Monday, 14 December 2009

Christmas in the Stars

A friend of mine sent me this link - and I thought it was worth sharing.


 
You can even listen to free samples of the tracks, and hear C3PO and R2D2 sing the fantastic title track "Christmas in the Stars". Pity the album is out of print and so damn expensive now!
 
Also on the topic of Christmas, I highly recommend checking out StarShipSofa podcast no. 56, which has narrated a China Meiville story called "Tis the Season" - a really hilarious short Christmas story.
 
I'm looking forward to January - until then I hardly have time to breath (yet alone read all the books I have waiting for me). Last weekend was a close friend's wedding, and this coming weekend is my sister-in-law's wedding (which seems to be taking up a *lot* of our time at the moment, since my wife is Matron of Honour). Christmas is a few days after that, and we'll be travelling between Wonthaggi and Melbourne for most of that day. Soon after that is my other sister-in-law's birthday, then New Years Day. And finally, on 4 January, my wife and I will be escaping all this craziness and going to Prato, Italy for four weeks to undertake a short-term international study program called "Dante's Medieval World" (she's taking the unit for credit towards her degree, and I'm auditing, i.e. tagging along). I was reminded yesterday that I can't take a suitcase full of books, and that I'll need to ration some space for clothes. Damn.
 
Hopefully when I next have time to write a blog post I'll have finished James Blish's A Case of Conscience and can write about that. I've had so little time to read, I'm still only half-way through the short book. So far it has been interesting, though perhaps a bit full of long-winded dialogue. Anyway, tea break is over, now back to work - these Harry Potter audio books won't process themselves...

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Adventures in Pulp SF - Four Wolves

Yesterday I worked a fantastic shift in my library's Rare Books Collection, checking a collection of Astounding Science Fiction from the 1940s and 1950s against our current holdings of the pulp sf magazine, to see if purchasing the items for sale would fill any gaps. It turned out we have everything in the collection for sale, and in much better condition too - our pulp sf collection is quite impressive!

For those interested, the website of Monash University Library's Rare Books Collection is http://lib.monash.edu.au/rare/. A virtual exhibition of our rare science fiction pulp collection is also online at http://www.lib.monash.edu.au/exhibitions/scifi/xscifi.html, though it is a bit old, having been made in 1999.

Anyway, when I got home from work I decided to read a few Gene Wolfe short stories that have been waiting for me: 

Gene Wolfe, 'Four Wolves,' Amazing Science Fiction, May 1983.

'Four Wolves' is a collection of four, apparently unconnected short stories. The first, 'My Book', is collected in Endangered Species; the second and third, 'At the Volcano’s Lip' and 'In the Mountains', are collected in Storeys From the Old Hotel; and the final story, 'The River', is uncollected, and can only be found in this issue of Amazing Science Fiction.

All four stories are about a page or less in length, and each is preceded by a small illustration. It is amazing to see what Wolfe can accomplish in such short pieces, and how even his shortest stories can leave you in awe. I thought it was funny, however, that these stories appeared in an sf pulp magazine, since I wouldn't consider any of them to be science fiction. For those not aware, these reviews / summaries are spoiler heavy.


1. My Book

Beautiful and poetic, 'My Book' is narrated by a writer beginning a book, but deciding to start with the last word (the most important word, in his opinion). From there the writer moves backward, writing the penultimate, antepenultimate, preantepenultimate, transpreantepenultimate words, and so on. The finished product, as it turns out, is 'My Book' itself. Wolfe's writing in this short piece is amazing and hypnotic, with the story testifying to the unpredictable adventure of authorship.

By the way, does anyone know if "transpreantepenultimate" is actually a word? While I can't find it in the Oxford English Dictionary, I can find its predecessors (or successors, perhaps). Nevertheless, it's a fantastic word - I shall attempt to use it regularly in everyday conversation.

2. In the Mountains

A man who lives with his wife in the mountains tells of another couple who stayed in the city because they feared bears. The narrator believes that living in the city has destroyed their health, and is the reason that their children “have not turned out well.” As I read it, the revelation at the end is that the supposed bear tracks were actually elk tracks, hence their fear was unfounded, and they ruined their lives because of it.

3. At the Volcano’s Lip

A man and his wife visit the site of a volcanic eruption, and he compares the power of the blast to that of an atomic bomb. The story ends on a foreboding tone, perhaps regarding the danger of nuclear weapons. There's not a lot else to say about this one, it wasn't my favourite of the four.

4. The River

This story is certainly the odd one out, since it is narrated in the third-person, not the first, and is quite clearly fantasy. Siith, the Infinite Stream, is an uncrossable river – on one side are the “countries shown on maps”, and on the other, “lands that no map shows”. Althor-elmil, Lord of Siith, has navies that destroy any ship trying to cross the river from the unmapped region, taking some of their crew as slaves, and casting the rest overboard. These castaways, who can turn up on the shore or in the wells of the mapped region, are described as “blood-drinkers” and “hairy men” – vampires and werewolves perhaps? Maybe this is the reason why those on the unmapped region are attempting to cross the river, but those on the mapped region are not. In this way, it is a lot like the relationship between the planets Green and Blue in Wolfe’s Book of the Short Sun, where Green is inhabited by the inhumi (vampires), and Blue is the refuge of the humans from the Whorl. At the end of 'The River' we find that Althor-elmil has been creating flying machines to further his domain, but these are taken by Marhoon, Lord of the Air.
   

