Thursday, September 14, 2017

The Semester Commences

(more notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

I have a truly fine class this term. They haven’t read much in the field, which would infuriate some of my colleagues, but several of my students have answered that complaint very well already.
“I haven’t read a lot of science fiction but … that’s why I’m here.”
Students are students. That’s what they do.
And I know, in some instinctual way, they won’t let me down. Which puts the burden on me, but that’s okay. I’m looking forward to the challenge. If I’m lucky, every class teaches me something new, and I’m looking forward to what I’ll learn this time.
I ran across a posting on Facebook, from another teacher, who was trying to work out a comprehensive definition of “speculative fiction.”
Speculative fiction is what you call science fiction when you’re taking it to meet your parents for dinner. Yes, I’m being facetious, but you know what I mean.
I never define speculative/science fiction. I let my students do that in the first session. Then I check with them at the end of the term and see if their definitions have changed.
Science fiction, contrary to its strongest defenders, is a living form. It changes and reshapes itself as the world changes and reshapes itself. If one can successfully define it in a way that makes all other definitions superfluous, call the undertaker. We’re outta here.
In the meantime, I’m rolling a number of things around in my head, juggling them around to see what comes up.
What we want from life is magic.
What we want from science is magic.
If we want to figure out where we’re going, and write about it, look for what we want, and what it will do to us.
If you want to write about future science and technology, look for magic. Look for mystery and miracles.
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” – Sir Arthur C. Clarke
“I am only really interested in a fiction of miracles. – Flannery OConnor
All great stories are love stories.
All great stories are about loneliness.
The two sentences above do not exclude each other.
A good story is a good story, whether it is based upon objective reality or a subjective interpretation of reality. A good story, however, does not necessarily result in a good reality. Fiction remains fiction, no matter how many people believe in it.
But if you have to believe in a fiction, at least pick a good one.
We return you now to our regularly scheduled programming …



Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Semester Approaches, Part Two

(more notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

I’m never satisfied that I’m teaching what my students need, but at least at times I feel like I’m making an effort at it.
Science fiction is a moving target a.) because it is moving, and b.) because it’s a target, has been a target, remains a target (in spite of many assurances that our work has become “respectable,” whatever that means), and may always be a target – perhaps because no matter what we do, someone who knows better thinks we should be doing otherwise.
There are times when a syllabus looks like a death certificate. The good news is that the patient isn’t dead, just the syllabus. We leave it in the rearview and the class goes where it needs to go.
The syllabus doesn’t teach the class – the teacher (for lack of a better word) teaches, or leads, the class. Or at times the teacher runs just fast enough to keep from being rolled over – by the students, the subject, or by the teacher’s own expectations for what the class should or can accomplish.
The thing I want most from my class – the thing I set out as my highest goal – is that they leave by the end of the semester thinking like science fiction writers. What they write is their own business. What they do is their own business. But if they can think like science fiction writers (and it occurs to me that many people who write science fiction can’t) they will at least have the equipment not only to write in the form, but to think of the world around them in ways they wouldn’t have before.

#                          #                          #

I have no trouble calling what I write science fiction. I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what it’s called. I’ve noticed a lot students I encounter do worry. “I’m working on this story. I’m not sure if it’s sci-fi or something else.”
“Are you finished with it?”
“No.”
“Don’t worry, then, until it’s done. We’ll figure out what it is when you’ve got something.”
As much I love science fiction, and as much as I believe that science fiction will save our planet, our universe, our culture, and maybe even our lunch, what I love more is story. A good story means more to me than all the categories you can come up with.
Back to the student:
“I’m working on something. I don’t know if it’s a story or not.”
Oh dear. Here we go again.
“Keep working. When it’s ready, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll find out what it is. You won’t tell if it’s a story. I won’t tell. The thing you’re working on will tell you if it’s a story or if it’s something else. Keep working.”
I know that answer may strike many here as unsatisfactory. It is unsatisfactory. Here you are, a roomful of writers who want to write all the great things you know you can, and will, write, and I’m telling you that a pile of scribbled letters is going to tell you what it is.
Remember, that pile of scribbled letters is yours.
I’m not trying to be “literary” or “aesthetic” about this. I am, I believe, being practical. My employers at Columbia College Chicago hired me, I suspect, because they wanted someone to teach what they believe is a “commercial” form of writing – i.e. something that someone will pay you to write as compared to something that no one will pay you to write but will exist for – well, for some reason. My employers seem to make some distinction between what they think they want their students to do and what they think I want my students to do. It’s a misapprehension. We both want them to write the best possible work they’re capable of producing.
Besides, I don’t think they know what writers of science fiction really get paid. If they ever find out, my butt is on the street. We’re paid crap compared to what writers in other fields receive.
What it means is that a good story goes beyond the boundaries of the teachable. I have colleagues who go on about three- and six-act structure; they’ll go on about narrative “arcs”; they’ll talk about having an “A” story and a “B” story; they’ll talk about character and motivation and conflict and complication (hell, even I do that).
They can show you how to build the statue that is Galatea – perfectly life-like, but without life.
How do you make Galatea live and breathe and speak and laugh, and even cry?
The question is big. The answers are many – or the same answer worded many ways.
I came upon this wonderful quote from the great screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who worked with Michael Powell on such classics as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. He is talking about films, but what he says applies to any kind of writing:

I think that a film should have a good story, a clear story, and it should have, if possible, something which is probably the most difficult thing – it should have a little bit of magic. Magic being untouchable and very difficult to cast, you can’t deal with it at all. You can only try to prepare some nests, hoping that a little bit of magic will slide into them.

