Posts Tagged ‘Theodore Sturgeon’

On the stars

March 18, 2019

I’m not a scientist or a mathematician, and occasionally find myself, somewhat ashamedly admitting that, even though there are aspects of those vast areas of human knowledge that I really do enjoy talking about, if the discussion gets too technical, I actually do develop a headache: there are certain ideas that I cannot get my head around, no matter how hard I may try. Perhaps some scientists may have similar difficulties when attempting to engage with literature; I don’t know.

download3.jpegIt was not always going to be like that. I discovered science fiction at a very young age: there were the adventures of Dan Dare, in colour, on the front of the Eagle comic, which I only got to read when we stayed at my grandparents’, and I could catch up on my youngest uncle’s collection. And in the public library I found the series of novels by Angus MacVicar about The Lost Planet, which gripped me while no doubt flying hard in the face of the laws of physics. Certainly they gave me a sense of the vastness of space and our relative insignificance in the grand order of things. And in the primary school playground, my best friend and I fantasised about being the first men on the moon… which dates me rather.

I have always got a certain frisson from staring up at the sky on a clear night and seeing the constellations, even though I can’t really recognise more than the Plough, the Pleiades and Orion; I remember being astounded when on a trip to Morocco as a student, I actually saw the Milky Way in all its glory for the first time.

If you asked me what world event in my lifetime that has made the greatest impression on me, it would undoubtedly be the first moon landing, now almost fifty years ago. I can remember the excitement of watching it live on TV and – because of course all the timings were for the US television audience – getting up at 3am to watch the first moon walk live. I think, somehow, I regard it as the summit of human achievement. Humans have always explored and sought knowledge, and the efforts and sacrifices and lives that made all of that possible are a testament to that wonderful trait of our species, our curiosity; I could wish that far more of our energies had been turned outwards to the planets and the stars, rather than inwards to strife, warfare and destruction. And I still hope that it will be in my lifetime that humans return to the moon, and reach Mars, too.

One of my teachers was on holiday in the USA at the time of the first landing, and knowing of my fascination with newspapers, brought me back a copy of the New York Times with the news and the photos on the front page; it remains a treasured possession, and I have no idea what it may now be worth.

My interest in science fiction and its ideas has been lifelong; I know, thanks to Theodore Sturgeon, that 95% of it, along with 95% of everything, is crap, but the good 5% encourages us to look outward from our small planet, to contemplate our potential as well as our insignificance in the great scheme of things, and sometimes to lift our thoughts from the merely material onto another, perhaps spiritual plane. I find the idea that there might be other life, other intelligent species somewhere out there quite logical as well as thrilling, although of course I am never going to find out.

In purely practical terms, of course, it also does rather look as if we will be needing a replacement planet quite soon…

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August favourites #6: science fiction

August 6, 2018

As I prepared to post this, I noticed that today is Hiroshima Day. Appropriate.

I’ve read so much science fiction in my time, particularly since I researched it for a higher degree; a lot is tosh, as the venerable Theodore Sturgeon noted (in rather pithier language, too) but there’s a lot of good stuff. I tend to go for the utopian end, which I may write about later, and the dystopian, too, as well as encounters with alien intelligences. I first came across Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz as a teenager, and have returned regularly to it ever since. It’s a dystopia, set in a wasteland United States after a nuclear war. An order of monks helps preserve the knowledge of the past, and seeks out lost information among the ruins; the pace is slow as over centuries humanity gradually rebuilds itself and creates a new ‘technological’ civilisation, only to fall into the same mistakes and repeat the catastrophe a second time. It fits the pessimism and dark days of the Cold War, but seems peculiarly relevant to me nowadays as once again I find myself reflecting on our species’ inability to learn from our past. It’s a very well-written story, a classic both of its time and the genre.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

On bad SF

December 20, 2017

I’ve waited several days before writing this post, trying to assess just how bad the novel is…