Thursday, 26 November 2009

"The Legend of St. Ignatz" and "Article of Faith"

I listened to two more fantastic science fiction short stories the other day. I chose them because they sounded like they would address religious themes, and was pleasantly surprised to find that both stories have priests as protagonists (and hence, are relevant to my honours thesis).

Samantha Henderson, "The Legend of Saint Ignatz the Provider"

A brilliantly written, and darkly amusing, short story. The narrative which follows Ignatz - a corrupt, alcoholic priest - is broken up by excerpts from the "legend" which becomes of his life after he is beatified. Neither the priest nor the Church come off particularly well in this story, since both are corrupt and greedy, with little concern for others. The story seemed a little unbalanced, because there was no positive representation of the clergy - the priest and his contacts higher-up are very disagreeable. However, a couple of peripheral characters, who we know to be Christian, are presented positively, and greatly dislike the behaviour of the drunken priest.

I believe the primary goal of the story is humor and irony, rather than a serious commentary on the Church (though Church corruption and perhaps the process of beatification are criticised). The story is also funny because Henderson is, according to her website, a church office coordinator. Didn't see that one coming.

Click for full text (via Ideomancer) or audio (via Escape Pod).


Mike Resnick, "Article of Faith"

This story, nominated for a Hugo award in 2009, tells of a robot, hired to clean a small church, who comes to believe in God after discussing Christianity with the priest, listening to his sermons, and reading the Bible. The story is told from the perspective of the church's priest, who is very happy to talk to the robot and pleased at his interest in God - until the priest angrily declares that the robot cannot be a member of his parish because he has no soul. When the robot attends the church service regardless, the congregation is outraged. After talking with the robot, the priest encourages the congregation to consider allowing him to join them, since he expresses a genuine desire to worship God. The intolerance of the parishioners, however, leads them to kill the robot, whereupon the priest resigns and becomes a carpenter.

I found the sudden introduction of anti-robot sentiment to be unprecedented and unusual, since there is no indication of it before the priest's angry outburst at the robot - before which point he is eager to share his faith with him. The story is also awkwardly heavy with allusions to the robot being a Christ-like martyr for his faith. Most interesting to me is how the (science-fictional) dilemma the priest finds himself in causes him to renounce his calling and leave the church. He comes to realise that the church is inherently intolerant - indeed, they are violently so - and this revelation changes him. While he doesn't seem to fully renounce his faith and disbelieve in God, he certainly ceases his devout religiosity. In this respect, I found the story to be rather anti-religious, since all the church-goers are portrayed as violent and intolerant cold-blooded killers.

Click for full text (via Jim Baen's Universe) or audio (via Escape Pod).


I've started reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience, which is great so far. I'm just trying to find the time to read some more! Also, it's been a while since I've read any Gene Wolfe, which I realised today when I was discussing The Book of the New Sun with a coworker at the library (who I convinced to read it, and who absolutely adores the book so far). Perhaps I should gobble down some more Wolfe short stories...

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Elizabeth Bear's Dust

Just finished reading Dust by Elizabeth Bear. It was overall a quite enjoyable book, though I did not find myself particularly attached to any of the characters, not even the protagonists, Perceval and Rien, who perhaps weren't as well developed as they could have been. Nevertheless, the story was interesting, and the world that Bear created is immense and creative - I look forward to seeing it explored more in the rest of the series (Dust is the first book in a planned trilogy).

The story begins with Perceval, an Exalt from Engine, being taken into captivity by Ariane of Rule, who mercilessly amputates Perceval's wings in order to humiliate her. Rien, a servant in Rule, is given the responsibility of caring for Perceval while she is in prison. It is soon revealed to Rien that Perceval is her half-sister, and Rien orchestrates their escape from Rule, thereby saving Perceval from certain death at the hands of the war-mongering Ariane. The two escape and begin their adventure through the intergenerational spaceship known as Jacob's Ladder.

Elsewhere on the massive spacecraft, powerful artificial intelligences, calling themselves "angels", battle for control over Jacob's Ladder. The most powerful of these, Jacob Dust, has an obsession with Perceval. Unlike Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun (with which Dust bears a great many similarities), where the ship's AIs are called "gods" because they created a pantheistic religion aboard the ship in order that they be worshipped and obeyed, the reasons behind Bear's AIs being referred to as "Angels" and "Gods" is never clear.

We do, however, discover that Jacob's Ladder was launched as a project of forced evolution - the one paragraph blurb of Dust's sequel, Chill, indicates that the project was orchestrated by a religious cult - though this is not particularly clear in Dust itself, where the mixture of evolutionary science and Judeo-Christian religion is awkward and for the most part unexplained. Furthermore, it is often unclear whether the religious symbolism (e.g. the name "Jacob's Ladder" itself, and the desire to attain "divinity" through forced evolution) is intended literally or metaphorically. To further confuse matters, of the 29 chapter epigraphs (!!), three are from the "New Evolutionist Bible" (apparently a translation of the Christian Bible which actually appears in the book itself) and one is from the "New Evolutionist Funeral Service". So far as I can tell (through much googling), these are entirely fictional creations of Bear. The builders of the Jacob's Ladder, we surmise, must be these "New Evolutionists". Hopefully this will be developed more in-depth in the next two books.

