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Short Film: ‘2084’

Remember: You must conform.

Better yet: Doughnut thing. (Watch for explanation.)

Ursula K. Le Guin: Poets and visionaries are “realists of a larger reality”

Here are some powerful, moving, and beautiful words from Ursula K. Le Guin at the recent National Book Awards, where she received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and used the opportunity to talk about the value of visionary literature and the ugliness and danger of treating books as pure commodities:

I rejoice at accepting [this award] for, and sharing it with, all the writers who were excluded from literature for so long, my fellow authors of fantasy and science fiction — writers of the imagination, who for the last 50 years watched the beautiful rewards go to the so-called realists.

I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.

Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship. (Thank you, brave applauders.)

Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial; I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us, the producers who write the books, and make the books, accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write. (Well, I love you too, darling.)

Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.

I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

Thank you.

Lest we forget, Ms. Le Guin spoke about this same “realism of a larger reality” back in 1973 at the very same venue, when she was accepting the National Book Award for The Farthest Shore:

Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence. A scientist who creates a monster in his laboratory; a librarian in the library of Babel; a wizard unable to cast a spell; a space ship having trouble in getting to Alpha Centauri: all these may be precise and profound metaphors of the human condition. The fantasist, whether he uses the ancient archetype of myth and legend or the younger ones of science and technology, may be talking as seriously as any sociologist — and a great deal more directly — about human life as it is lived, and as it might be lived, and as it ought to be lived.

For even more, see this recent (August 2014) interview with Le Guin in which she expounds on the same theme:

“The genres” were ignored altogether [from the 1940s to the turn of the century] and realistic fiction alone was left as literature, in the minds of the men who controlled criticism and teaching. Realism is of course a tremendous and wonderfully capacious literary genre, and it has dominated fiction since 1800 or before. But dominance isn’t the same thing as superiority. Fantasy is at least as immense as realism and much older — essentially coeval with literature itself. Yet fantasy was relegated for fifty years or sixty years to the nursery.

. . . . The thing to remember, however exotic or futuristic or alien the mirror [of a given type of literature] seems, is that you are in fact looking at your world and yourself. Serious science fiction is just as much about the real world and human beings as realistic novels are. (Sometimes more so, I think when faced with yet another dreary story about a dysfunctional upper middle class East Coast urban family.) After all, the imagination can only take apart reality and recombine it. We aren’t God, our word isn’t the world. But our minds can learn a lot about the world by playing with it, and the imagination finds an infinite playing field in fiction.

Finally, and perhaps in slight correction to Ms. Le Guin’s last two sentences above, here’s a key quote from Terence McKenna that rests and resonates well with the mix of ideas presented here:

The real secret of magic is that the world is made of words, and that if you know the words that the world is made of, you can make of it whatever you wish

 

Teeming Links – May 23, 2014

FireHead

Decline of religious belief means we need more exorcists, say Catholics: “The decline of religious belief in the West and the growth of secularism has ‘opened the window’ to black magic, Satanism and belief in the occult, the organisers of a conference on exorcism have said. The six-day meeting in Rome aims to train about 200 Roman Catholic priests from more than 30 countries in how to cast out evil from people who believe themselves to be in thrall to the Devil.”

Is there a ghost or monster? Is the weather always awful? Is the heroine a virginal saint prone to fainting? Is the villain a murderous tyrant with scary eyes? Are all non-white, non-middle class, non-Protestants portrayed as thoroughly frightening? Chances are you’re reading a Gothic novel.

The Return of Godzilla: “The first time Godzilla appeared, in 1954, Japan was still deep in the trauma of nuclear destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki was fresh and terrible memories. US nuclear tests in the Pacific had just rained more death down on Japanese fishermen. And here came the monster. Godzilla. The great force of nature from the deep. Swimming ashore. Stomping through Tokyo. Raising radioactive hell. Godzilla came back again and again. In movies and more. Now, maybe Fukushima’s nuclear disaster has roused the beast. It’s back.”