The characters and their relationships are cardboard cut-outs, without any depth or subtlety, indeed with barely any psychological credibility at all. The plot is pretty tenuous: four scientists are sent back twelve thousand years in time, for four years, to observe and monitor primitive tribes. They build trust, and interfere. There is much vulgarised anthropology and linguistics, too, such that even I, as an expert in neither field, could see through. The time-travel elements were barely credible, if that makes sense, even for a topic so incredible in itself. And then, a totally unbelievable deus ex machina at the end…

Why is it so bad? Although I briefly considered, a couple of times, giving the book up as a waste of valuable eyeball time, I didn’t. And that, it seemed to me, is the thing about SF, even a lot of really bad SF: the ideas are seductive. Time-travel is such an interesting concept – when would I travel to, given the opportunity? What happens when present encounters past? How will a writer develop his plot?

SF is the literature of ideas par excellence, and some of it is brilliant. I haven’t forgotten Theodore Sturgeon‘s comment that ‘95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap’. If time travel were possible – and I don’t, for one moment believe that it is – then one can imagine all sorts of things it would be great to explore and find out. And apart from the where and the when, there are the more complex questions of interference in the past: what happens if you meet your grandfather? kill one of your ancestors accidentally? killed Hitler or Stalin or some other tyrant in their younger days?. What about the psychological effects on the travellers? What happens if you get stuck in another time period and cannot return? All these questions have been explored in different ways, by rather better writers than Farmer. There was even a children’s TV series in my younger days, called The Time Tunnel, which I remember watching with great fascination.

Good SF challenges our existing world, and existing attitudes and beliefs, and if it’s going to do any of these things meaningfully, then it needs to be carefully researched. Reading the thin and barely credible anthropological stuff in this novel, I was reminded of Ursula Le Guin‘s fiction: her father was an anthropologist, and when she creates various possible variations on human beings, there’s a level of credibility and interest which makes any of the novels or stories in the Hainish series gripping and intellectually challenging…

I suppose this novel was no worse than Barbara Cartland among the world of love stories, or some of the S&F novels of the seventies. I didn’t waste too much time on it, but I was shocked at how poor it was.

My A-Z of Reading: Y is for Yesterday

December 27, 2016

There has long existed the myth of the Golden Age, the idea that everything was better in the past; it’s an infection that spreads through the brain as one ages, I am finding, and it’s one from which the world of literature is not exempt. Is Shakespeare the best dramatist, or the best writer, even, who ever lived? Has no-one since then approached him in brilliance, grandeur, stature? Is it really all downhill since then? Is Jane Austen the greatest English novelist? – and this is a question I’m sure we’ll be asked with considerable frequency next year, the 200th anniversary of her early death…

In the end such questions are surely pointless, as one is never comparing like with like; each age develops new themes and ideas and ways of exploring and illuminating them. Ibsen isn’t Shakespeare, he’s radically different; he challenges, too, and leaves us without easy answers: look at the ending of Ghosts, with the mother frozen in time forever. Should she offer her doomed son an easy death? And they wrote in different languages, at different epochs…

Each age produces an enormous amount of literature, of varying quality. Much of it vanishes fairly rapidly, without much trace: who now reads the novels of Dennis Wheatley, Hammond Innes, Arthur Hailey and their ilk, all best-sellers in my early days? How many people read D H Lawrence, touted as one of the twentieth century greats when I had to study him at university? Theodore Sturgeon, once a pretty well-known science-fiction author, once said, “95% of science-fiction is crap. But then 95% of everything is crap.” And he’s right, if you think about it. I’ve been in second-hand bookshops stacked with fading hardback novels from years ago, and thought, “No-one will ever buy any of this stuff. The shop belongs in a skip.” Most of the authors I’d never heard of, and I’m reasonably clued up on literature.

Which brings up another question: what will survive of what is being published and read today? I often initiated discussions about this with my sixth-form classes. What are the criteria which lead to writers such as Shakespeare or Austen surviving the test of time, and others not? Clearly, inclusion in university and school programmes of study help, but what leads critics to think that writer X deserves study by seventeen year-olds, whereas writer Y doesn’t? You can come up with such ideas as universal or timeless themes, but it’s not only Shakespeare who has written about sexual jealousy or filial ingratitude, for instance.