The only other gripe I have is that the ending seemed to come out of nowhere [spoilers ahoy]. When Rien eats the plumb, containing one of the AIs in virus form, she alters the virus and transmits the code to Perceval, and through Perceval's connection with Dust, manages to re-write Dust's programming and free Perceval from his clutches. Upon essentially merging herself with Dust and the virus, Rein's physical body and mecha suit suddenly disintigrate (turn to dust - how poetic, if scientifically implausible), and a new super-powerful AI is born. What I fail to comprehend is how Rien, who until a few days earlier had spent her entire life as a servant, was suddenly able to re-write what must have been the incredibly complex programming of the virus and then re-write the programming of Dust and all other AI in Jacob's Ladder in a matter of seconds. It seemed that Bear was pulling a rabbit out of a hat with this out of nowhere ending (much like the sword out of the hat resolution in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). I had seen no indication that Rien possessed the amazing abilities that she displayed at the end in her defeat / reprogramming of Dust.

Nevertheless, the story was quite intriguing, and enjoyable to read. Bear's writing can be lucid and poetic, though this isn't maintained throughout, and some things, such as the hermaphrodite sex scene and the recurring theme of incest, just made me cringe. Perhaps that makes me intolerant and closed minded, but I couldn't bring myself to get celebrate a romance between half-sisters. I did, however, find the blend of science fiction and fantasy to be fascinating - I love writing that blends these genres (as Wolfe does), and Bear does this very well. The interplay between science and religion in the story had me wanting to read more. I'll have to read the sequel, Chill, when it is released next year.

More info on Dust and Bear's other writing can be found at her website here. Now, to start reading James Blish's A Case of Conscience...

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Podcasts; "Come All Ye Faithful" by Robert J. Sawyer

After listening to StarShipSofa, I decided to scour the internet and find what other sf audio podcasts were out there. Lo and behold, I discovered Escape Pod, and its fantasy-centred sibling PodCastle. (The same team also does a horror podcast, Pseudopod, but horror isn't really my gig).

Episode 220 of Escape Pod has a narration of Robert J. Sawyer's "Come All Ye Faithful", a fascinating sf story which deals with religion. With the protagonist and narrator being a priest, the story was of particular interest to me due to my upcoming honours thesis on priests as protagonists in sf. The story follows the only Catholic priest on Mars as he sets off from the colony of Bradbury (fantastic choice of name by the way) to investigate an apparent sighting of the Virgin Mary elsewhere on the red planet. Arriving at the location of the apparent sighting (made by a popular televangelist via telescope from Earth), the priest looks around and finds nothing but sand. Reporting back to the Vatican, however, the priest fabricates a fanciful story about a miraculous encounter with the Virgin, thereby corroborating the televangelist's vision. As a result of the priest's lie, many Catholics pilgrimage to Mars and stay there permanently. We are led to pity these poor religious fools, who base their lives upon lies - fabrications made to reinforce their faith.

I was thoroughly enjoying the story up to the point where the priest fabricated his story - a turn which I found very bizarre, primarily because it did not seem to be in keeping with the priest's character. The priest is not only a devout Catholic, but also a scientist - an expert astronomer. He is intelligent, friendly, and, for most of the story anyway, quite likable. Needless to say, his fabrication is a gross violation of scientific method. It also seems incomprehensible to me why someone who genuinely believes in miraculous visions, as the priest claims he does, would feel the need to fabricate one, and lie so openly about it. The logical conclusion is that the priest must, then, be insincere in his faith - living a lie he does not truly believe. Were his faith to be genuine, he would surely have believed that the Catholic religion could stand up on its own, without the need to fabricate such miracles - though perhaps this was the point. When he makes up his story, he seems to be reluctantly accepting a necessary part of his job - as though it were a longstanding tradition for Catholic priests to corroborate false miracles. In this respect, Catholicism is presented as a faith predicated on lies - a religion which relies upon fabrications to keep on going.

Although the Mars scientists and colonists are, for the most part, presented as bigots, their condescension on the priest and his religion turn out to be well founded. Far from breaking down traditional barriers between "science" and "religion" (or "rationality" and "faith"), the story ends up reinforcing this irritating and all too common stereotype. The idea of a truly devout priest who is also an intelligent scientist seems to be too much for Sawyer to handle, so he presents the priest as being full of contradictions. The priest cannot be both faithful and scientific, rational and spiritual, so he must compromise on one (or both) of these things.

Overall, religion (Catholicism specifically) does not come off well in this story. The priest is a duplicitous liar who feels it is necessary to fabricate miracles in order to maintain his religion. The irritating televangelist (who just made me cringe) is thrown in just to make religion even less likable - not that the story needed any help in this respect. All the story serves to do, in the end, is reinforce the false dichotomy between "rationality" ("truth") and "faith" ("lies"). Nevertheless, it as an interesting read (or listen), and would be worth checking out, even if only for the fantastic jokes, such as the simile to "farting in an airlock" and the priest's mock-relief that he isn't "preaching to the converted".

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Free Will and Determinism in The Book of the New Sun

I recently finished re-reading Gene Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer, paying particular attention to religious, spiritual, and philosophical themes and discussions. And there is certainly no shortage of such material. One of the central themes, which grows in importance as the series progresses, is the question of free will and determinism. Specifically, to what extent is Severian "in control" of what transpires in the narrative? How much of what he does has already been determined by forces greater than himself? And what role does God play the events?

The opening line of the book – "It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future" (p. 9) – signals that some kind of "destiny" or "fate" is at work in Severian's life. His future is set. We are forced to ask who, or what, has set his future.

There are implications of divine providence throughout The Book of the New Sun, with constant reference to the Pancreator / Increate (God / Holy Spirit) being sovereign over all things. However, we are never given any conclusive evidence of this one way or the other.

Later in the book, we find that highly advanced alien creatures (cacogens, Hierodules, giant sea creatures, etc) have been interfering in Severian's life from very early on – perhaps before he was even born. Severian's manipulation by Agia and Agilus throughout The Shadow of the Torturer may serve as a parallel for his manipulation by powerful alien forces throughout the entire story.