Yes, even a science fiction story needs a little bit of magic.
Where does it come from?
I don’t know. Like most of the universe, it remains a mystery.
But very often, most often, the magic comes from you. You give to every story a little piece of yourself that no other writer can give to that story. It may come easy or may come with unbearable agony, but it comes from you.
Let me throw in some words from smart people, so that you don't just have to take the word of a stupid teacher-guy:

“ . . . The mature science fiction writer doesn’t merely tell a story about Brick Malloy vs. The Giant Yeastmen from Gethsemane. He makes a statement through his story. What is the statement? Himself, the dimension and depth of the man. His statement is seeing what everybody else sees but thinking what no one else has thought, and having the courage to say it. The hell of it is that only time will tell whether it was worth saying.” – Alfred Bester, “My Affair With Science Fiction” (1975)

“It was 1956, and the beginning of a conscious realization that to limit science fiction to outer space was just that – a limitation, and that science fiction has and should have as limitless a character as poetry; further, that it has a real function in inner space. This in turn led me to a redefinition of science itself, and to an increasing preoccupation with humanity not only as the subject of science, but as its source. It has become my joy to find out what makes it tick, especially when it ticks unevenly.” — Theodore Sturgeon, in his introduction to “And Now the News . . .” in the collection, The Golden Helix

“The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader reading it makes it live: a live thing, a story.” — Ursula K. Le Guin

“Any bad fiction, no matter the genre, is a wild exercise of the imagination which explodes in the night of our minds, makes garish pyrotechnics, then dies, leaving the night blacker than before. But good fiction is a steady light even if sometimes a small one. By it we walk without stumbling and we may return at any time to see under its flare other topographical features we did not understand the first trip.” – Philip Jose Farmer

I know – if I’m teaching a “genre” class, is that what I’m supposed to be talking about? Aren’t I supposed to be talking about tropes and arcs and structure? Isn’t it all about the “Three Rs”: Rockets, Robots and Rayguns?
No.
No. No. No.
Not necessarily so.
It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
The thing that probably most infuriates my colleagues who have no interest in science fiction – or any forms of “popular” literature – is their belief that it doesn’t have to be good writing, by their standards, to be “successful” – by their standards. What those standards are is an argument for another time, but let’s say we can agree on what constitutes the basics of good writing. They have a point. All you have to do is review the quality of prose in most bestsellers to see that a lot of bad writing makes a lot of money for someone. They will also see that bad writing is not the exclusive domain of science fiction – in fact, our standards are much higher than they are in many other forms. And yet the belief persists that science fiction depends mostly on “ideas” illustrated through cheap dramatic conventions, which makes none of it “real” or “serious” literature.
And very often, to be honest, they’re right.
This isn’t to say the work has no value, but that it engages in a currency they do not recognize.
I believe it’s possible and even necessary, to write to the higher goal, i.e. it takes as many sheets of paper (or equivalent electrons) and as much ink to write a good book as a bad or mediocre one. A box of good books weighs as much as a box of bad ones. Why not fill that box with the best work possible?
The coolest thing about science fiction is that, so long as we keep “story” somewhere in the upper corner of our imaginations, we can invent the form as we go along. And we can imbue it with a finesse and nuance it never had before. Why I maintain such prominence for “story” is a subject for another time.
We are situated on the corner of Popular Street and Personal Avenue, and the cross traffic comes from both ways. In a culture that is changing in so many ways, it’s not a bad place to be.



Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Semester Approaches

(notes toward more stuff I’ve been thinking about sf and teaching and maybe even living)