I’m not convinced that any of my favourite twentieth century writers will survive the test of time, even though I’d like to think so. How long will Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez enchant us? How long will readers be interested in Guenter Grass’ explorations of German war-guilt? My touchstone for current students has been Harry Potter: will the books still be popular and read in twenty, fifty, a hundred years’ time? I’m not convinced, anathema as it might seem to say such a thing.

What will survive? What ensures the survival of a particular writer or text? Answers below, please…

Fading into obscurity…

June 13, 2015

I often find myself wondering about how much literature is lost, perhaps forever, just through the passage of time and the changing of fashions. Books go out of print and are forgotten; once gone, how few are ever rediscovered. These thoughts are often prompted by secondhand bookshops, especially the crumbling and ancient ones filled with fusty and mouldering tomes, which I often feel could be tidied by a judicious hand-grenade, and probably belong in a skip anyway…

Then I’m prompted by Theodore Sturgeon‘s observation – which I’m sure I’ve quoted before in a post – that 95% of science fiction is crap, but then 95% of everything is crap. So, much that is written and published deserves to vanish; if, like me you sometimes despair on looking at what is offered for sale (new) in bookshops, you will know what I mean. Does it matter what vanishes? In some ways I feel it does, because what disappears affects our understanding of the past, and I only need to recall the classics rescued from obscurity by a publisher such as Virago to be convinced of this.

When I used to raise the topic with my sixth form students, the touchstone question, to which they could all relate, was “Will future generations still read Harry Potter, or will those books also suffer the fate of the rest?” They were all convinced the books would survive; I was almost convinced then, but am less so now. I suspect they may disappear, to be rediscovered in a couple of generations or so.

What seems to change the situation is the increasing prevalence of digital texts, and the growth in people reading books electronically in preference to on paper. Surely this means that a text is far less likely to remain in print or to be reprinted, and there are also fewer paper copies extant to survive. Copyright lasts for 75 years after an author’s death: should this be shorter so that works can be digitally distributed free and thus survive in the public domain?

I remember two writers who were very much in vogue in the 1970s, when I was at university, and various reputations were being made through research and writing about them: D H Lawrence and Joseph Conrad. Now, I have the impression that it’s almost embarrasing to admit reading Lawrence, and Conrad is just so obscure, few have even heard of him. Similarly, two of the greats of science fiction when I first came to the genre were Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke. Though the former was seminal in his consideration of artificial intelligence, he has been completely overtaken by today’s reality, and the latter does seem to have been overshadowed my many great contemporary SF writers, though I still don’t think anyone has bettered The City and the Stars.

Texts are largely preserved nowadays by elites and academia: perhaps this was always the case? Again, in discussion with students, I would raise the question of what one might call the ‘eternal themes’ of literature: love, death, war, growth as aspects which might ensure a work’s survival; many texts focus on these themes, so it is not them alone which make a work survive. There has to be something which transcends time, crosses generations and their different interests and preoccupations, whereas it seems that texts which disappear into obscurity are too rooted in their own time to speak to future generations. And there I come full circle in this post, and realise that if we want to understand a particular time, then we do not just need history books and ephemera from that time, but also its literature.

What of our age’s literature will be remembered and preserved?

The sifting of time….

January 23, 2015

When challenged about how poor a lot of science fiction writing was, the writer Theodore Sturgeon apparently said, “Ninety percent of science fiction is crap. But then ninety percent of everything is crap.” I’ve often found this a most astute judgement on life in general. But it does lead me on to a question that continually returns, and I never manage to formulate a clear answer to: what works of literature are good enough to survive the test of time?

I’ve written elsewhere about weeding my library of books I no longer want, because I have moved on, as it were; books that said important things to me in my younger years, but that I’ve grown out of. But that’s me leaving books behind, as opposed to the world forgetting writers and authors.

