Dark Curricula: May 2016
This month's theme is atavism. Take your pants off and scratch yourself. Stay up all night and sleep all day. Eat undercooked meat. It doesn't matter, man, just doesn't matter. Sometimes you have go back to square one to figure out how to go forward. Sometimes you have to go back in time. But watch out, you might bump into yourself. If it's the seventies, things could get funky, baby. Let it all hang loose. Everything which is not forbidden is allowed? Or is that, "Nothing is true, everything is permitted"?
J. G. Ballard
I love the way Ballard wrote. It's sharp, and succinct, and direct. It's deceptive, in that it attempts to be generic and voice-less, but it is strongly identifiable. I'll bet I could easily pick out a Ballard paragraph thrown into a jumble of other modern novelists paragraphs.
Reluctantly, he knew that he despised his fellow residents for the way in which they fitted so willingly into their appointed slots in the apartment building, for their over-developed sense of responsibility, and lack of flamboyance. Above all, he looked down on them for their good taste. The building was a monument to good taste, to the well-designed kitchen, to sophisticated utensils and fabrics, to elegant and never ostentatious furnishings—in short, to that whole aesthetic sensibility which these well-educated professional people had inherited from all the schools of industrial design, all the award-winning schemes of interior decoration institutionalized by the last quarter of the twentieth century. Royal detested this orthodoxy of the intelligent.
He'll sneak in comparisons or observations that are almost peculiar, you aren't sure, you may find yourself wondering later "was that weird? oh, yeah, I guess that was super weird". The surface is normal. And this is why writing about modern structures, social, technological, sexual and otherwise in his tone work together so perfectly. Are we weird? Yeah, we're super weird. "You're OK, I'm OK", also so big a part of the 70s zeitgeist. I imagine EST and avacado and Eames, batik and big collars. Opening of the book:
Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr. Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months. Now that everything had returned to normal, he was surprised that there had been no obvious beginning, no point beyond which their lives had moved into clearly a sinister dimension.
There's a film adaptation of High Rise, which made me remember I'd promised once long ago to read this book. I have yet to see the film. Scenario: a state of the art high rise apartment building reduces the residents to a primitive tribal state. In interesting steps. You, as the reader, are also unaware you've become a barbarian until it's too late. And you like it. Just a fantastic read, and I think still pertinent if you've seen the things being built along the Brooklyn waterfront and the culture that supports them. Again, haven't seen the film, but while reading it I imagined it populated by hipster professionals with all sorts of bespoke head clobbering tools and artisanal dog barbeques. Oh, we think we're very cool and civilized, do we? All it takes is one big blackout...
Planet Of Exile
Ursula K. Le Guin
Whatever it was about Rocannon's World, that made it a slog to get through, not the case with this book. Yet the themes weren't dissimilar. I realize, DUH, that's what defines the series: contrasting an indigenous culture with an invading or exiled culture. Here, the indigenous are viking-like, fairly primitive humans, and the contrasting culture are exiled, doom-minded human aliens once part of the "League Of Worlds" that runs throughout the books. They are now stuck, for generations, on the primitive planet. They're sliding backwards in development, losing themselves, regressing. Both populations are human, but neither considers the other to be completely human. There is a third culture, invasive and barbarian that the two must fight. And the two are losing. Both of the other societies recognize that even if they physically survive, they will have to contend with eventual extinction. No magic, no dragons, no high fantasy (sigh of relief). This is a great fast read, and so far my second fav after The Dispossessed.
The Man Who Folded Himself
Gerrold also wrote "The Trouble With Tribbles". He contributed a lot to Trek. Both the animated series and TNG. Famously too, "Blood And Fire". This short novel follows a tradition of time travel paradox stories that had already been explored in print. For instance, Heinlein's "All You Zombies" (1958). And yet these more interesting twists were usually left out of what developed as television or movie time travel. Lots of popular time travel discards the idea of meeting yourself. Says it can't happen, that there'd be some kind of explosion or temporal WHARRGARBL. It gets complicated. The premise here: you have been given a time traveling "belt". What would you do with it? How about the paradox of meeting yourself? The comprehension of branching and remerging time streams would be difficult. There are unlimited numbers of you across unlimited streams. So... recall, his was written in the seventies. I mean... extrapolate. You're gonna hook up with yourself, just admit that. Let's just get that out of the way.
But rather than some offhanded allusion, hooking up with yourself is the kernel of the story. Where this was, in part due to length, abstracted in "All You Zombies", it is more fleshed out (ahem) here. Honestly I feel like a proper title here should have been "The Man Who Fucked Himself". And yet, the ending really pulls it together, it doesn't descend into slash fiction, this is masterfully plotted.
Ever come across that old white beardy guy at the end of the bar and you're like "oh God, I hope he's not gonna be all racist and shit". And, surprise, somehow he ends up telling the most awesome crazy stories about things that happened a long time ago.
I mean, there might be a little racism or misogyny. It was written in 1963 when he was in his late forties. OK, there is definitely some racism and misogyny. But less than most things from the first half of the 20th century. And he expresses that dawning mid-20th century realization, similarly echoed by the beatniks, that maybe... just maybe... the big white American is actually a huge privileged dick, and that there are other things, more people and ideas of value in the world than brand names and a two car garage. We've obviously discarded this skepticism entirely in this new century. So, by comparison, in one way, he's radically more progressive and empathic than your neighbor.
Sterling Hayden hates hollywood. He loves ships. He loves freedom. He spent all his money. This, in a nutshell, is the book. He wants to get back to basics. He wants to get back to the sea.
It is written with the enthusiasm you usually expect of a young writer. That's not a knock. The voice is solid. The writing is good, it's fitting, it flows. Why am I shocked that the writing is as good as it is? To Hayden's very point, that, for a century, Hollywood has benefited in producing shallowness. Entertaining, yes. But not always substantial. And here's where there's a bit of a wink, Hayden constantly bitching about life as an actor, but very much also the feeling that he loved it.
Autobiographies are not something I usually read. Most people who believe they have had an interesting life justifying an autobiography, almost by definition have not. But I think this one's an exception, because instead of "I did this and this and I'm awesome or here's some fake remorse to make you like me more", it's him writing himself as a character and enjoying the act of writing.