One should write fiction carefully and consciously to someone, as one writes a letter; and the selection of that someone is the single most important skill that a writer can develop.
— Theodore Sturgeon
Everybody writes to somebody.
Or they should.
I know a few carloads of writers who say they write only for themselves, and I would never doubt them. But I didn’t say anything about who they write for – I said “write to.”
Writing, so I have been told, is a form of communication. Communication implies that there’s a sender and a receiver. “Rhetoric must be a bridge, a road,” Borges wrote; “too often it is a wall, an obstacle.”
Who is receiving what we write?
If we’re writing science fiction, is there a science fiction reader to whom we’re writing? Who is that person? What is that person like? Are they like us? Should they be?
I believe these questions may be at the heart with what is going on in the field these days. Many people have many assumptions about what’s good, what’s bad; things ain’t like they used to be; a candy bar used to be twenty-five cents; you shouldn’t be eating candy bars anyway; if it’s sci-fi, why are there no robots?; why are there only robots?; I ordered a halibut and you brought me beef jerky; if I go to Mars who’s going to mow my lawn?; why is everybody else always wrong and only I am right? Huh? How about that?
I had an argument – no, let’s call it a disagreement – with the late and much-missed David G. Hartwell. He used to say, most directly in his book, Age of Wonders, that readers have to learn how to read science fiction, which was one of the expressed intentions of that volume. Reading science fiction is different from reading other kinds of fiction. Many readers don’t know how to do it – like going from automatic to stick shift. “Written science fiction, like cooking, mathematics, or rock ’n’ roll, is a whole bunch of things that some people can understand or do and some not … Just because someone can read does not mean that he necessarily can read SF, just as the ability to write arabic numerals and add and subtract doesn’t mean you necessarily can or want to perform long division.”
Me? I insisted that every book teaches its reader how to read it. Some do so better than others, but each novel or collection has to work its own specific magic. If I read a book about how to read regency romances, I doubt if it would do me any good. Same with westerns, or private eye novels, or police procedurals. One kind of story may appeal to a reader more than another, but every book has to teach its readers how it should be read.
Were it otherwise, that strange and alluring abyss known as fandom would have the greatest sway over what is written and what is sold as science fiction. And yet there are a number of books that have sold far and wide beyond fandom’s fuzzy corridors and are recognized by all but the most adamant protesters as science fiction.
How can that be?
I am one of those writers who often hears from readers, “I usually don’t like science fiction, but I like your stories.”
On the other hand, I’ve heard this from fans: “You wrote some kind of thing, didn’t you?”
So it goes.
I don’t know why this is. Obviously, there are many voices speaking to many readers. Some are more readily received by the more vocal members of the sf community. Others, not so much. And the differences between the “some” and the “others” are not always reflected in book sales. Readers of science fiction outnumber science fiction “fans.”
Science fiction media is pervasive. We are constantly told we now live in a science fiction universe. Terms from popular science fiction media have entered everyday vernacular. For those of us who create science fiction to be read or listened to, this may not always be a blessing, but it seems that at least in some respects a wider audience has already met us half way. It is no longer 1984 (when Hartwell’s book came out).
Who is our audience? Who are we writing to?
In a world (as the movie trailers tell us) of growing diversity, even in the midst of devastating setbacks, cultures are communicating with other cultures with greater facility. Or at least they can – we can, if we choose. We don’t have to presume our readers all come from similar backgrounds.
I used to get grief from my short story writing students all the time whenever I asked them to give me more detail and description. Now, we’re not necessarily talking about science fiction stories, or fantasy stories, or historical fiction. “Why do I have to put all that stuff in? Everybody knows what I’m talking about.” In a classroom, on a high school or junior college campus, with a roomful of students who live within a few miles of each other, that may be so – may be so. Even within what seems to be a fairly homogenous culture, there are degrees of variance that will make voices and points of view unique.
Some writers seem to communicate to an inner circle of the initiated. Perhaps Joyce was the best example of that with Finnegan’s Wake. You have to know the territory, so to speak, or you’re lost in a stormy sea of references. Other writers try to reach outside the circle and draw you in. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” The reading does not require a preliminary initiation but is the initiation itself. I would think that we now live in a time where we, as both readers and writers, require the latter more than the former, which is not to exclude the former, but if we intend to increase diversity, the inner circle must necessarily expand.
Every writer gives us a new world to explore. Even when they write about a place we know, they give us a new picture of the place, or they make the place anew. Be aware that every reader comes to your book a stranger, and it is only common courtesy to make a stranger welcome.
We don’t need to explain everything – explain nothing, in fact. But give us enough of a picture to distinguish your worlds and your characters from all the others. That’s partly done by craft, and partly done by voice. But it’s also partly accomplished by address – not what you are writing but to whom you are writing; not writing to an audience, but to an individual.
When you write a story, science-fictional or otherwise, give a thought to whom you would most like to tell this story: in a letter, or an email, or face to face, sharing a couple of coffees in the same café where you sit and type away at your device. Choose a person and tell your story to that person.
When you first discovered reading and books, what kind of stuff were you looking for? What kind of reader were you?
Were you looking for yourself in the books you chose? Or were you looking for the self you wanted to be?
Or, perhaps, you were looking for anyone but yourself, and anywhere but the “here” you occupied at the time.
Who was that person  who searched so diligently, maybe even so desperately, for whatever it was they were looking for?
Maybe that’s the person you need to write to.
As the person you are now, write to that person you were, the one who so loved stories and poems and books about rockets and dinosaurs and zeppelins or whatever it is you loved. Write to them as if they are still searching, still waiting.
          Because they are still waiting.


