Letter From The Editor - Issue 55 - February 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
September 2016

Title: The Last Days of New Paris
Author: China Miéville
Publisher: Del Rey

China Miéville bestrides the worlds of the fantastic and the academic with equal ease, and ardent readers invariably pounce on his latest release, rightfully marveling at the complexities and ambiguities with which it will inevitably be endowed. And yet, despite recommendations from close quarters and unanimous critical praise, I’ve simply never got around to reading him. This year I finally resolved to change that. The timing of my resolution proved fortuitous, for 2016 has brought us not one but two new Miéville books, This Census-Taker in January and now The Last Days of New Paris.

Based on this sample size of two, it’s easy to understand Miéville’s renown. He’s a word-magician, a visionary, a wily storyteller of the first water. This Census-Taker mystified and stimulated me in that rarest of evocative, dream-like ways, completely subsuming me into the layered world of its young narrator. Despite the bizarreness of the setting, I was fully engaged by the tale’s underlying humanity. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for The Last Days of New Paris. While intellectually and aesthetically I found much to appreciate in, and learn from, the new text, it did not move me.

The novel kicks off in an alternate 1950 Paris in which surrealist art works have come to life, and the war against Germany rolls on. Thibaut, the protagonist, was fifteen when the “S-blast” (Surrealist blast) occurred, and his parents were killed in action. At seventeen Thibaut asks to join the Main à Plume, or Surrealist resistance fighters, who deploy and interact with their manifs (manifestations) in the fight against the invading Nazis. As if this weren’t enough, “battalions from below,” or demons from Hell, have also been unleashed by powerful esoteric rites. A less interesting 1940s backstory detailing the meeting of Jack Parsons with noted occultist Aleister Crowley explains this second development.

If your primary interest in this book is to experience a dazzling kaleidoscope of surrealistic monster set-pieces, you will be ecstatic. Miéville’s research, and the linguistic inventiveness of his descriptions, are superhuman. If meta-referentiality sounds appealing, then you’re also in luck, since it turns out that the book’s title is in fact the name of a book within the novel, which Thibaut and a woman named Sam are working on. Add to this a faux “Afterword” in which Miéville pretends to reveal the book’s true genesis, and a barrage of explicative notes that puts to shame many a “real” critical apparatus.

And yet in terms of character development, of connecting with something other than the bizarre beauty of the story’s proliferative “manifology,” the going is tough. Without something to contain Miéville’s exuberant imagination, literally everything becomes possible, and thus nothing is essential. “The superfluous supposes the necessary,” Thibaut recites. But that does not mean that it should supplant it.

Reading the book is such a strange, at times abstract, experience that the best way I can think to comment on it is by using its own descriptors. When Thibaut asks Sam how she knows the truth of a claim she’s made, she points to her books and says, “I read between the lines.” In a sense, this is Miéville’s narrative here: a space that exists entirely between the lines of another, as-yet-unwritten novel.

A few pages after the aforementioned exchange, one of the surreal monsters is depicted with these words: “A random totality, components sutured by chance.” To describe the novel in these terms is both to praise it for elegantly functioning exactly as intended, and to bemoan the fact that it was not designed to function otherwise.

Title: How Great Science Fiction Works (Lecture Series)
Author: Gary K. Wolfe
Publisher: The Teaching Company

Gary K. Wolfe’s contributions to science fiction and fantasy criticism are legion. For the last quarter century he has a had a monthly review column in Locus, a showcase for his wonderfully bemused writing and peerless appreciation of genre context. Besides these thousands of reviews and others in well-known venues, he has published collections of essays and full-length studies, and has edited a canonical two-volume anthology of 1950s science fiction novels for the Library of America. Oh, and he’s a Professor of Humanities in Roosevelt University’s Evelyn T. Stone College of Professional Studies and co-hosts an award-nominated podcast with noted editor and anthologist Jonathan Strahan. Now, in what is unquestionably an analytical and elucidatory highpoint of his prolific career, Wolfe brings us a stunningly clear-headed and comprehensive set of twenty-four lectures on “How Great Science Fiction Works.”

