Posts by author:

John Holbo

Spiritualism and Uncanny Fiction

by John Holbo on April 16, 2018

Pursuant of to my uncanny researches I’ve been thinking about ‘supernatural’ and how the term has wandered over time. I got to thinking, as well, about the growth of ‘spiritualism’ in the 19th Century – theosophy, all that stuff – and how that fed into fiction. What with one thing and another, I found myself reading The Supernatural In Modern English Fiction (1917), by Dorothy Scarborough [Project Gutenberg link]. It’s interesting to see through the eyes of an author who has done her best to read it all up to the early 20th Century, for the sake of offering a broad, general survey. She knows Blackwood and Machen. She doesn’t mention Hodgson or M.R. James. (I realize I don’t know how widely either of those now-classic authors was known by, say, 1915.) Here is one passage in which Scarborough scribbles out, off-handedly, a lot of things to come.

The investigations in modern Spiritualism have done much to affect ghostly literature. The terrors of the later apparitions are not physical, but psychical, and probably the stories of the future will be more and more allied to Spiritualism. Hamlin Garland, John Corbin, William Dean Howells, Algernon Blackwood, Arnold Bennett, and others have written novels and stories of this material, though scarcely the fringe of the garment of possibilities has yet been touched.

If one but grant the hypothesis of Spiritualism, what vistas open up for the novelist! What thrilling complications might come from the skillful manipulation of astrals alone,— as aids in establishing alibis, for instance! Even the limitations that at present bind ghost stories would be abolished and the effects of the dramatic employment of spiritualistic faith would be highly sensational. If the will be all powerful, then not only tables but mountains may be moved. The laws of physics would be as nothing in the presence of such powers. A lovelorn youth bent on attaining the object of his desires could, by merely willing it so, sink ocean liners, demolish skyscrapers, call up tempests, and rival German secret agents in his havoc. Intensely dramatic psychological material might be produced by the conflict resulting from the double or multiple personalities in one’s own nature, according to spiritualistic ideas. There might be complicated crossings in love, wherein one would be jealous of his alter ego, and conflicting ambitions of exciting character. The struggle necessary for the model story might be intensely dramatic though altogether internal, between one’s own selves. One finds himself so much more interesting in the light of such research than one has ever dreamed. The distinctions between materializations and astralizations, etherealizations and plain apparitions might furnish good plot structure. The personality of the “sensitives” alone would be fascinating material and the cosmic clashes of will possible under these conceived conditions suggest thrilling stories.

Titanic psychic battles! Astrally-projecting criminals, detectives and secret agents oh my! Mike Mignola, call your agent! This passage is the earliest occurrence I know of some ideas for really gonzo comic book and occult action plotlines. (Obviously you’ve still got to actually write them for it really to count!) [click to continue…]

The History of the Uncanny Valley?

by John Holbo on April 9, 2018

I’m tracking the history of the cross-disciplinary uptake and general popularization of the concept of the uncanny valley. The term was coined in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, in a paper entitled “The Uncanny Valley”, that did not get attention at the time. Its first English occurrence is in 1978, in Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction [amazon], by Jasia Reichardt. I don’t have a copy. Reichardt, apparently, coins the translation of the Japanese title, giving us our name for the concept. Wikipedia suggests Reichardt hit on it without awareness of the Jentsch-Freud precedent. But here’s a (2009) paper that speculates that Reichardt might have intended to make the link. It seems a bit … serendipitous that a Polish-English art critic, with an interest in cybernetics, would know to pluck an utterly obscure Japanese-language paper out of oblivion. So presumably the paper got independent traction in robotics circles between 1970 and 1978, bringing it to Reichardt’s attention? Or maybe Reichardt indeed knows Japanese and very perceptively saved it from obscurity? If so, does the paper’s currency in Japan result from it first having traveled abroad, in 1978? Is Reichardt the reason this paper didn’t disappear? I would be curious to know.

[click to continue…]

Happy Easter!

by John Holbo on April 1, 2018

I have continuing my annual tradition of Kirby-themed eggs. I’ve been reading “Tales of Suspense” and have taken monstrous inspiration. A father-son egg set. As my younger daughter observed: needs tiny diapers.