Monday, May 22, 2017

From the One That Got Away

You may have recently read about the death of John Schultz, the man who developed the Story Workshop approach to the teaching of writing, and started the Fiction Writing department at Columbia College Chicago. He wrote a collection of stories, The Tongues of Men, and two extraordinary books of reportage, No One Was Killed and Motion Will Be Denied. His text, Writing from Start to Finish, was integral to the approach he developed. And for the continued perplexed, or the inner circle, a teachers’ manual accompanied the text.
His approaches were, and remain, controversial among those who can use the term “pedagogy” without blushing. I am certainly not the one to defend those methods here, though I have gained greatly as a writer by them. If anything, I appreciate them more as the years proceed. I utilize a number of his approaches, though I can hardly be called a Story Workshop teacher.
For years, a rumor circulated throughout academia that Schultz and the teachers he trained formed something like a cult. I may even have assisted in promulgating the rumor. John had his circle within the semicircle (that’s a reference to the seating arrangement in his classes; the chairs were always arranged in a semicircle around the teacher, or “director”). From my perspective, that circle was an elite, the “chosen few” who would be anointed to spread the gospel of Story Workshop.
Then as now, I have an acute allergy to elites, no matter how strongly I might even believe in what that special group advocates. But that, as they say in therapy sessions, is more my problem than theirs. Within their circle, the world looks different. Some in that circle saw it as their family. Some saw it as home. The view from within always differs from the view without.
At John’s wake, I heard it described in just such terms by the faithful. Now, in 2017, with so many circles held so tightly – so many elites, so many cadres, so many “in groups” standing against what they perceive as walls of indifference and hostility, I can empathize with so many intelligent, sensitive, discerning artists who are in search of their “tribe,” or any group in which one does not feel like a stranger.
In the mid-1970s, when I first discovered Story Workshop, I was a troubled and insecure kid (as compared to the troubled, insecure old fart I’ve matured into). About the only thing I could say with any certainty was that I wanted to be a writer – I would become a writer, by hook or by crook, whatever that meant, whatever that entailed.
It didn’t matter that what I wrote was horrible – without skill, without vision, without anything that would interest a reader in the slightest way. The only thing I could do at the time was put one word after the other, albeit terribly.
I knew I had to get better, but I didn’t know how.
In those days, a number of colleges began creative writing programs. A handful had reputations. All those colleges with reputations were far away and very expensive. Their efficacy, even those anointed institutions like Brown, Iowa and Arkansas, was held in question. One would read interviews with authors who dismissed all these programs and encouraged apprentice writers to just sit down and write. The only way to learn writing was to write. Learn from your mistakes.
But what if all you learned from your mistakes was to make the same mistakes even better? What if it took you twenty years to learn your craft by trial and error? Was there any way to cut that time in half?
I didn’t know. I knew nothing. Really. You couldn’t find another person more stupid than I: rash and brash and volatile and emotional – but at bottom, stupid. It didn’t matter that I had a high I.Q. and a head full of facts. I was an encyclopedia without an index. Useless.
Add to that: I had no counselors, no mentors, no resources. No one gave a shit. My dad wanted me to be an accountant because he believed accountants always found work. My mother just didn’t want me to be arrested or dead. Neither of them wanted to have to pay any more money than was absolutely necessary. They never tired of reminding me what a burden it was to them to pay for my food and keep.
After high school, I left home in a panic. I didn’t want to be a burden. I just wanted to write.
Young men with high I.Q.s were and remain a dime a dozen. I operated mailing machines and mimeographs for a living. It didn’t take long to discover that the “dignity of labor” was a lie. Horatio Alger was a lie told to suckers. There were no ladders to climb in the world of work. Your job was your definition. Don’t try to step out of your place.
It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to college. It was just that I knew that if I did go, it would be to a local school, and it would have to be while I worked fulltime. Even with the scholarships that were available in those days (few and paltry, but more than today), the dream of going to a school away from home, living in a dorm, devoting myself completely to an education, was impossible.
Most of the local universities offered only day classes. A few schools offered evening classes with limited degree opportunities. A fewer number of schools offered “regular” degrees. Columbia College was one of them, though their reputation was mostly for degrees in photography and, in a lesser way, for film.
And yet there was this program in Writing/English. And Story Workshop. Was it worth it?
There were certain things I knew – or thought I knew – about learning to be a writer: 1.) My work was crap; 2.) In order for it to be less crappy, I needed to write more; 3.) I needed to read as widely as possible; I never knew of a successful writer who wasn’t also an incessant reader.
I could just keep writing stories, novels, poems, etc., and continue on with my dead-end job, hoping someday to break through and write something worth publishing. I could major in English at one of the schools with evening programs and satisfy my desire to read widely and learn more about the history of literature. If I couldn’t become an out-of-work literary genius, at least I could become an out-of-work English major.