Back to SF: when I first started reading it, way back when, Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov were really big names: everyone read them, many raved about their writing and their ideas. But now? Recently I went back to some Ray Bradbury stories, and didn’t really enjoy them that much. And who reads Asimov now? I got rid of my copy of the Foundation trilogy years ago. But Asimov formulated the laws of robotics, which most writers pay service to nowadays, and he had a seminal influence on many later writers.

When I went up to university, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was on everyone’s lips: he was a great writer, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, he was persecuted by the Soviet authorities and eventually forced into exile in the USA, where he became a religious oddball, fading into obscurity. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a stunning achievement, and The First Circle even more powerful, in my estimation. But most of his writings are out of print, and many people will not have heard of him. I bought and read August 1914 when it was first translated forty years ago and have intended to go back to it to see if it is any good, but will I actually bother? It’s quite revealing to look back through the lists of those awarded the Nobel Prize, to see how many have disappeared from the literary radar; the list of those who should have won but never did is also interesting.

I suppose the most significant example on my list is D H Lawrence. Again, back in the seventies, when I was at university, he was widely read. But does anyone read him now? Lady Chatterley’s Lover was an interesting read for a teenager, but even the thought of picking it up again is toe-curling. Sons and Lovers may be worth it, but The Rainbow? Women in Love? I don’t really think so. Reflecting on how Lawrence bored me at university, I remember how many lecturers made their reputations writing critical works; now that they and their books have dropped off the radar, so has Lawrence himself. The shock-horror of the Lady Chatterley obscenity trial was only a dozen years old then; it’s more than half a century now.

And who remembers the writers of thrillers from the 1960s – Arthur Hailey, Alistair MacLean, Hammond Innes? Good entertainment at the time, but tame compared with what’s written today, and long forgotten.

My big question: will Harry Potter survive the test of time, or will even he fade into obscurity in fifty years?

The Test of Time

March 5, 2014

The last small digression (for the moment) is about what stands the test of time. I’ve often wondered, and had my students discuss, what books written today might still be read in a century’s time. How can we know what will survive? For example, the blockbuster of recent years, the Harry Potter series: will children in 2114 still be reading the books, in the same way that (some) children are still enjoying the books of a century ago and more, like The Wind in the Willows, or Winnie the Pooh?

Novels and writers very popular in my younger years have vanished almost without trace: I’m sure some dusty secondhand bookshops still harbour the thrillers of Alastair MacLean or Arthur Hailey, but then thrillers possibly aren’t going to last very long. I remember how fashionable D H Lawrence was in the 1970s when I was at university, and have long been aware how he has almost disappeared from view. And he is/ was a serious writer, writing about serious themes and ideas – love, relationships between men and women. Not enough, it would seem.

Shakespeare wrote plays about love; many writers today write about love, perhaps tragic love – The Time Traveller’s Wife leaps to mind. But can we expect that novel to survive the test of time? And why won’t it?

Writers from centuries ago clearly have an advantage: Shakespeare and Jane Austen have already lasted, and have been hallowed and canonised by academia, so they are hardly likely to fade into obscurity – the longer a work lasts, the more it’s likely to continue to last, if you see what I mean.

I have often thought that it cannot just be the subject matter that ensures a work’s survival, for there are a limited number of themes out there, and all have been repeatedly used: one of the most interesting analyses of the last decade was Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, in which he explores that very idea, that everything written is basically a variation on an age-old trope. So that leaves character, style and language, perhaps?

We aren’t capable of seeing the wood for the trees, possibly. The SF writer Theodore Sturgeon was famous for stating that 95% of science fiction was crap, but then 95% of everything was crap: we are surrounded by a lot of chaff which will be winnowed away somehow by the passage of time…

In the end, I think there has to be an original treatment of a theme or subject (Shakespeare notoriously lifted others’ plots!); there have to be powerfully conceived and developed characters as opposed to stock ones who are merely the vehicles for a plot to unfold; there has to be something in terms of the way that a story is written (yes, language and style) that can set a work apart from all the others that surround and swamp it.

So, from my three best books of the twentieth century (Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) which will someone, somewhere, be enjoying a century from now?

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