This past week, read a couple short books and waded into a SF classic:
1920 was an interesting year: the people of the West, including writers, were just coming out of the horror of WWI. Wells’ Outline of History (which I, so far, have lacked the inner strength to even try to tackle) was serialized over 1919, but published in book form in 1920. Belloc published Europe and the Faith in 1920, as the response of a real historian (and a Christian) to Wells’ rewriting of history to be more in line with his Fabian socialist fantasies. It took Chesterton until 1925 to publish his rebuttal, Everlasting Man. The problem is one still with us: serious scholars accept the validity of the criticism that history as written has the writer’s inescapable cultural and personal biases baked in. Socialists critics then feel free to rewrite history, bake in their own biases, but then reject any criticism. So serious scholars, trying to do their best and well aware of their limitations, feel the sting of criticism to which their opponents assume immunity. Thus, Wells is as insanely biased as any writer, but his history was seen as somehow more valid because it was a ‘response’ to previous writers assumed biases.
It helped that Wells’ take appealed to the fantasies of his social class, which saw the Late Unpleasantness as a repudiation of everything they had believed – God for Harry, England, and St. George, so to speak. The gross biases of the amateur Wells are preferred to the more conscious and defensible biases of a pro like Belloc. The defense deployed by the rewriters of history is to simply dismiss their critics as backwards, and never directly address the criticisms themselves. Sound familiar? The weakness of traditional historians of the time was that they took their critics seriously, more or less – a favor their critics never returned. You lose that battle before it begins.
Speculative fiction was also engaged in the battle of how we tell the story of ourselves. Voyage to Arcturus, published in 1920, is a completely nihilistic work, aiming to show the fraud and inanity of all human efforts – not surprising, given the shattering effect of the First World War.
Lord of World was published in 1907, before WWI and the Russian Revolution. Benson could assume socialism, the fad and infatuation of his age, would work just fine – except for the part about destroying the human soul, which he saw apart from that destructions physical manifestations in totalitarianism and physical suffering. Even as early as 1920, events had contradicted the airy fantasy that socialism could replace decadent capitalism (by which we mean, evidently, Russian feudalism) with a much better, *scientific* rule by experts.
Which brings us to today’s mini-reviews: John C. Wright wrote The Lament of Prometheus: An Examination of David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus, a short book in which he proposes to explain Lindsey’s vivid symbolism, heaps praise on his imagination, yet ultimately calls the book a failure. I suppose I should be more interested in Lindsey’s book, as it was very influential in the decades after its initial release. Voyage to Arcturus itself failed, generally, to hold my full attention – too much pointless violence, too many abrupt and complete changes in motivation, too grim a view of just about everything. It ends in defiance, I suppose, when despair would be a more obvious and truthful response. It’s just you in the void, baby, whatever you may happen to be, doomed to pain and failure, so – rock on? I guess?
Wright’s book was very helpful in getting a grasp on what Lindsey is up to. I was picking up on maybe 25% of what Wright lays out. Lindsey gives everything goofy names – Joiwind is a sort of nature-spirit, pure in love; Tormance is a planet of pain; Maskull is a mask on a skull – a sincere veneer over what is ultimately a dead man walking (I guess Everyman was taken…). And so on, virtually every name for a character or place has an over-the-top meaning, just in case you miss the point being hammered into your brain.
Wright explains that Lindsey is presenting a modernized take on classic Gnosticism, where the spirit is good, the body is evil, and the physical world is a trap and a lie. Maskull’s constant flipping from one set of beliefs and goals to another are what happens to souls that seek enlightenment in a world controlled by the Demiurge. That he’ll hate, love, then hate and murder someone he just met – hey, that’s the way things are, here in this valley of tears.
I appreciated Wright’s authorly analysis of Voyage‘s shortcomings as literature – how set ups must have payoffs, that themes demand a certain kind of resolution, and how Lindsey’s dazzling imagination can mask how thoroughly he fails to deliver as an author. What I experienced as frustration, Wright, as a master of the craft, sees in terms of failure at that craft. Very interesting.
If you want to read Voyage to Arcturus – I don’t regret doing so, but I doubt I’ll go back for more- do so, then read Wright’s book to fully plumb its depths.
Next, since I was on a Wright kick anyway, and have a small pile of his books already purchased but not yet read, I went on to read a collection of his essays, From Barsoom to Malacandra. They were all good. I particularly enjoyed his two on Lewis’s Space trilogy, The Silent Planet and A Voyage to Venus. Those of us who are regular readers of his blog have come to expect the deep yet charming analysis Wright doles out on books he loves; on books he doesn’t love so much, we get honest praise and a serious breakdown of its flaws. This book is full of both. He owns up to having misunderstood Heinlein all these years, spoofs the insult that is the current round of Star Wars films by all but writing appropriate sequels himself, discusses the intrusion of political messaging in fiction (and how and how not to do it) and laments and otherwise excellent anime series that dies a stupid death right at the finish line.
Good stuff. Check it out.
Finally, a preliminary review – dipped again into the Essential SciFi list, and chose Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker. About 1/3 the way through. It has been, so far, all but impossible to read this book as anything other than 1937 vintage progressive propaganda. All the fun stuff that Woodrow Wilson supported – eugenics, euthanasia, racism, socialism, all us little people ruled by our mire enlightened brethren – for our own good, of course! – all told in a insufferably sympathetic tone: poor, poor, little people! So doomed! If only enlightenment, insight, and communism could rule them! All would be just swell!
Maybe this is just me projecting my expectations back onto poor Olaf, but: so far, in the first 3rd of the book, you could find more diverse forms of intelligent life in Queens, NY, than he ‘finds’ on a million planets. All are locked in class struggles; all hang suspended beneath inevitable economic dialectics; racism, slavery, the excesses of capitalism – everywhere! From slug-beasts and sentient ships to symbionts, it’s all Marx all the way down!
Blech. Not exactly creative. But praised! Oh, yea, all the right people love them some Starmaker!
Anyway, a more complete review once I’m done.