And then there was Story Workshop.
I hadn’t yet taken a class with John (or Betty Shiflett, or Larry Heinemann), but in the classes I had taken, I picked up two very important points my writing lacked.
First, the necessity for physical detail in order to make my fictional worlds into “real” places in the minds of my readers.
Second, the realization that I was writing to readers, to an audience. Up until then, what I was doing was writing for myself, to myself. A reader’s experience of my writing was of necessity different from mine. I left things out because I knew them – but a reader wouldn’t.
It seems painfully simple, but important, and important no matter what kind of writing you’re interested in doing: literary, popular, personal, fictional, journalistic, humorous – you’re writing to a readership.
I wallowed in my indecision – but briefly. I said to myself, “This guy Schultz and his Story Workshop thing have something to teach me – and it’s something I need. Desperately.”
Columbia didn’t have quadrangles and historic lecture halls. They didn’t even have a campus. At least they didn’t have a campus as repellant and ugly as U. of I. “Circle Campus,” as it was called in those days. I couldn’t afford to go to a cool place like University of Wisconsin – Madison, though I would have loved to. Would have sold my soul to go there, had I a soul to sell.
But Columbia had something that all these other schools lacked. They had John. And Story Workshop.
“This man has something to teach me that I need to know.”
So I chose Columbia over my other available options.
I have lived to regret many things, but I have never regretted that decision, even when I encountered students from other, more prestigious schools, who openly laughed in my face (may I repeat that because it was real, not just an expression: LAUGHED IN MY FACE) for attending Columbia.
Hey, I’m a science fiction writer. You cannot be more ridiculed in your profession than by admitting you write science fiction. But my years of flinching at ridicule are over.
And, as long as I brought up the subject of science fiction, let me assure you that John and his colleagues did their best to beat the science fiction out of me. They cannot be blamed for what I’ve become.
But this meager little fact also explains why I couldn’t remain at Columbia and become part of the inner circle.
Story Workshop was instrumental in shaping me as a writer. I learned much, and much of what I experienced in those classes took years to sink in. I am still learning from my experiences in those workshop sessions, now so many years ago.
It was an incredibly important decision for me to come to Columbia and study writing there.
The decision to move on was almost as important.
I was never one of the shining stars of workshop students. No gold stars after my name. No one ever read my stuff in class as good examples of “model telling” or “good seeing” – or good examples of anything but crap. But some of my crap showed a little flair. Some of the teachers took notice, including John.
Everyone who ever worked with, or for, or under, John has at least one “John Schultz Story.” The “John Schultz Story” folks are most fond of hearing from me has to do with the time he chased me into the men’s room when I registered for a senior semester and didn’t take a workshop. I got a “talking to” about what I needed to do and I told John that I needed to take more classes in more disciplines because … I just needed to know more stuff. John insisted I needed to do both, but I wouldn’t back down.
I remember how flabbergasted Pam looked (she was waiting for me outside) when I came out. “Rich, why did your department chairman chase you into the bathroom?”
“This is college,” I told her. “The really important decisions are always made in bathrooms.”
That is true. Bathrooms and stairwells. True to this very day.
I was never one of the shining stars, and on that day I lost my chance to become one.
When it came to the inner circle of Story Workshop people, I was the one that got away.
It may have been my doing out of pure, blundering ignorance. It may have been because I was attuned to some universal frequency that set me on a personal path of failure, despair, donuts and coffee. But I set out on a path that found me incapable of taking a well-rutted course, with rest stops and mentors and any sense of certainty that I was heading anywhere but to madness and an early grave.
But that’s what I did. And if I didn’t find a home at Columbia, I did no better at Northwestern (between classes I hung out in a bar and restaurant called The Third Rail, where the NU students rarely ventured). I did no better in science fiction fandom (the SMOF fans always sneered at me, like I must have belonged to the wedding reception in the hotel next door). I did no better among science fiction writers (the older writers always gave me the hairy eyeball, like they were afraid I was going to walk out of the SFWA suite with the ashtrays in my pockets). I met great people in all these groups – people who helped me, liked me, and even at times (forgive them, Lord, they knew not what they did) respected me. I loved all these worlds. I love them now. But they aren’t home.
For certain writers, there is no home. I happen to be one of them.
My curriculum vitae is, in some ways, fascinating but worthless. I’ve written a few things. I did some okay scholarship. I’ve worked hard to be a good teacher, and maybe someday I will be. But it has been and will always be from the periphery.
What little I’ve managed to accomplish, though, would have been far less were it not for John Schultz, Story Workshop, and that circle of writers he brought into being. I couldn’t be part of that circle, but the light at the heart of it, that fire, has guided me on my wayward path all these decades, as it has guided so many others.