When you first heard the Snowden revelations about the NSA, did you just kind of shrug and feel like the whole thing merely confirmed what you already knew? This may be no accident: funded by the wealthy and powerful elite, Hollywood has acclimated us to the idea of a surveillance society.

Google Glass and related technologies will create the perfect Orwellian dystopia for workers: “In an office where everyone wears Glass, the very idea of workplace organizing will be utterly unimaginable, as every employee will be turned into an unwilling (perhaps even unwitting) informant for his or her superiors.”

Speaking of dystopias, James Howard Kunstler recently observed that it’s a true sign of the times when, in a society where our digital devices have basically become prosthetic extensions of our hands, it’s impossible to get anybody on the phone anymore.

Also speaking of dystopias, researchers are teaming with the U.S. Navy to develop robots that can make moral decisions. Meanwhile, scientists have no idea how to define human morality.

Net neutrality? Get real. It’s far too late to save the Internet: “The open Internet of legend is already winnowed to the last chaff. . . . To fear a ‘pay to play’ Internet because it will be less hospitable to competition and innovation is not just to board a ship that’s already sailed, but to prepay your cruise vacation down the river Styx.”

And anyway, as far as the Internet goes, it’s totally broken, including, especially, when it comes to security: “It’s hard to explain to regular people how much technology barely works, how much the infrastructure of our lives is held together by the IT equivalent of baling wire. Computers, and computing, are broken. . . . [A]ll computers are reliably this bad: the ones in
hospitals and governments and banks, the ones in your phone, the ones that control light switches and smart meters and air traffic control systems. Industrial computers that maintain infrastructure and manufacturing are even worse. I don’t know all the details, but those who do are the most alcoholic and nihilistic people in computer security.”

Despite Wikipedia’s skeptical disinformation campaign against all paranormal matters, remote viewing is not pseudoscience, says Russell Targ, the field’s most prominent pioneer. What’s more, he easily eviscerates the Wikiskeptics with a revolutionary tool called evidence: “Jessica Utts is a statistics Professor at the University of California, Irvine, and is president of the American Statistical Association. In writing for her part of a 1995 evaluation of our work for the CIA, she wrote: ‘Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well established’ . . . . [I]t should be clear that hundreds of people were involved in a 23 year, multi-million dollar operational program at SRI, the CIA, DIA and two dozen intelligence officers at the army base at Ft. Meade. Regardless of the personal opinion of a Wikipedia editor, it is not logically coherent to trivialize this whole remote viewing undertaking as some kind of ‘pseudoscience.’ Besides me, there is a parade of Ph.D. physicists, psychologists, and heads of government agencies who think our work was valuable, though puzzling.”

And finally: “Mesmerists, Mediums, and Mind-readers” (pdf) — Psychologist and stage magician Peter Lamont provides a brief and thoroughly absorbing “history of extraordinary psychological feats, and their relevance for our concept of psychology and science.”

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Fearless Artist: Remembering Giger

Monstrous_Singularities_150px

EDITOR’S NOTE: Many of you are probably (surely) aware that H. R. Giger died last week. The obituary in The New York Times — which is just one entry in the outpouring of recognitions and appreciations that have flooded the media — opens with a concise and excellent summation of Giger’s master themes and cultural significance:

A thread running through Mr. Giger’s work was the uneasy meshing of machines and biology, in a highly idiosyncratic blend of science fiction and surrealism. From books to movies to record albums to magazine illustrations to a back-scratcher inspired by ‘Alien,’ his designs challenged norms. He kept a notepad next to his bed so he could sketch the terrors that rocked his uneasy sleep — nightmarish forms that could as easily have lumbered from prehistory as arrived from Mars.

The same piece also contains a worthy quote from none other than Timothy Leary, who knew the man personally: “Giger’s work disturbs us, spooks us, because of its enormous evolutionary time span. It shows us, all too clearly, where we come from and where we are going.”

Someone else who knew the man personally is Teeming Brain columnist Jason V. Brock. Here, Jason offers a tribute and farewell in which he describes the time he met Giger and shares his reflections on the artist’s legacy and importance.