The free will / determinism problem is further complicated by the introduction of time travel – especially Severian's ability to step into the "corridors of time" and go into the past, thereby altering the future. At the end of The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian speculates that he was not the first Severian, and that there have been many Severians before him who have gone into the past and changed the future (his life). We find in The Urth of the New Sun that these alterations to Severian and his life were all for the purpose of having him pass the test necessary to bring the New Sun (which previous incarnations of him had failed). Perhaps Severian, through time travel, has taken his own free will away?

Another way in which determinism works its way into the story is through Severian being driven by his own desires – yearnings that he is not fully in control of. Severian discusses this in one of my favourite passages from The Shadow of the Torturer, which comes as he discusses the difficult exegesis of the tale of Ymar:
The difficulty lies in learning that we ourselves encompass forces equally great. We say, "I will," and "I will not," and imagine ourselves (though we obey the orders of some prosaic person every day) our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves. (p. 159)
Severian, it seems, regards his actions as predetermined by his inner desires, which "wake" and "ride" him. These desires appear to be beyond his control. This sounds like a fatalism which sees the human being as entirely determined by their biology and their experiences – nature and nurture.

Whichever of these be the case, we are given ample evidence of the determinism at work in the narrative. With implications that events have been set by biological and cultural determinism, time travel paradoxes, manipulation by more powerful beings, or divine providence, Severian never seems to be fully in control of his actions, or the events in which he is involved. But then again, who is? 

Quotations are taken from: Gene Wolfe, The Shadow of the Torturer, in The Book of the New Sun – Volume 1: Shadow and Claw, Fantasy Masterworks edition (London: Gollancz, 2000).

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Relax to the soothing sounds of a nuclear powered aircraft carrier

I had to share this. The other day, while sorting through some of the library's LPs, my colleague came across this classic album:



The album contains such hits as "Nuclear reactor room siren" and "Engine room, main oil lube alarm". I have absolutely no idea how this ended up in my library's music collection!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Tribble triathlon

Ahh... this is the life. Watching dreadful science fiction TV while eating nachos. Earlier this week I processed the second and third seasons of Star Trek: The Original Series at my library, and immediately borrowed the fifth disc of season two, which contains three Star Trek Tribble episodes: "Trouble with Tribbles" from The Original Series, "More Trouble, More Tribbles" from The Animated Series, and "Trials and Tribble-ations" from Deep Space Nine.

"Trouble with Tribbles" was good in a nostalgic classic-science-fiction kind of way - not really fantastic in and of itself (in fact quite dreadful by today's standards), but nonetheless enjoyable. While trying to protect storehouses of grain from the Klingon, the Enterprise is overrun by Tribbles - tiny, furry creatures that multiply at an incredible rate. The Tribbles also have a strangely calming effect on all non-Klingon races, and send Klingons into a rage. The episode is very funny - at least I'm fairly sure I was laughing at the jokes most of the time, and not the show itself.

The Animated Series, it seems, is truly dreadful - and the 20 minute "More Trouble, More Tribbles" felt more like 20 hours. The cast of The Original Series are certainly not voice actors, since they all sounded incredibly bored for the entire episode (so they sounded like I felt). Furthermore, the animation was virtually non-existent, with most scenes being stationary people with slightly moving lips - though this was probably more due to the shocking animation technology of the time.

The Deep Space Nine episode, however, was thoroughly enjoyable - by far the best of the three. Yes, "Trouble with Tribbles" is classic, but "Trials and Tribble-ations" is good. I knew that the DS9 episode was a "crossover", but I still wasn't sure exactly what to expect. The episode actually runs, for the most part, concurrently with "The Trouble with Tribbles", and scenes from the original episode are spliced in. DS9 crew are forced to disguise themselves as Enterprise crew in order to infiltrate the station and the Enterprise and foil the plan of a villain that travelled back in time with them. In doing this, the DS9 crew become the 'extras' and 'behind the scenes' characters of "The Trouble with Tribbles". They are digitally inserted into scenes from the earlier episode quite seamlessly, and the result is hilarious (see, for instance, the bar fight). The writing of the episode is also brilliant, with many nods to (and parodies of) The Original Series. It is also, in many ways, a pastiche of other time travel stories, being very self-conscious. It is plain to see why "Trials and Tribble-ations" was nominated for a Hugo Award. I highly recommend it! You should watch "The Trouble with Tribbles" first to truly appreciate the episode. But skip The Animated Series. Trust me.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Essay done! SF reading underway!

Finally! I am now totally free from coursework units, having submitted my final essay yesterday. It could perhaps be considered sad, but on the same day as I technically finish uni for the year, I manage to pick up some reading for my thesis. I work at the Matheson Library at Monash University, and as I was walking past the new books display, this caught my eye:


Gabriel McKee, The Gospel According to Science Fiction: From the Twilight Zone to the Final Frontier (2007).

I've been following McKee's fantastic blog at sfgospel.com, and a while ago requested that my library acquire a copy of his book, and lo and behold, here it is! I read the introduction at work, and can't wait to get started on the book proper. Check out the table of contents at Amazon.com - I can't wait to read the chapters on Free Will and Divine Providence, Alien Messiahs, and Faith and Religious Experience.

I'm also about a third the way through Dust by Elizabeth Bear, which I'm really enjoying. I find it rather reminiscent of Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun - failing generational spaceship, AI as 'gods', religious themes, blend of fantasy and sf, needlers (needle-guns in Bear), the word 'azure'. I'll write a proper review when I've finished.