May it continue to do so forever.



Saturday, March 11, 2017

A Night’s Work

Several friends have been writing about dreams and dreaming recently. So here’s this…

I rarely write about dreams, though dreams are an important part of my life.
Not that I remember them very well. Usually, I wake up knowing I’ve had one, but unless I’m diligent enough to scribble down a few of the details, it’s gone by dawn. All I remember is that I had one, but little else.
Still, dreams are important to me. Some of my earliest memories are dreams – scary, unsettling, mind-bending stuff (yes, my dreams were so weird I never quite understood the allure of hallucinogens). To this day, if I wake up from a dream, even if I remember not one detail, I can still feel the emotional stir the dream generated in my consciousness. It’s like an earthquake I didn’t witness, but all around me are the overturned chairs and tables, I see the cracks in the walls and the paintings slipped from their hooks.
So it surprised me one night a few weeks ago when I awoke from a dream, remembering a number of details, and – not only that, but staying up two and a half hours afterward, running through those few details again and again.
Two and a half hours.
I dreamed I was in a big place, several rooms, each room filled with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – hundreds and hundreds of old books in old bindings. I could see the loose threads on the corners of some of the old covers. They were all sorts of books: big, small, oversized, paperbacks, bound magazines and journals, albums, notebooks. It looked like stuff you would find in a library or a second hand bookstore – except it was mine. I knew it was all mine. Most of it was old. I opened a few volumes and flipped through the pages. News magazines. Histories. Fashion magazines with spreads of beautiful women dressed in the top haute couture of fifty years ago.
I was there with a friend – a person I’ve known for over forty years. I haven’t seen him in ages, but we keep in touch. He was going through some of the stuff too, but he seemed more curious, intellectually intrigued, as compared to me, who looked at all these volumes, thinking, “This is mine. All this stuff! How did I manage to acquire all this stuff?”
I awoke. I didn’t sit up, but turned my head and stared at the luminous digital clock next to my bed. Three-fifteen a.m. or thereabouts. I kept thinking about the shelves and shelves of old volumes. At first, I was obsessed with the amount, and that so many of those books were things I hadn’t looked at in years – things I didn’t need in years. It was old stuff. Stuff that should be gotten rid of.
I couldn’t imagine just throwing it all away. I have a deep aversion to throwing away books. You may suffer from the same. I remember, when I was a grade-schooler, the kids next door went to a Catholic school, where they had to buy their textbooks, and at the end of every year they threw their texts into a garbage can and set them on fire. I was young, but I’d already read my World War II history, and the years that led up to it. I had read and seen pictures of the Nazis burning books at the Reichstag. I knew what book burning meant, and it has stayed with me all these days.
So I stared into the dark, thinking of ways that I might ease myself of the burden of all the old stuff I still had – not as much stuff as in the dream, but I have shelves, and boxes – lots and lots of boxes – that I no longer needed, or wanted, and should probably get rid of. Were there stores that still sold old magazines, like the places I went to in my youth? Would they take on more? ABC Magazine Service: “Four floors of magazines!” How about eBay? Could I sell this stuff on my web page? I didn’t have an up-to-date web page. Well, then I’d need to create a new website, with a page devoted to selling old stuff. Call it “The Hobo’s Dungeon” …
Three-thirty a.m.
Three-forty-five a.m.
Four-twenty-five a.m.
Somewhere along the way, it occurred to me: THE DREAM IS NOT ABOUT THE BOOKS!
Not the books themselves, but what the books represent.
What do they represent?
It wasn’t the physical “stuff” I needed to get rid of (though my old stacks of The New Republic and the Saturday Evening Post wouldn’t be missed anytime soon). It was the “stuff” inside me.
What stuff inside me?
Four-thirty a.m.
Before I had gone to bed, I was thinking. I was remembering how much of my early life was spent with books, and comic books, and any sort of reading matter I could find, including the proverbial matchbooks and road maps. You probably did the same thing.
Reading is a means to fill a hunger for learning – an overwhelming desire to know things. To know the world – the whole damn cosmos. But there’s another reason to read. We read to fill a hole. The hole is a great emptiness that threatens to devour our souls. The emptiness is loneliness.
We read because we are lonely.
I thought about the dream, about the rooms loaded with books. That enormous library – tiny in comparison to the ones imagined by Jorge Luis Borges, but big enough for me – was my loneliness. My emptiness – or my effort to fill that emptiness. It occurred to me that I could heave all those books into the abyss of my emptiness and they would disappear into the darkness without making a sound, so far away was the bottom of that pit.
The dream was “about” gauging the size of my loneliness, and my loneliness was too big to measure. That need to “get rid of all this” was, I suppose, my way of saying that the abyss couldn’t be filled, but it might, possibly, maybe, be left behind.
I’ll be sixty-two years old in a few months. I’ve done my share of wandering in the wilderness. I won’t bore you with autobiography. You can probably fill in the blanks with your own tales of solitude and agony.
We’re writers, yes? If you’re reading this you probably are, whether you know it or not, whether you admit it or not. I sure as hell am not smart enough to distinguish between cause and effect or chicken and egg, but loneliness and writers are lifetime companions. We may write for the same reason we read. Maybe we are lonely because we are writers, or we are writers because we are lonely. I don’t know.
Five a.m.
So, why? Why am I dreaming this dream now? Couldn’t I have had this dream on any night in the last sixty-one years?
I don’t know. It may be that I have reached an age where I can leave behind the wormhole of loneliness. It won’t change. It won’t disappear as if by magic. It’s not as if by some psychotherapeutic realization I can walk away from the abyss. You can’t. You can pretend to forget, but pretending just brings you back to that old bottomless pit.
You move on. You take the loneliness with you because it comes with the territory, but you don’t pretend it doesn’t exist, or waste more time throwing more books down into it.
You can’t fill the wormhole, but if you’re lucky, you can grow enough to contain the wormhole within yourself, with a little room to spare to get your work done. Because you’re a writer, and writers always have work to do – even when they’re dreaming.
Five-thirty a.m.
I didn’t mention this before, but there was one more thing.
A song.
All through this time, during the dream and all through the two and a half hours I ruminated over that dream, there was a song in the back of my head. An instrumental. It sounded like a pop song from the sixties as played by a surf band. Or a surf instrumental played by a pop band.
I had never heard the song before. It was just there in my head. Created in the forge of my unconscious.
That’s happened to me before. I have a reasonably good ear for tunes, so I know when my mental jukebox dredges up an old number I forgot about decades ago. I can tell the difference between a song I remember and a song I’m hearing for the first time.
This song I heard for the first time. It was coming out of me. And it wasn’t too bad. Not a chart-busting hit, but not bad.
I suppose I could have run to the living room, taken out my guitar, tuned it up to sketch out the melody and chords (I’m lousy at reading and writing music on paper), but for some reason I let it go. Stupid, maybe. I mean, who doesn’t need a new song every now and then? And when the song comes into being without invitation or coercion or provocation – when it just comes out of your unconscious fully formed, why not take it?
Alas, I did not.
Maybe I had some hope that some time, since it was in my own head, it would come out again, and the next time maybe I would catch it and drag it up into my consciousness.
For the moment, though, the song had performed its function. The song, like the dream, was telling me what I needed to know.
I need a new song.


Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Sixty Years (and a day) Ago Today…

(Notes toward something bigger – if I get the chance to write it)

Sixty years and one day ago (March 8, 1957), Robert Bloch delivered a paper at the University College of the University of Chicago. He was one of four authors asked to make presentations on the subject of science fiction and social criticism. The other three were Robert A. Heinlein, C. M. Kornbluth and Alfred Bester.
Among such luminaries, you would think, perhaps, Bloch would take a back seat, but it is Bloch’s essay which spoke most clearly to me when I read it again just recently.
The best way to appreciate it, of course, is to find a copy of The Science Fiction Novel: Imagination and Social Criticism (1959, Advent:Chicago, Third Edition 1969). You’ll avoid any impressions gathered more from my selections and interpretations.
Every now and then, I stick my nose in a book and find something interesting. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; no plan. I grab a book off the shelf because I hear it calling to me. Many books call to me, and they do it all the time. But some call louder than others.
I’ll look at a book and it looks back at me. You have a few dozen other things to read, but you pull it off the shelf because it looks back at you in that certain way. I’m sure it’s happened to you as well.
With this book – well, the series occurred in the 1950s, when science fiction (at least in the short form), was a bastion of social criticism. Literary trends were moving away from the gritty realism of the pre-war years. And U. of C. was a natural place to have this kind of confab, because the faculty and students (if not the administration) always leaned pretty strongly to the left (except in the Economics department, even pre-Milton Friedman). U. of C. also had one of the first science fiction clubs in the area. The stars were aligned.
Heinlein’s speech reads like a speech from Robert Heinlein. The funny thing about Heinlein is that, whether you find him entertaining or infuriating (or both), he writes like a man who has worked out his story and is damn well going to stick to it. It reads like either an “official statement,” a cover story, or an alibi. You can chain him to a rack, apply red-hot pokers to any part of him, but he won’t break his story, so don’t even try.
Kornbluth starts out stating that there’s no social criticism in science fiction, then he goes into a very effective close reading of 1984. What he accomplishes, mostly, is demonstrating that he maintains high literary standards, knows the territory of any able literary critic of the time, and concludes that most contemporary science fiction, with notable exceptions, doesn’t quite make the grade.
Bester, in his sly way, tries to dissuade his audience from looking to science fiction for social criticism. He values science fiction as a necessary diversion. He’s not writing off science fiction, because that diversion, he believes, is important to intellectual growth. It’s as if he’s trying to say, if you’ll excuse my summarizing, that science fiction works better when it doesn’t deliberately try to address important topics, but rather, unconsciously, touches the sympathetic vibrations of the human experience.
Bloch, however, is forever casting a leering eye at the entire process. He jokes and puns, as if he wishes to impress you that he is the least serious of this volume’s contributors, but almost from the outset he delivers the most serious message of them all.
After making a few initial jokes and puns, he very briefly outlines a number of American novels that may be considered social criticism. He then presents a long list of science fiction novels and places them into three categories: Man Against Nature, Man Against Himself, and Man Against Man.
Throughout his speech he mentions exceptions, but he finds the majority of science fiction novels that engage in what can be considered social criticism somewhat simplistic

 And just how does this wide assortment of writers view the world of the present and the extrapolated society of the future? Ignoring the extra-terrestrial invaders, ignoring the gadgetry, ignoring the universal disaster background, one encounters a fundamental dramatic premise known to all eminent critics who are six years old or older. The world is plainly divided into ‘cops and robbers,’ ‘cowboys and Indians’ or ‘good guys and bad guys.’
There’s a reason, of course. People who have come to revere science almost as a religion place great faith in the ability of technologists to safeguard our future.”

The criticism, as it were, in many “socially critical” science fiction novels, is that the bad guys are not paying enough attention – or too much attention, in the wrong way – to science.
Bloch lists and annotates a number of common elements he finds in these novels. All the words in caps come from Bloch, so excuse me if I don’t put them all in quotes. 1.) There’s a TOTALITARIAN STATE; 2.) there’s an UNDERGROUND bent on toppling said state; 3.) the use by one side or the other of FORCIBLE PSYCHOTHERAPUTIC TECHNIQUES; 4.) the assumption that SCIENCE WILL GO ALONG WITH THE GAG – especially when it involves brainwashing; 5.) ECONOMIC INCENTIVE – the motivation on either side of the battle is to make a buck (Milton Friedman would be proud); 6.) A VARIATION OF PRESENT DAY ‘ANGLO-SAXON’ CULTURE WILL CONTINUE TO RULE THE WORLD; 7.) when it comes to space exploration WE WILL COLONIZE AND RULE THE NATIVES; 8.) THE FUTURE HOLDS LITTLE  BASIC CHANGE in human nature; 9.) INDIVIDUALISM IS DEAD.