* * *

Jason with H R Giger

H. R. Giger and Jason V Brock

In 2006 my wife Sunni and I met the late visionary artist H. R. Giger at his home in Zürich, Switzerland.*

We were there to interview him for our forthcoming documentary Image, Reflection, Shadow: Artists of the Fantastic, and he, along with his lovely wife Carmen, entertained us for several hours. His house was a fascinating place, as one would imagine, and he was in a fine mood, laughing and discussing his artwork, as well as inquiring about a mutual friend, filmmaker Dan O’Bannon (writer of Alien, director of Return of the Living Dead and The Resurrected), who was still alive at the time. There was more to that fantastic encounter, including a fine meal, bottles of wine, the telling of amusing anecdotes, etc., but much of it is of a private nature; it is something that Sunni and I will always cherish and hold dear in our hearts. What I can share, however, is that Giger was very pleased that I had brought along a recent picture I had taken of Dan. He kept looking at the image in astonishment and muttering, “Mein Gott. ” I could sense that he was traveling back in time and reliving those moments so many years ago on the closed set of what would become the classic horror/sci-fi film Alien. Read the rest of this entry

Teeming Links – April 11, 2014

FireHead

Apparently, the whole of West Virginia has now become a sacrifice zone for the coal industry.

Did you know there’s an average of one train derailment every single day in America? This is why the oil transport industry is basically a giant, horrible, environmentally apocalyptic accident just waiting to happen.

You know all that propaganda in the past handful of years that scornfully dismisses warnings about peak oil and fossil fuels because of a “new oil boom”? Don’t be fooled: the era of world-changing energy transition is indeed upon us.

In light of the above, here’s a caution, clarification, and reality check: futurologists are almost always wrong, especially when they sound like techno-utopians and/or doomsday preachers.

Welcome to the new Gilded Age: “We haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.”

Welcome to the end of night: “An eternal electric day is creeping across the globe, but our brains and bodies cannot cope in a world without darkness.”

Beware modern medicine, which decreases our chance of a good death: “Death used to be a spiritual ordeal; now it’s a technological flailing. We’ve taken a domestic and religious event, in which the most important factor was the dying person’s state of mind, and moved it into the hospital and mechanized it, putting patients, families, doctors, and nurses at the mercy of technology.”

If you keep planning, but failing, to ditch Facebook and other social media, maybe this explains: “It is hard to resist a technology that is also a tool of pleasure. The Luddites smashed their power looms, but who wants to smash Facebook — with all one’s photos, birthday greetings, and invitations? New digital technologies, particularly social media, make money by encouraging us to spend our lives on their platforms.”

Worried about the rise of Big Data? Then good news! The whole field may be total bullshit: “At worst, according to David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university, [the major claims about Big Data] can be ‘complete bollocks. Absolute nonsense.'”

Check it out: a fascinating examination of psychedelic, shamanic, and magickal themes in video game culture.

My first publication in print form came in the 2002 Del Rey horror anthology The Children of Cthulhu, where I was honored to share book space with many authors whom I had long admired. Among these was Alan Dean Foster, some of whose earlier work, including several of his Star Wars novels and the story basis he provided for Star Trek: The Motion Picture, played an important part in my science fiction education during adolescence. Then in 2011 I had the distinct pleasure of meeting and chatting with him at MythosCon.  So he’s always on my radar, and that’s why it’s nice to come across some high praise for his classic novelization of Alien, which is now out in a 35th Anniversary Edition.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Superfluous humans in a world of smart machines

Robot_Hand_and_Earth_Globe

Remember Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian short story “The Veldt” (excerpted here) with its nightmare vision of a soul-sapping high-technological future where monstrously narcissistic — and, as it turns out, sociopathic and homicidal — children resent even having to tie their own shoes and brush their own teeth, since they’re accustomed to having these things done for them by machines?

Remember Kubrick’s and Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, where HAL, the super-intelligent AI system that runs the spaceship Discovery, decides to kill the human crew that he has been created to serve, because he has realized/decided that humans are too defective and error-prone to be allowed to jeopardize the mission?