On my agenda for post-semester fun: playing Oblivion and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl; re-watching Stargate SG1; planning my trip to Italy in January (I'm auditing a one month unit taught at the Monash Prato centre called "Dante's Medieval World", which my wife is taking); and reading outside in the beautiful, sunny Spring weather. Also tidying the house, though that's perhaps slightly less fun.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Howl's Moving Castle; reading short stories


I finished reading Diana Wynne Jones's Howl's Moving Castle with my wife the other day, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. We decided it was one of those essential childrens' fantasy books that we had to read - and we bought a copy because of it's gorgeous cover. As soon as we started reading it, I discovered it was going to be quite different to what I had expected. It's a brilliantly written, self-reflective, and very, very fun. The characters were fantastic, and I absolutely loved that it crossed over from the fantasy world to the 'real' world at times. It's very different to the anime movie based on it, but I did see that years ago, so it didn't have much of a bearing on my reading of it. Highly recommended!



I've also been reading a few short stories lately, since they're easy to fit in around essay writing. I bought Vera Nazarian's Salt of the Air (not only because it has an introduction by Gene Wolfe) and have read "Rossia Moya", an interesting little science fiction piece set in a near-future dystopian Russia which is about to sever all connections with the rest of the world, and "The Story of Love", a beautifully written story that was nominated for a Nebula Award - though I would question how much a father that beats his daughter actually deserves love.

StarShipSofa's podcasts have be fantastic for providing quick doses of science fiction while walking to and from university. I'm listening through them rather randomly, but so far I have thoroughly enjoyed:
  • "Mythological Beast" by Stephen Donaldson (episode no. 11) – a brilliant blend of science fiction and fantasy. It has evil artificial intelligences and unicorns – what more could you ask for?
  • "'Tis the Season" by China Miéville (episode no. 56) – an extremely funny story about the commercialisation of Christmas.
  • "A Slow Saturday Night" by Michael Moorcock (episode no. 9) – an incredibly funny story in which God is questioned about his divine plan by bar patrons on a slow Saturday night. God, it turns out, is the God of prosperity doctrine - only the wealthy and prosperous get in to heaven. And cats. Apparently God greatly prefers cats to humans, and he essentially only allows humans in to heaven to serve the cats. I suppose I understand that. All in all, some very interesting, and funny, social commentary.
  • "And the Deep Blue Sea" by Elizabeth Bear (episode no. 19) – probably the most 'science fictional' of all the stories I listened to. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the story follows a package courier that must ride across the country on her motorcycle to deliver an important parcel. It was also brilliantly narrated. The story had me wanting to read more by Bear, so I read the first few pages of her recent novel Dust on Amazon.com preview (the description sounded a lot like Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun – massive generational spaceship, blend of sf and fantasy, etc) – now I'm hooked and I must read the rest of it! Only thing is, I can't find it in any bookstore here. Blasted understocked Australian bookstores!
As soon as I've finished this blasted honours coursework essay (eight days to go! yay!) I'll have time to delve into some novels. I'm waiting to read Elizabeth Bear's Dust, Neil Gaiman's Sandman (the entire series!), and a heap of novels related to my thesis next year. All that, of course, will have to wait untill my desk doesn't look like this:



Saturday, 3 October 2009

Coursework essay writing underway

Well, I just wrote the first 1600 words of a 6000 word coursework essay. I even came up with a title: "The Angel of Derision: The Use of Biblical Intertexts in S. Y. Abramovitsh's 'Shem and Japheth on the Train' and 'Burned Out'". What does it have to do with science fiction? Absolutely nothing. (What a sad semester, but such things are unavoidable.) The essay is for a unit called "The Jewish Literature of Destruction," in which we've been studying Jewish literary responses to catastrophe, from the biblical period to the Holocaust. I chose to write my essay on the 'grandfather' of modern Yiddish and Hebrew prose fiction, Abramovitsh, who was writing in Tsarist Russia from the Pale of Settlement in the late nineteenth-century. What makes Abramovitsh fairly unique among the authors we've been studying this semester is his style of response: parody and satire. His stories are, at the same time, incredibly funny and rather depressing. But they still make for more lighthearted reading than most of what I've read this semester. I'm specifically looking at his use of biblical quotations as a source of satire and irony in his later Hebrew writing.

The unavoidable problem with studying the Jewish literature of destruction in isolation, however, is that reading it alone serves to reinforce a lachrymose (tearful) view of Jewish history, one which many scholars are attempting to move past. Nevertheless, as upsetting as most of this literature is, it is incredibly beautiful writing, and very enlightening - there is a huge difference between reading a history book on life in the ghettos, and reading the heart wrenching writings of actual ghetto inhabitants.



As deep as all that sounds, I've been having trouble not just sitting and looking at my little room heater, which I swear would look just like a cylon, if only I could make its red light move from left to right.



Sunday, 27 September 2009

Strange Birds

The other day I received a copy of Gene Wolfe's chapbook Strange Birds (2006), a collection of two short stories inspired by the paintings and sculptures of Lisa Snellings-Clark. It's a lovely little book with beautiful artwork, and I managed to get my hands on a copy signed by Wolfe and Snellings-Clark. Strange Birds was published by DreamHaven and limited to 1000 copies.