[click to continue…]

There Are Walls

by John Holbo on March 30, 2018

Another installment in my series of attempts to source tropes and themes in SF and fantasy. Help me find examples of what I’m looking for!

A very standard fantasy trope is ‘there are doors’.

In “On Fairy Stories” Tolkien implies why this must be. “The definition of a fairy-story — what it is, or what it should be — does not, then, depend on any definition or historical account of elf or fairy, but upon the nature of Faërie: the Perilous Realm itself, and the air that blows in that country.” Every bit as important as the atmosphere is the border. Travel between realms is restricted and a lot of dramatic tension revolves around difficult passage. Ergo, fantasy contains fun doors, from Narnia to Monsters, Inc. to … what’s your favorite door in a fantasy novel? And the architectural inverse of ‘there are doors’ – ‘there are walls’ – is also a highly respectable trope.

That’s what I want today. Not the doors so much but the walls. Weird walls. Stories that revolve around the reality of weird, often unaccountable barriers that appear, perhaps rise up, unexpected. They challenge and provoke protagonists to go around or get through somehow. I’m happy to get fantasy examples, but I’m looking more for SF analogs of what is, originally, a fantasy – fairy story – trope. SF is full of weird doors, just like fantasy. Often these don’t come equipped with attendant walls – they’re wormholes or black holes or transporters or whatever. But sometimes you get walls. Often these are ‘pocket universe’ stories, in effect. The protagonists bump against closer confinement than they were expecting. Hollywood has produced very memorable, evocative scenes and images: Truman bumping his boat against the painted wall of his world in The Truman Show; that scene in Dark City where the protagonists finally get to Shell Beach, find the brick wall, go to work on it; that scene in The Matrix where Mouse frantically pulls back the curtains, sees the brick wall where none should be, realizes he’s fucked. [click to continue…]

I have survey results to my two ‘weird questions’. Kind of a weak response, I’m sad to say (sub-100 responses.) But enough to establish that I am very much in the minority, in regarding Lovecraft as ‘not SF’. Only 10% of respondents agreed with that. Then again, 25% felt it was only a ‘sort of’ case. Honestly, I could go with ‘sort of’. There was a roughly even split between those who feel ‘weird’ is distinct, generically, from ‘supernatural’ and ‘horror’ and those who do not. That’s unsurprising.

Click for larger:

In other survey news, Eric Schwitzgebel got solider results for his survey concerning the cold, meaningless quality of the universe. Turns out: it’s not so bad.

86% of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “There is value in living, either value that we can find if we search for it, or value that we ourselves can create” and only 6% disagreed or strongly disagreed. In contrast, only 31% of respondents agreed that “The world is a pointless cesspool of suffering and death” (49% disagreed). Interestingly, 24% of respondents agreed with both claims.

While I’m at it, I guess I’ll recommend some weird fiction (in case you have already chewed through that whole VanderMeer volume I recommended.) My favorite contemporary weird fiction writer – far and away, hands down, no contest – is Laird Barron. You should read more Laird Barron, if you like weird stuff. I love Laird Barron. [click to continue…]

Weird Questions

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Having grumped about Annihilation, based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel [amazon], I’d like to make a post in praise of that author’s anthology work.

A couple years back, while working up a syllabus for my ‘Science Fiction and Philosophy’ class, I considered The Big Book of Science Fiction (edited by the VanderMeers) [amazon]. I didn’t adopt it. I went for this one [amazon]. But I liked it. It achieves escape velocity from the Anglosphere, as it were. Stuff from around the world, not just usual suspects. For teaching purposes I wanted more usual suspects but, as a reader who has read all that, I discovered new stuff and enjoyed it. (It’s not that the usual suspects are excluded. But even the choices of stories by the big names seem uncanonical. That’s fine.)

I just got another big book edited by the VanderMeers, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories [amazon]. It looks great! Like Big Book they’ve worked to achieve global coverage, not just the usual English language, mostly American/British names. I’m looking forward to expanded horizons. I am a bit puzzled by the decision to exclude titles from before the 20th Century. This is stated in the Introduction, not on the cover. I feel one should get a bit of The King In Yellow in there, since it is of a piece with 20th Century stuff they’ve included. The earliest here is Alfred Kubin and Algernon Blackwood. I don’t mind. I can roll my own LeFanu, thank you. (LeFanu coined ‘weird fiction’, I think, so there would be a logic to starting with him?) But, like I said, it’s huge. 750,000 words. 20th Century will do fine, thanks.