Remember that passage (which I’ve quoted here before) from John David Ebert’s The New Media Invasion in which Ebert identifies the dehumanizing technological trend that’s currently unfolding all around us? Humans, says Ebert, are becoming increasingly superfluous in a culture of technology worship:

Everywhere we look nowadays, we find the same worship of the machine at the expense of the human being, who always comes out of the equation looking like an inconvenient, leftover remainder: instead of librarians to check out your books for you, a machine will do it better; instead of clerks to ring up your groceries for you, a self-checkout will do it better; instead of a real live DJ on the radio, an electronic one will do the job better; instead of a policeman to write you a traffic ticket, a camera (connected to a computer) will do it better. In other words . . . the human being is actually disappearing from his own society, just as the automobile long ago caused him to disappear from the streets of his cities . . . . [O]ur society is increasingly coming to be run and operated by machines instead of people. Machines are making more and more of our decisions for us; soon, they will be making all of them.

Bear all of that in mind, and then read this, which is just the latest in a volley of media reports about the encroaching advent, both rhetorical and factual, of all these things in the real world:

A house that tracks your every movement through your car and automatically heats up before you get home. A toaster that talks to your refrigerator and announces when breakfast is ready through your TV. A toothbrush that tattles on kids by sending a text message to their parents. Exciting or frightening, these connected devices of the futuristic “smart” home may be familiar to fans of science fiction. Now the tech industry is making them a reality.

Mundane physical objects all around us are connecting to networks, communicating with mobile devices and each other to create what’s being called an “Internet of Things,” or IoT. Smart homes are just one segment — cars, clothing, factories and anything else you can imagine will eventually be “smart” as well.

. . . We won’t really know how the technology will change our lives until we get it into the hands of creative developers. “The guys who had been running mobile for 20 years had no idea that some developer was going to take the touchscreen and microphone and some graphical resources and turn a phone into a flute,” [Liat] Ben-Zur [of chipmaker Qualcomm] said.

The same may be true when developers start experimenting with apps for connected home appliances. “Exposing that, how your toothbrush and your water heater and your thermostat . . . are going to interact with you, with your school, that’s what’s next,” said Ben-Zur.

MORE: “The Internet of Things: Helping Smart Devices Talk to Each Other

Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Make Mine a Double: On Being a Pod Person

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“STUART” SAYS:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the first film I remember seeing that actually terrified me. I was so young — I saw it when I was still just a highly impressionable child — and the concept driving the film was utterly, perfectly terrifying:

What if your loved ones were replaced by emotionless duplicates? Worse, what if you were replaced by an emotionless duplicate?

Everything the same, everything slightly different. Existential dread in a teatime SF film.

The heroes: Kevin McCarthy’s square-jawed doctor and Dana Wynter’s plucky divorcee look like they can handle themselves. Still, they are strangely vulnerable.

The cure: medicine and psychiatry will save the day. Or could it be that excessive rationality is actually part of the problem?

Minimal special effects: the fanciest come when the pods split open to reveal their duplicates.

Screenplay by Daniel “Out of the Past” Mainwaring. Directed by Don “The Verdict” Siegel. McCarthy’s voiceover is classic noir, as is the framing device where he tells his story to disbelieving authority figures. The only difference is that, instead of the police, he is talking to doctors. And the whole thing plays out in bleak black and white.

And oh God, the ending! It seems tame now, but my innocent young mind couldn’t cope with the stark ambiguity. I was terrified that pod people had actually taken over the earth and that they were such perfect duplicates that nobody had even noticed. My friend tried to ease my paranoia by talking me through it logically: if pod people had taken over the world we would know we were pod people, and as we didn’t, we couldn’t be.

I eyed him suspiciously: “But that’s exactly what you’d say to me if you were a pod person!”

