Remember: You must conform.
Better yet: Doughnut thing. (Watch for explanation.)
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.
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
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.
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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
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.
Image courtesy of Victor Habbick / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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!”
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?”
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
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