These lectures comprise a superb overview of science fiction and its differentiating characteristics, as well as its commonalities with other “non-genre” works. Wolfe’s approach throughout is twofold. First, he provides historical perspective, with lectures such as “Science Fiction in the 19th Century,” “The Rise of Science Fiction Pulps,” “The Golden Age of Science Fiction Stories,” “The Golden Age of the Science Fiction Novel,” and even speculation on “The Future of Science Fiction.” In addition, Wolfe offers extremely thoughtful considerations of science fiction’s conceptual “icons,” or key images/themes/settings such as the spaceship, the robot, the alien, the wasteland, and the artifact.

This dual strategy enables Wolfe to provide an elegant synthesis of the genre’s central concerns and its historical porosity with other forms of literature. Wolfe’s academic background is evident in the critical rigor and expansive knowledge he wields to debunk popular myths about the history of science fiction (such as the alleged scare caused by Orson Welles’s dramatization of The War of the Worlds), meaningfully interrogate the genre’s traditions and values, and pay tribute to some of its greatest works with a genuine sense of felt appreciation rather than staid reverence. Wolfe is careful to avoid academic jargon, though, stopping to explain genre-specific terms as needed, while consistently holding forth in a clear expository manner. Achieving that best of possible worlds for a lecture series, he manages to teach and entertain at the same time.

The lectures themselves are about 30 minutes each, so getting through the core material will take approximately 12 hours. This is a modest amount of time (similar to the average length of an audiobook) for an immodest amount of information.

Each chapter of the guidebook is appended by recommended reading, typically between two and five texts. The ambitious autodidact who wants to read all of these recommendations will invest a significant amount of time. Assuming a reading speed of one page per minute, I’ve calculated that the total recommended reading totals about 500 hours. The overall non-fiction bibliography also contains resources not mentioned in the individual chapters, providing additional hours of stimulating material.

Wolfe at times recommends the same book at the end of different lectures. While this illustrates the multi-dimensionality of certain “classics,” given the finite space for picks, I wish he had provided unique titles for each lecture. There are also occasional slight discrepancies in the way information is conveyed. In Lecture 22, for instance, a fascinating exploration of “Science Fiction’s Urban Landscapes,” Wolfe states that Arthur C. Clarke’s “The City and the Stars appeared in 1953, an expansion of an earlier novel called Against the Fall of Night.” To the best of my knowledge, the standard chronological attribution is 1953 for Against the Fall of Night and 1956 for The City and the Stars, as the guidebook itself notates elsewhere.

And of course, genre buffs may find their tastes diverging from some of Wolfe’s own. In my case, I thought that in his introduction to Lecture 14, “Religion and Science Fiction,” he gave short shrift to a couple of strong stories. (My inner scientist also can’t help but point out that Wolfe misspeaks when, discussing Asimov’s “The Last Question,” he refers to “Newton’s Second Law of Thermodynamics”: the famous law of entropy Wolfe is alluding to is indeed the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but it is not Newton’s.)

Lecture 20, “The 1990s: The New Space Opera,” contains what is by far my favorite introduction. “Sometimes in these lectures I may seem to be discussing science fiction as if it were a family,” Wolfe observes. “And that’s not entirely an accident. Having been for much of its history a somewhat circumscribed community of writers and readers, it has on occasion behaved like a family. It seems to want each generation to do a little better than the one before. It likes to seek out noble ancestors, in the most extreme cases reaching as far back as Plato or Jonathan Swift. It has its father and mother figures, although depending on who you talk with those may be as disparate as Mary Shelley or Robert A. Heinlein. And it has its eccentric cousins and slightly embarrassing crazy old uncles.”

Indeed. In this extraordinary set of lectures, Gary K. Wolfe has furnished said family with a genealogy, a birth certificate, real estate deeds, tax records, outstanding loans, insurance policy documents—and maybe even a living will.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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