"On a Vacant Face a Bruise"
This short story makes a fantastic opening to the chapbook, being fairly lighthearted. It forms a prequel to a much older Wolfe short story called "The Toy Theater" (1971), and follows a young boy, Tom, who runs away from home to join the circus. At the circus, Tom encounters two characters from "The Toy Theater": the great mationettist Stromboli, and his neglected and abused wife Maria, who he first 'mistakes' for a doll. Tom comes to love Maria, and Stromboli soon leaves the circus with one of his dolls. When another child comes to join the circus - an alien child with four arms and the ability to control many dolls - Maria leaves in search for her husband. We gather from this story that Stromboli and Maria are both human (something we are unsure of in "The Toy Theater"), but this is problematised by the fact that when Stromboli pushes his wife towards Tom, there is a loud 'bang' like metal on metal when his hand contacts her back. This story was very enjoyable, and is probably best enjoyed after reading "The Toy Theater".

"Sob in the Silence"
A family of four goes on a trip to visit a friend of the father's, a 'horror writer' that lives in a large, haunted-looking house. When the visitors arrive, the horror writer tells them a terrifying story about the previous inhabitants of the house - a murder suicide in which one of the family's children survived (with brain damage) and went on to form a sadistic cult which murdered children. After the visitors have gone to bed, the horror writer murders the young boy, Robbie, and beats and abducts Kiara, the teenage daughter. He seems to be possessed by the spirit of the brain damaged cult leader that used to inhabit the house. Through careful planning, he makes it seem that someone else came in during the night and committed the crime, thus escaping the police. When he goes to an old well in a forest near his property, in order to collect Kiara, who he trapped in the well on the night of the abduction, he comes to a grisly (yet entirely just) end. This is a truly chilling horror story - Wolfe at his darkest. I think that the unnamed 'horror writer' is perhaps meant to be connected to a real-life horror author of some significance, but knowing little about horror, I couldn't place him (if we're even meant to). Also, don't make my mistake and read it immediately before going to bed.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

A list of Gene Wolfe's uncollected short fiction

Upon request, I have made available my list of Gene Wolfe's uncollected short fiction. I have included the stories' titles and dates, along with citation details of their first appearances in print. I believe it is fairly comprehensive, but if you are aware of any omissions, please contact me. If you have any problems viewing the embedded document below (or at this URL), I would be happy to e-mail you a copy. Enjoy!

UPDATE (9/3/2010): "Easter Sunday" (1951) has been added to the list. The obscure story, available online through RevolutionSF, was originally published in Commentator, a Texas A&M student magazine (see Bill Page's Fantasyland/Aggieland, available online, for the original citation).

UPDATE (10/6/2010): I have changed the embedded document to a Google Docs document, which is more accessible and iPad / iPhone friendly. Alternatively, the document can be downloaded. I have also added some of Gene Wolfe's forthcoming short stories to the list.

UPDATE (30/7/2010): The short story "The Tale of the Four Accused" (1989) has been added to the list. Information comes from: Stephensen-Payne and Benson, Gene Wolfe: Urth-Man Extraordinary: A Working Bibliography (1991). I have checked it hasn't been collected since this bibliography was produced.

UPDATE (9/10/2012): Added "Planetarium in Orbit" (2009), "Last Drink Bird Head" (2009), "Innocent" (2010), "The Giant" (2011), "Josh" (2011), "Why I Was Hanged" (2011), and "Dormanna" (2012).

UPDATE (22/11/2013): Added "Frostfree" (2013) and "The Sea of Memory" (2013), which were published in the recent Wolfe tribute anthology Shadows of the New Sun (2013).


In addition to Monash University Library's Rare Books collection, 
I made use of the following online resources while compiling my list:

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Thesis topic clarification

There seems to have been some confusion over what exactly I'm planning to do for my thesis topic, and the nature of the thesis itself. The aforementioned project is a 15,000 word undergraduate thesis which I will undertake in 2010 as part of my Bachelor of Arts Honours course. Most simply, my studying how the character of Patera Silk from Gene Wolfe's Book of the Long Sun fits in to the greater context of the narrative function of the priest as protagonist in science fiction literature. While this may seem narrow (there are plenty of PhD thesis topics to be found in Catholic SF in general), I have had to be very specific on my choice of topic since I am greatly restricted by time and word count. I will now lay out a basic (possible) plan for the thesis, then explain some of my (tentative) decisions.

Introduction
- Very brief history of religion in science fiction; there has been relatively little written on this topic.
- The priest as protagonist is a particularly common narrative device, used to explore faith and religion from 'within'.
- Typically, an author chooses to have a priest as a protagonist for one of two dominant reasons:

1) The 'negative' use of the priest
- Wherein the author chooses to have a priest as protagonist in order to expose them to some extraordinary (science fictional) dilemma which has a negative impact on their faith.
- The priest may have his faith profoundly shaken, or lose it completely. He may discover that God is evil, or come to have a lesser view of God in some way, thus losing faith in God's goodness.
- Arthur C. Clarke's "The Star" would be a good example of this.

2) The 'positive' use of the priest
- The priest is chosen as the story's protagonist so that his faith can be affirmed, or strengthened, thus effecting his faith in a positive way.
- This is not to say that the priest will not experience some challenge to his faith in the course of the narrative; rather, the priest's faith perseveres and is finally seen as a positive thing.
- This may also include instances where a priest's faith remains strong and consistent throughout, and is cast in a positive light.

3) Gene Wolfe's Patera Silk, and the synthesis of these two dominant positions
- Wolfe manages to synthesise these two dominant uses of the priest protagonist, through his use of a pagan religion which is explicitly modeled on Catholicism.
- Silk renounces the religion in which he serves when he discovers that his 'gods' are artificial intelligences unworthy of worship. Since his religion is an explicit parody of Catholicism, Silk can perhaps be seen to be rejecting some aspect (the ritual aspect?) of Catholicism.
- Throughout the tetralogy, Silk's faith in the Outsider (the 'one true God' of monotheism) grows, and in this sense the spiritual aspect of Catholicism is affirmed.