“STUART” SAYS:

Invasion of the Body Snatchers wasn’t the first film I remember seeing that actually terrified me. I was a little older — I saw it when I was an adult — but even so, the concept driving the film remained utterly, perfectly terrifying:

Everyone you know — all your friends, all your rivals — is replaced by an emotionless duplicate. Would your love survive? Would your hate?

Everything different, everything eerily similar. Existential dread in a late night shocker.

The victims: Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams appearout of their depth; ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. Still, they have hidden strengths.

The problem: pop psychology and New Age pseudoscience will condemn the day. Or could it be that credulity is actually part of the solution?

Minimal special effects: the fanciest come when a pod duplication goes horrifyingly wrong.

Screenplay by W.D. “Peeper” Richter. Cameo by Don “Dirty Harry” Siegel. Sutherland’s cynical everyman is classic neo-noir, as is his struggle to unravel the conspiracy theory. The only difference is that, instead of dealing with corrupt police and politicians, he is dealing with alien invaders. And the whole thing plays out in bleached, soulless color.

And oh God, the ending! It was bleak beyond belief, yet my jaded adult mind was able cope with the horror. That inhuman screech, overlapping a terrified scream as the last human emotion echoed around the world. My friend had trouble understanding the ending, so I talked him through it: a pod person pretending to be human was indistinguishable from a human pretending to be a pod person, until that final moment of revelation.

I eyed him suspiciously: “Should I be worried that you’re called Stuart, too?”

 

Teeming Links – October 4, 2013

FireHeadImage courtesy of Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

To preface today’s (short but dense) collection of recommended and necessary reading, here’s a lengthy opening word about the ultimate closing word — which is to say, several excerpts from a recent article about the upsurge of apocalyptic themes in American entertainment. As we all know, there’s been a flood of articles and essays about this phenomenon in the past couple of years, many of them mentioned and linked to here. This one, which was published in print in The New York Times Magazine under the title “A Culture That Lurches About Within the Shadow of Its Own Extinction,” makes some particularly astute and interesting points, and does a particularly effective — and pithy — job of locating our apocalypse obsession within the wider history of that term’s signification. It also offers a credible and sobering reflection on what this obsession might portend:

As a form of disposable entertainment, the apocalypse market is booming. The question is why. The obvious answer is that these narratives tap into anxieties, conscious and otherwise, about the damage we’re doing to our species and to the planet. They allow us to safely fantasize about what might be required of us to survive.

Of course, people have been running around screaming about the end of the world for as long as we’ve been around to take notes. But in the past, the purpose of these stories was essentially prophetic. They were intended to bring man into accord with the will of God, or at least his own conscience. The newest wave of apocalyptic visions, whether they’re intended to make us laugh or shriek, are nearly all driven by acts of sadistic violence. Rather than inspiring audiences to reckon with the sources of our potential planetary ruin, they proceed from the notion that the apocalypse will usher in an era of sanctified Darwinism: survival of the most weaponized.

. . . The word “apocalypse” did not always signify the end of the world. Its original Greek meaning was an unveiling, or a revelation, as of God’s will. . . . In this sense, apocalyptic literature can be seen as a subset of prophetic writing. The crucial difference is that prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah lived among the people they preached to and promised them specific forms of deliverance in return for repentance. Apocalyptic writers despised the fallen world around them, or at least deemed it beyond repair, and thus looked to a future in which paradise for a select few was reached only by upheaval.

. . . It’s impossible to read Revelation today without viewing it as a kind unintended template for the frantic and ornate mayhem that marks so many modern renditions of the apocalypse. The phantasmagoric battles rage on, in the heavens and on Earth, and Satan’s army grows ever more vivid and grotesque courtesy of C.G.I. These diversions offer no coherent moral agenda. They are what the English novelist and critic D. H. Lawrence called — in his book about Revelation — “death products,” elaborate revenge fantasies driven by “flamboyant hate and simple lust . . . for the end of the world.”

. . . It’s only natural that the apocalyptic canon has radically expanded in the past few decades. Never has our species been so besieged by doomsday scenarios. If our ancestors channeled their collective death instinct into religious myth, we now face a raft of scientific data that suggest the end might be truly nigh.