While I’m on the subject I have two weird questions for you. (I did a joke survey about Annihilation, so I’ll do a semi-serious one this time.)

1) Do you think at least some Lovecraft stuff is SF?
2) Do you think of ‘weird’ tales as being distinct from ‘supernatural’ stuff, on the one hand, and ‘horror’ on the other?

Kindly take 10 seconds to record your responses here. (Feel free to leave qualitative critiques of my survey design in comments!)

A few of my own thoughts about these questions under the fold. (But I don’t want to pollute your responses unduly, so maybe respond first?) [click to continue…]

The Persistence of Mummery?

by John Holbo on March 20, 2018

Our Corey has a good piece in Harpers, “Forget About It”. He concludes by reflecting on how and why his ‘continuity-of-Trump-with-conservative-tradition’ thesis rubs people wrong:

My wife explained it to me recently: in making the case for continuity between past and present, I sound complacent about the now. I sound like I’m saying that nothing is wrong with Trump, that everything will work out.

It seems rhetorically effective – even obligatory – to treat an urgent problem as exceptional. But:

The truth is that we’re captives, not captains, of this strategy. We think the contrast of a burnished past allows us to see the burning present, but all it does is keep the fire going, and growing. Confronting the indecent Nixon, Roth imagines a better McCarthy. Confronting the indecent Trump, he imagines a better Nixon. At no point does he recognize that he’s been fighting the same monster all along — and losing. Overwhelmed by the monster he’s currently facing, sure that it is different from the monster no longer in view, Roth loses sight of the surrounding terrain. He doesn’t see how the rehabilitation of the last monster allows the front line to move rightward, the new monster to get closer to the territory being defended.

Speaking of monsters, this is a great line, regarding the famous Welch/McCarthy confrontation:

Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.

Let me note: there are two theses here, one about what is effective; one about the truth. Is it rhetorically more effective to frame Trump as exceptional, or does this mean a short-term gain in focus but a long-term drain in overall awareness? Two, is it true that Trump is exceptional?

I’m of two minds about both. On the one hand, Corey demonstrates an amnesiac absurdity to some presentist alarmism. That’s most definitely a thing. But it’s possible that a-mnemonic mummery accompanies exceptional developments. People may be surprised, wrongly, when they ought to be surprised, rightly. As to the purely rhetorical point, it’s a real rock-and-hard-place problem, to which I’m not sure there is any steady solution. But it’s a really good piece, very well-written, too.

Adam Roberts, “The Thing Itself” – a Review

by John Holbo on March 14, 2018

Last week I finished Adam Roberts SF novel, The Thing Itself [amazon]. (Adam is, you may have noticed, a regular commenter here. I’ve been friendly with the dear fellow for years.)

The mash-up joke at its heart: it’s The Thing (you know: the John Carpenter film, remake of the 1950’s film, adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, “Who Goes There?“) meets Kant’s Ding An Sich!

That’s a good joke! I like jokes like that. Adam likes jokes like that. I haven’t read as many of Adam’s novels as a good friend should, but the author of a humorous sequel to The Brick Moon, and a little thing called Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, likes to take an idea, give it a spin. Just drop it. See how low it can go.

Back to The Thing Itself. What if Kant were on to something? Some Thing. What would the possibilities be, for space travel, for sanity, for commerce, for common-sense, if we could sidestep, as it were, space and time? (I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship, but attempts are made to keep up the conceit. Fiction often involves implausible leaps, as many important writers have noted.) [click to continue…]

Annihilation?

by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Belle and I are watching Annihilation on Netflix. We are about 50 minutes in. This just makes no sense. These people. But maybe it’s worth watching until the end? What do you think?

Take my survey!

Or leave a comment.

(I understand the book was better.)