Conclusion
- Something along the lines of Wolfe being an important and profound SF writer, etc. (I truly cannot anticipate this bit.)

I am sure that Wolfe isn't the only science fiction author to ever synthesised these two dominant (?) uses of the priest – there may well be others who do the same, or manage to maneuver straight between the two views along the fence of neutrality. My decision to engage with this seemingly crude dialectical opposition (challenge/reaffirmation) is based on the reading and research I have already done (minor though it may be), and the logic that if an author is going to make their protagonist a priest, they will likely be wanting to do one of these two things with the priest's faith (I think it would be fairly pointless to maintain absolute neutrality – why, then, choose a priest?).

I wish to stress that this is a very tentative plan, and will probably be greatly altered when I have done more research (and I have a lot of research still to do). Indeed, many people writing theses find themselves greatly changing what they planned to write after doing more in-depth research. I would greatly appreciate any feedback that anyone may have, or any suggested readings - I'm still compiling a massive list of all the books I have to get through in the coming holidays!

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Audio SF!

I must share this: yesterday I discovered the audio science fiction magazine StarShipSofa. The weekly podcast, which can be streamed online, downloaded, or subscribed to via iTunes, presents brilliantly narrated science fiction poetry, short stories, and reviews. I strongly suggest you check it out!!

Lest I go entire post without mentioning Gene Wolfe, I should point out that StarShipSofa has recorded two Wolfe works:

Gene Wolfe and Lawrence Santoro, 'The Tree is My Hat,' StarShipSofa, podcast no. 49, 6 November 2008.

An audio play of 'The Tree is My Hat' (1999) in issue no. 49, written by Wolfe and adapted by Santoro. The story is connected to Wolfe's recent novel An Evil Guest. This audio version is particularly exciting, because Neil Gaiman is in the cast! (Grade: A)

Gene Wolfe, 'The Vampire Kiss,' StarShipSofa, podcast no. 60, 22 January 2009.

A sad but enjoyable short story, which feels like it is set in the Victorian era. The vampire of the tale is reminiscent of the vampiric 'inhumi' of The Book of the Short Sun in its characteristics, biology/mythology, and eating patterns. Significant? (Grade: B+)

'The Vampire Kiss' is also available in print in StarShipSofa's first printed volume (cover below), which collects short stories by many eminent SF authors, and is available as a print-on-demand paperback and as a free e-book.


Friday, 18 September 2009

Uncollected short stories (Part 1)

One of the reasons I love Monash University's Matheson Library (at which I work) is because its Rare Books section houses the largest collection of pulp SF in Australia (probably the largest in the entire southern hemisphere). Every Friday I put work for a couple of hours in Rare Books, just helping sort and re-shelve materials. Last week I got distracted and started flicking through some issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and discovered a Gene Wolfe short story not collected in any of his short story volumes. This intrigued me, so I went away and compiled a list of his uncollected short stories, and I found that there are four at my library! So today, in my lunch break, I tracked down two of these. (The others will have to wait till next week).

Gene Wolfe, 'A Method Bit in "B",' Orbit 8, edited by Damon Knight, 1970.

I'm surprised that this story wasn't collected in any of Wolfe's early volumes, since it is quite good. Our narrator, a detective, is called to investigate disturbances at a manor (or castle) on the outskirts of his town. He curiously skips over describing what actually took place at the manor, and details an unusual experience he had in a bar later that night. In the bar he saw everyone 'unusual' in his town drinking beverages that looked alcoholic, but in fact had no alcohol in them, and acting in their most characteristically 'unusual' ways. He glosses over the shooting of a dangerous American werewolf by a werewolf-hunting occultist, and concludes the story with a description of him looking through one of his neighbour's windows to find the entire house empty inside, with dirt and shrubs where the floor should be. During the story, the narrator reflects on method actors, and how they become deeply immersed in their roles. We are left thinking that the narrator himself must be a method actor in a bad 'B' film - a peripheral character in a movie about werewolves and their slayers.

While not one of Wolfe's best short stories, it does leave you thinking for a while after reading it. Like most of his stories, you have to piece together what happened and solve the riddle Wolfe puts forth (though, admittedly, this one wasn't terrible difficult - it was kind of given away by the title). I think I liked it mostly because it's a pastiche of a 'B' film, like how 'The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories' and 'An Evil Guest' are pastiches of pulp novels.

Overall grade: B (get it?)

Gene Wolfe, 'Tarzan of the Grapes,' The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, June 1972.

This story follows a reporter, Brown, as he accompanies a deputy, Prescott, and his colleagues, on a search a vineyard for an 'ape man' and his followers, believed to be living among the grapes. We are told that Brown and his boss, Culough, invented the 'ape man' story for their newspaper, but after it became widely read, copycats started living in the vineyard. The deputy and his colleagues find a ragged looking girl, who calls herself 'Jane', and take her into custody. A muscular 'Tarzan' then comes along and frees his 'Jane', but in doing so he is knocked down and handcuffed. The story ends with him breaking his bonds...

This very short story was surprisingly simple for Wolfe - unlike most of his fiction, we aren't really left with many questions as to what actually happened. The only real question is where this 'Tarzan' character came from, and how he gained his enormous strength. I see two possibilities: (1) he is just an incredibly strong man who took up living in the vineyard after Brown's story was published, or (2) he was living there all along and Brown's article was (unintentionally) true. Either way, the story doesn't have much of a SF or fantasy feel to it - and that's the primary reason I read Wolfe. The title (and perhaps the entire story?) is, of course, a play on Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes (1914).