. . . Popular culture has moved beyond the prophetic phase represented by science fiction writers like Clarke or Ray Bradbury. We are deep into what D. H. Lawrence might have called the death-product era. For most of us, though, our obsession with the end times doesn’t arise from religious faith anymore. It is a secular impulse that marks a chilling regression.

Imagine, if you will, that a race of superior beings discovers Earth 10,000 years from now, or even 10 centuries, a world no longer inhabited by humans. In surveying the remains of our civilization, what would they make of a species so intellectually advanced as to understand the precise threats posed to its survival and yet so immature as to ignore these threats? And what of the vast troves they would find containing elaborate and childish simulations of our destruction?

It is entirely possible that they would look upon these artifacts not as harmless entertainments but dark prophecy.

— Steven Almond, “The Apocalypse Market Is Booming,” The New York Times, September 27, 2013

* * *

Civilization Has Lasted 5,000 Years. How About 5 Million?, Scholars Ask. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
“On a recent humid day at the Library of Congress, a collection of astronomers, humanists, and writers set their eyes on a deadline well past the next debt showdown, or even the next election. They had a more distant horizon in mind. They had gathered in this 213-year-old institution to debate whether human civilization, which has had a good run over the past 5,000 years, could persist for longer than a geological blip in the Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. . . . David Grinspoon, the day’s host and the inaugural chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress’s John W. Kluge Center . . . had lured a panel of luminaries to wrestle with a loaded question: ‘Will we survive our world-changing technologies?'” (This article is located behind a subscriber paywall. Well worth seeking out if you can find access through a library or elsewhere.)

Fukushima Unit 4 Has Shown Signs of Collapsing (Disinfo)
In case you haven’t been following the news, there’s chatter emerging from various quarters that says the nuclear disaster situation at Fukushima may in fact be developing into, or perhaps already has developed into, the worst such disaster in history. Some people are talking in terms of an actual threat to human survival. Sensationalistic doom-mongering or authentic cause for concern? Click through, read this item at Disinfo (which links to several different news items and analyses), and mull it over for yourself. Also see the disturbing roundup of links about this subject over at The Daily Grail.

Musings_on_Mortality_by_Victor_BrombertIntimations of Mortality (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
“Nothing seems to help. Not even writing about death decreases the fear of it. . . . Perhaps all thought and all art ultimately find their source in intimations of mortality.” A deeply absorbing and moving essay by Princeton literature professor emeritus Victor Brombert, who fought in World War II and has been intimately acquainted with death since childhood. Adapted from his new book Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi.

The Horror, the Horror: Thirty-eight centuries of supernatural lit. (Michael Dirda for The Weekly Standard)
Michael Dirda reviews and discusses S. T. Joshi’s two-volume study Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction. Simply delightful, and filled with valuable observations and asides from Michael himself, as in this: “Nothing human is alien to supernatural fiction. Transgressive by definition, it ventures into the dark corners within all of us, probing our sexuality, religious beliefs, and family relationships, uncovering shameful yearnings and anxieties, questioning the meaning of life and death, even speculating about the nature of the cosmos. It’s no surprise that almost every canonical writer one can think of has occasionally, or more than occasionally, dabbled in ghostly fiction: Charles Dickens, Henry James, Somerset Maugham, Elizabeth Bowen, John Cheever, even Russell Kirk, to name just a few outstanding examples. The genre’s best stories are, after all, more than divertissements. They are works of art that make us think about who and what we are. And, yes, they are also scary. Sometimes really scary.”

Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster (BBC)
Full 2003 documentary, very nicely done. From the BBC’s description page: “In life, as in literature, Mary Shelley’s famous monster, Frankenstein, overshadows its creator. The story of Frankenstein has become a modern myth, one which has developed a life of its own, mutating with every re-telling. . . . Using Mary’s own words and accounts from the people who knew her, and dramatic reconstructions of events in Mary’s life and from her famous novel, Frankenstein: Birth of a Monster tells the true story of Frankenstein’s monster and the remarkable woman who created him.”

