including his own shrewd, thin-lipped and highly intelligent face, watching with careful, observant eyes beneath a red turban – have best ridden out the centuries. But what do the Madonnas and Annunciations mean now? Not what they meant once: Protestantism and secularism have trampled on Van Eyck’s Catholic world.

By doing that, they also trampled on the paganism preserved in Catholicism. I get a strong sense of Dionysian joy from paintings like the polyptychic Ghent Altarpiece of 1424-32. Van Eyck was using Christian symbols to celebrate an un-Christian love of the earth and its secular splendours: light, colour, jewels, music, living flesh, rich fabrics and luxuriant hair. The Deësis that dominates the altarpiece, “an iconic representation of Christ enthroned, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist”, has a stern-faced, tiara-wearing, fully bearded Christ, but there’s a sense of personal or private mythology in the Adoration of the Lamb below it, where the Lamb bleeds into a chalice atop an altar and an angel-topped fountain plays amid the worshippers:

…in front of the Lamb stands the Fountain of Life, which is referred to in Revelation. Crowds are thronging to pay homage to the Lamb, the Savior of Mankind: Apostles, Prophets, virgins, saints, Fathers of the Church and martyrs. The mystic scene is depicted in a paradisiacal landscape full of botanical detail, depicting flowers from all over the world, including valerian, lily of the valley, narcissi, lilies, basil and poppies. Van Eyck has moved away from the medieval style towards an authentic representation of nature, down to the most minute detail. (pg. 50)

The Annunciation by Jan Van Eyck 1433

The Annunciation (1433)

Van Eyck didn’t take the crazed and disturbing excursions of his near-contemporary Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), but there are hints of Bosch here and there in his art and hints of heterodoxy too. More obvious are the precision and accuracy of Eyck’s eyes and the skill with which he captured what he saw with his fingers and brush. That realism would appear, even more highly developed, in artists like Dürer and Vermeer, as the forces we can see stirring in Van Eyck’s art begin to exert their full strength.

For Van Eyck is important not just artistically and culturally, not just as a witness to vanished piety: he was one of the midwives of science, because his painting depended on mastery not just of art but of technology. He was the great pioneer of painting in oils and the richness and detail of his paintings still pay tribute to the chemical skills that allowed him to capture light and shape on canvas. The Italian biographer Vasari credits him with the invention of oil-painting: “It was first invented in Flanders by Johann of Bruges” (Van Eyck in Close-Up, pg. 138). This is significant in uncomfortable ways. I was careful above to call our own age “post-Christian”, rather than “post-religious”. Religion in disguised forms is still very strong, as would soon be apparent if Simone Ferrari, the Italian art historian who wrote this book, had spoken the full truth about Van Eyck. He wasn’t special just as an artistic genius, but as a white male north-western European. If Ferrari had said that, she would have punished for it rather in the way Galileo was punished for challenging the reality-denying religion of his day.

But the truth is that Van Eyck’s genius grew out of his genetics and the individualism fostered in his small corner of the world by the church’s prohibition on cousin marriage. In-breeding leads to societies that look inward; outbreeding leads to societies than look outward, not just sociologically but philosophically and epistemologically too. Van Eyck’s art was an early fruit of what might might called extraspection; Protestantism and science, both foreshadowed in Van Eyck, were later fruits; and the fruit will turn to ashes when civil war breaks out in Europe because of mass immigration. Individualist nations have been relatively easy for tribal ideologues to corrupt with universalist snake-oil. Van Eyck and his contemporaries began the process, but they would not have accepted Muslim migration. They would have been right. And though Islam has overseen some great art and architecture, and still has a calligraphic tradition that surpasses anything in Europe, it has never produced a Van Eyck.

And I don’t think Van Eyck ever produced an image more beautiful and inspiring than the rainbow-winged angel in The Annunciation of c. 1433-5. Smiles are rare in art from this period and the Virgin Mary herself is both unsmiling and plain as she receives the news that she will bear a divine child. But the angel is beautiful and smiles radiantly, crowned with gems and clad in an intricately pleated robe. That painting alone might secure Van Eyck’s reputation and Van Eyck alone makes Europe worth preserving. We can’t look at his paintings with his eyes any more, but his genius and importance are still plain to see and his legacy is still ours to defend.

Read Full Post »