Photographs of the pulp that 'Tarzan of the Grapes' was printed in. I'm not entirely sure what 'CANCELLED' means in this context, but it's a terrible thing to do to a book - even an SF pulp!
      

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Two new books!

Well, not exactly new, but new to me. I just received my hardcover first editions of Gene Wolfe's Innocents Aboard and Starwater Strains the other day. They're in such beautiful condition! Thank you Sci Fi, Etc. I really love the cover art - especially for Starwater Strains. Also, Innocents Aboard is signed! So exciting. Now I just have to find time to read them... I can't wait for this semester to be over - damned coursework units - I want to start my thesis already!

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Praise the protective power of polypropylene!

I bought a copy of Gene Wolfe's Endangered Species (hardcover, first edition) last week from a store on Biblio.com (a utopia for book lovers). When it arrived I found it to be in beautiful condition, and its dust jacket was protected by a Gaylord Book Jacket Cover. It then occurred to me that I had found the cure to my fear of touching my first edition books!

After some investigation, I found that there is an Australian manufacturer of such covers: The Book Cover Co. And even better, they sell discounted seconds at their factory outlet only 20 minutes drive from my house! My inner librarian was jumping for joy, so of course I had to go immediately to investigate. The extremely helpful gentleman at the showroom / outlet gave me enthusiastic demonstrations on how to cover dust jackets, hardcover books and paperbacks. I ended up buying masses of polypropylene archival film and polypropylene tape, and this afternoon I have had an awesome time protecting my Wolfe first editions. (Does this make me sad? or just very nerdy?) Not only does it protect the books, but it also makes it look and feel nicer too. Now I don't have to worry so much about actually reading my books!!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

It's official! I have a thesis topic!

After a fruitful meeting with my honours supervisor this afternoon, I have finally settled on a specific topic for my honours thesis! My intention was always to write something on religion in Gene Wolfe's solar cycle (or sun cycle, or Urth cycle... I'm not sure anyone can agree on what it is called), but I had trouble deciding exactly what to focus on.

My first idea was to study how Wolfe's focus on spiritual and religious themes in The Book of the New Sun (BotNS) challenge established definitions of Science Fiction (such as Darko Suvin's) which aim to exclude religion and spirituality in order to focus more on the hard science aspect of the genre. I found, however, that the real challenge of BotNS to SF definitions was that it manages to be both SF and Fantasy, blending tropes of the two genres expertly. Wolfe's theological and spiritual discussions remain somewhat abstract – their bearing on the events of the narrative being somewhat uncertain. While there is definitely something to be studied in Wolfe's treatment of theological topics in BotNS, such as Christology and the Free Will / Predestination debate, I decided to shift my focus to The Book of the Long Sun (BotLS). The protagonist of BotLS, Patera Silk, is a priest in a fictional religion which is both pagan and a parody of Catholicism. I narrowed the possible areas of study down to three topics:

  1. The religion of The Book of the Long Sun as a parody of Catholicism.
  2. Patera Silk and the role of the priest in science fiction.
  3. Patera Silk as messiah figure – particularly as compared to Severian, the protagonist of BotNS, who is cruel and malicious, unlike the truly 'good' character of Silk, but is also explicitly a messiah figure.
After much deliberation I have settled on the second topic, which lends itself well to a comparative study with other texts, and also offers a promising three-chapter breakdown. In brief, I plan to contend that there are two dominant uses of the priest protagonists in SF:
  1. To affirm the priest's faith / religion and its positive effect (e.g. the missionary goes to an alien planet, converts its inhabitants, and brings peace and utopia to all).
  2. To debunk the priest's faith and expose it as false (e.g. by having the priest discover something that has him renounce his faith).
These will provide the topics for the first two chapters of my thesis. In the third, I will address Wolfe's use of the priest protagonist in BotLS, which I will put forth as an interesting and unique case. Wolfe, I will contend, manages to synthesise the two dominant uses of the priest in SF, by simultaneously debunking Silk's religion (the pagan religion in which he serves as priest) and reaffirming monotheism (through Silk's growing faith in 'The Outsider').
My next task is to read a heck of a lot of SF that has priests as protagonists. Top of the list are James Blish's A Case of Conscience and Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. I can't wait till this semester is over so I can get stuck into my reading!

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Wolfe books on Gaiman's bookshelves

A friend of mine just shared this Shelfari link to photos of Neil Gaiman's bookshelves by Shelfari:  http://blog.shelfari.com/my_weblog/2009/09/neil.html

As I was coveting Gaiman's incredible library, I found his collection of Gene Wolfe books! I am extremely jealous... all those beautiful hardcovers. Including the rare Bibliomen! One day... one day...

http://blog.shelfari.com/.a/6a00d8341e478253ef0120a4e31abd970b-pi
http://blog.shelfari.com/.a/6a00d8341e478253ef0120a4e31ad2970b-pi

Friday, 4 September 2009

Greetings!

So here's the gist: I'm a student at Monash University, currently undertaking honours in Comparative Literature and Cultural Studies. Next year I will be doing my minor thesis on religious themes in Gene Wolfe's science fiction (probably The Book of the Long Sun - hence the blog name).

I have created this blog to chronicle my deep and profound reflections on Wolfe's writing, and on science fiction in general. My hope is that it will also provide a place for me to think through aspects of my thesis. So, if you do happen to be reading this, feel free to comment or whatever!