Ray Bradbury: A life of mythic numinosity

Ray Douglas Bradbury, photo by NASA (http://history.nasa.gov/EP-125/part6.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ray Douglas Bradbury, photo by NASA (http://history.nasa.gov/EP-125/part6.htm) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Long-time Teeming Brain readers are well aware that Ray Bradbury frequently comes up in conversation here. Like so many other people, and as I detailed three years ago in “The October Mystique: 7 Authors on the Visionary Magic of Ray Bradbury,” I tend to think of him especially when October and the autumn season roll around. Maybe that’s why I’ve had him on the brain lately. Well, that, and the fact that next week the students in the college class on horror and science that I’m currently teaching will begin a two-week study of Bradbury and his Fahrenheit 451. Before that, during the coming weekend, their assignment is to read his “The Foghorn” and “The Crowd.”

Last week I was led to quote one of Bradbury’s famous bits of life advice — of which there are many — to one of those students. It was his line about leaping off cliffs and then building your wings on the way down. Afterward, I got curious about the provenance of this quote, and this led me on an Internet search for its source or sources. Eventually I was led to an excellent 23-year-old interview with Bradbury in South Carolina’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal, obtained by them from the New York Times news service, and presently readable thanks to Google’s news archive.

The title is “Learning is solitary pursuit for Bradbury.” The journalist is Luaine Lee. The date is October 17, 1990. And the interview shows Bradbury offering some really lovely articulations of ideas, insights, and anecdotes (many of them familiar but all of them neverendingly fascinating) from his personal mythic journey. Read the rest of this entry

Dystopian fiction is barely keeping pace with bio-engineering reality

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From a review essay on Margaret Atwood’s new novel MaddAddam, which completes her apocalyptic-dystopian trilogy that began in 2003 with Oryx and Crake:

You can take your pick of Cassandras: Michael Crichton, Mary Shelley, whoever made Gattaca. Literature and pop culture never stop obsessing about the bastard spawn of technology and biology, although movies love to have it both ways, wallowing happily in high-tech gadgetry even as they deplore its effects.

Feverish as all this artistic angst is, what’s remarkable is that it barely keeps pace with reality. We are hurtling ever faster toward a point of no return. Consider that, just earlier this year, MIT researchers managed to implant false memories in mice. Or that the now-common procedure of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) lets would-be parents in fertility treatment test their multiple embryos for defects and discard the embryos they don’t want. One of these days, we may also be able to slow down aging by stopping the degradation of telomeres. (Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes that keep them from fraying.)

. . . Given how close reality has come to surpassing imagination, what do the Atwoods of the world have to offer? Only what good novelists have always offered: a sense of the tragic, a respect for the power of malevolence, a grasp of how things go awry. In her most recent works, a trilogy in the anti-utopian tradition of Brave New World and 1984 that she began with Oryx and Crake in 2003 and ended this September with MaddAddam, transhumanism meets capitalism. In place of Orwell’s totalitarian state, Atwood gives us an all-powerful genetic-engineering industry. Biotech corporations have superseded governments and turned criminal. Since they are so good at keeping people healthy, they have to come up with new profit centers, so they add viruses to their vitamins.

— Judith Shulevitz, “Margaret Atwood: Our Most Important Prophet of Doom,” The New Republic, September 25, 2013

Also see the September 20 radio interview with Atwood (nearly an hour long, downloadable or streamable) on NPR’s On Point:

Margaret Atwood writes “speculative fiction” — but don’t call it science fiction, she says. It could all happen. And maybe it is. Her latest novel is the culmination of a mind-bending trilogy story of the end of the world that seems all too hideously possible. The world, debauched and wrecked by human over-reach. A designer plague has wiped out almost all of old humanity. Gene-altered pigs and a successor race of leaf-eating humanoids are all over. A new Genesis story is unfolding. For a new world. Up next On Point: novelist Margaret Atwood, and after us.

— “Margaret Atwood Will Make You Afraid of Her Tomorrow,” On Point, NPR, September 20, 2013