UPDATE: the Plain People of the Internet have spoken. I guess we’ll watch the rest a bit later. (We did other stuff last night.) The main problem with the film, in a nutshell, is that you have a small group of scientists going into this mysterious area, the Shimmer. Everything they know indicates that their safety measures are ludicrously insufficient. They aren’t wearing hazmat suits even though they have every reason to expect radiation or poisonous atmosphere or environment. They are not soldiers, but they are armed. They are all neurotic loners (who else would volunteer for this mission? But there’s limits to the ‘send in people who don’t have a lot of close family’ strategy.) The result is that their actions and reactions, in the Shimmer, aren’t interesting, since they consistently mismatch the situation. There’s a fine line between surreal and stupid, and the film is not managing to keep its small team of scientists on the former side of the divide, in this weird place.

Should I watch Annihilation?

The Slippery Slope of the Sum of All Fears

by John Holbo on March 13, 2018

Before March 18, 2018: No collusion!

March 18, 2018: “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take these series of inadvertent contacts with each other, meetings, whatever, and weave that into some sort of a fiction and turn it into a page-turner, spy thriller.”

Six months from now: Yeah, but it’s like one of those late Tom Clancy ones. The ones written after Clancy was dead, or retired, or counting his money? Maybe it’s just a video game.

12 months from now: OK, it’s definitely as good as early Tom Clancy. The really good stuff. But some of the characters are unbelievable, in a way that pushes the reader out of the story. Like the Mooch. True, Clancy wrote flat, one-dimensional, omni-competent heroes. This is like – the opposite? The thing has reality show pacing, not ‘proper’ thriller structure. Clancy would not have made that mistake.

18 months from now: Wow! I could not put this one down! It was unbelievably thrilling. I was on the edge of my seat, wondering whether this was it. And the big reveal! You realize everything up to that point was just the tip of the iceberg. Hunt For Red October Surprise! But we still have to completely ignore all these revelations because: no zombies.

24 months from now: Zombies!

[NOTE: this post is intended as a joke, although I think there is a point to the joke. There was some confusion concerning an earlier post, due to confusion as to whether it was a joke: it was. This one is a joke. I don’t expect zombies.)

Crowley On Ancient Blurb Technology and Le Guin

by John Holbo on March 8, 2018

I was most gratified when John Crowley showed up – easy as pie – in comments to my “Omelas” post. I will try to repay the compliment of this gesture (nigh-effortless to its author!) by linking to his new Boston Review piece, reminiscing on Le Guin and blurb technology of yore.

In 1973, when I finished my first novel, the difficulties of the blurb-solicitation process were enormous, or would surely seem so to writers now who send digital files effortlessly to famous people through websites and email. The great new advance then was the Xerox machine; you at least didn’t have to produce carbons (hopeless) or photostats (expensive) to send out. But still, as often as not—or more often than not—your solicitations weren’t responded to, which could seem like a foretaste of failure: perhaps readers wouldn’t respond either. Now and then a query would get a curt reply asking that the manuscript not be sent, that the recipient didn’t read such submissions.

For my first novel, I received a hand-written postcard from Ursula K. Le Guin welcoming me to the fold.

I once sent a large manuscript to Anne Rice, the vampire biographer­. What I got back was a postcard, filled edge to edge with typing, asking why I felt I had a right to send her this mass of paper, did I really think she had any reason to read it—she did not—and what was she supposed to do with it? I thought of writing her back to say that she might just toss it in the trash with the rest of the week’s paper, but I didn’t.

[click to continue…]

Themes! What Are They?

by John Holbo on March 6, 2018

I’m writing something introductory (intended for a general audience) about ‘themes’ in literature. Obviously my theme must be that the term is a bit hopeless until you say what you mean by ‘theme’. I’m thinking of introducing it with reference to memories of writing book reports in 6th grade (I think it was.) Mr. Lofton’s (?) class at McCornick Elementary. (Or was he my 5th grade teacher? Can’t remember.)

Anyhoo: it was requisite, on pain of getting no credit for your report, that you correctly check one or more box(es) for ‘theme’. There were exactly four options:

Man vs. Man
Man vs. Nature
Man vs. Society
Man vs. Self

That’s all there is, there ain’t no more!

(Sorry, ladies! It was the 70’s, and Ms. was a magazine, but you got no love when it came time for themes.) [click to continue…]

I don’t get it

by John Holbo on March 5, 2018

Maybe someone could ask Sarah Huckabee Sanders (or someone who’s in charge of this stuff) to explain the joke?