The hero rebels, yes – but not superimpose his own notions upon society; merely to restore the ‘normal’ culture and value-standards of the mass-minds of the twentieth century. You won’t find him fighting in defense of incest, homosexuality, free love, nihilism, the Single Tax, abolition of individual property-rights, euthanasia or the castration of the tonsils of Elvis Presley. Stripped right down to the bare essentials, our hero just wants to kick the rascals out and put in a sound business administration …
When we review these premises, we discover that most social criticism in science fiction novels is not directed against present-day society at all … Our authors, by and large, seem to believe wholly in the profit-incentive; in the trend to superimpose obedience and conformity by means of forcible conditioning; in the enduring liaison between the government, the military and scientists and technologists; in Anglo-Saxon cultural supremacy, if not necessarily outright ‘white supremacy’; in the sexual, aesthetic and religious mores of the day. Their criticism of the totalitarian states they envision is merely a matter of degree. They attempt to show the apparent dangers of allowing one group to ‘go a little too far’; actually, reduced to its essence, they merely echo Lord Acton’s dictum that ‘Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Hence the necessity of rebellion in the form of some sort of Underground movement. But this is always assumed to be just a temporary measure; ruthless because one must ‘fight fire with fire’ and the ends justify the means. The implication is that once Law and order are restored, everything will settle down to a general approximation of life as it is lived today – if not in actuality, at least in the pages of Better Homes and Gardens.

Science fiction, as it were, rebels against the status quo when it is not the currently-recognized status quo.
When it comes to scientific and technological progress, the science fiction of his day is brilliantly inventive. But whether it occurs fifty, one hundred, or a thousand years in the future, the basic social structure remains the same – or an effort is made to restore it.

But when it comes to a question of personal ethics, when it comes to a question of social justice – again and again we run right smack into our old friend Mike Hammer [Mickey Spillane was referenced earlier] in disguise.
How, in this marvelous world of the future, does one go about settling an argument?
With the same old punch in the jaw … the same old kick in the guts … the same old bullet in the same old belly.

The suggestion throughout his talk is that if the world can change in such striking ways technologically, why would it not change human behavior as well? And why doesn’t the current (for his time) science fiction novel address this possibility?

The science fiction field has often been likened to a literary world in miniature. But one searches in vain through that world for a Jesus Christ … a Sydney carton… or even a George Babbitt or a Leopold Bloom.
The common man is seldom the hero; if so, he doesn’t remain so very long, but becomes a Key Figure …
Isaac Asimov recently pointed out that science fiction heroes are permitted to be intelligent. This is admirable. And yet, emotionally, most of them are primitive and immature.
Where is the science fiction novel with the ordinary family man as hero … or the teacher … or the creative artist … or the philosopher? Where is the science fiction novel that contents itself with showing us the everyday world of the future, devoid of Master Spies and Master Technicians and Master Psychologists and Master Criminals?

He hastens to mention the exceptions. He also hastens to exclude short fiction from his admitted generalizations. And he states a possible reason for the shortcoming of science fiction novels (as opposed to short fiction): publishers won’t allow much more than this sheltering of the status quo in its content; readers won’t buy such highfalutin (and radical) books.
And here I am, in 2017, sixty years into Robert Bloch’s future, fascinated that Bloch is the only author among the four concerned that in the decades proceeding from 1957 a few differences may arise in the social order and that science fiction might address those differences.
Bloch himself, on the subject, seems rather sanguine.

But is science fiction, therefore, failing in its function of social criticism?
Quite the contrary.
When a literature of imaginative speculation steadfastly adheres to the conventional outlook of the community regarding heroes and standards of values, it is indeed offering the most important kind of social criticism – unconscious social criticism.
With its totalitarian societies, its repudiation of individual activity in every role save that of the self-appointed leader and avenger, science fiction dramatizes the dilemma which torments modern man. It provides a very accurate mirror of our own problems, and of our own beliefs which fail to solve these problems.
Gazing into that mirror, we might find it profitable to indulge in a bit of that reflection.

Of course, much in this essay puts me in mind of the recent battles within the science fiction community: the calls by some to return the field to its 1950s “heyday,” or perhaps to “make science fiction great again.” What does that really mean?
I wouldn’t speculate as to whether Bloch would be gratified to see a move to greater representation of diversity in the field, but I wonder if the generalizations he made in 1957 would be true in 2017. Maybe not in the media, which still seems tied to the conventions of the previous century, but at least in its literature. Wouldn’t it?
And what about now? What generalizations could we make about science fiction and social criticism today?
And, presuming that we have made some progress, how does the future look from here? It may still prove profitable to regard that mirror reflection.