The comment was made behind closed doors, and appeared to be in jest: President Trump told donors on Saturday that China’s president, Xi Jinping, was now “president for life,” and added: “I think it’s great. Maybe we’ll want to give that a shot someday.”

The remarks, confirmed by a leading Republican lobbyist who attended the luncheon at Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, were first aired by CNN, which obtained an audio recording of his comments.

The statement, which drew laughter from those in attendance and was said by a smiling president, according to the lobbyist, was given on a day when Mr. Trump was out for laughs.

With so many people laughing, surely at least one person must be in on the joke. We on the outside, looking in, want to know.

Is it one of those ‘it’s funny because it’s true’ type things? The inevitability of someone – possibly Trump himself – overthrowing the constitutional order and becoming President For Life is the new ‘the VCR is inevitably going to blink 12:00’ kind of gags?

Or is it one of those ‘ha ha I’m an awful person but aren’t we all awful in our hearts, the things we wish for, so this is actually kind of deep – I’m a symbol of human nature itself, I contain dark multitudes’ things?

Or is it just one of those ‘politicians give the people what they deserve, good and hard’ jokes

Or is kind of a higher synthesis of those last two: ‘you know I want it, but I know you know I know I can’t ask for it, so I’m just, like, wink-wink’ type things? So the joke is it’s not a joke but an ask, plus deniability?

Asking for a friend.

Galactic Poetry Sunday

by John Holbo on March 4, 2018

Having taken some notes on ‘alien‘, let me make some on ‘galaxy’, which has had a longer shelf-life than you might think in English poetry.

Se yonder loo the Galoxie
Whiche men clepeth the melky weye
For hit ys white.

That’s Chaucer. It sounds incongruously scientific, doesn’t it? That’s us projecting our scientific sense back into a Greek name for that whitish light-y bit up there.

Our concept of galaxy needs telescopes. Galileo is first to see the Milky Way is made up of stars (1610) – although Democritus guessed it long ago. In 1750 Thomas Wright first theorizes the gravitational structure of the galaxy (and Kant thinks he was right.) The astronomer Herschel is first to star-map the shape of the Milky Way (1785).

You might think poetry and SF don’t go together especially. As Coleridge says: “There can be no galaxy in poetry.” (But he just meant you shouldn’t cram too many bright things close together – too many figures and metaphors and such. Don’t get fancy, eh!)

But galactic poetry, even in our post-Galilean sense, comes early.

A star thought by the erring passenger,
Which falling from its native orb dropped here,
And makes the earth (its centre) now its sphere.

Should many of these sparks together be,
He that the unknown light far off should see
Would think it a terrestrial galaxy.

That’s “The Glow-Worm”, by Thomas Stanley. I presume it appears in his 1649 Poems. Late Metaphysical Poetry, then, but pretty quick off the mark, poetizing cutting edge observational science.

OK, I’ll give you the full poem under the fold. It’s kind of a cheat quoting these stanzas in isolation because ‘star thought’ shouts out pretty cosmic, starting us out like that. (I thought I was clever to note this, but the editor of this standard anthology did, too. So I’m not such a special snowflake, after all.) In context, what is happening is that a glow-worm looks like a fallen star to an erring passenger (on the earth?) [click to continue…]

I’m going to try a series of posts in which I crowdsource, if I can, SF stories on highly specific philosophical themes. It seems appropriate that the first thing I should ask a crowd is: how many of you are solipsists? Which ones?

The SFE doesn’t have an entry on the subject. Seems worth drafting one.

I’m not looking for virtual reality Time Out of Joint, Truman Show stuff, although I guess I wouldn’t turn my nose up at it: stuff in which the theme is that only one person – the protagonist – matters. The world is focused on just this one soul.

There are also stories in which the continued existence of the whole universe depends on one person’s prolonged life, even if there are others in the universe. Sure, gimme that.

But gimme the hard stuff. True solipsism. The accidental god theme. I’m the only one! I made this! I’m in charge of the place. Or: I’m the only one in the place (and there is no sign of anyone outside the place.)

I’ll start us out. Theodore Sturgeon, “The Ultimate Egoist”, available inexpensively in an anthology of the same name [amazon]. Yep, that fits.

Heinlein “’All you zombies’-”

Fredric Brown, “The Solipsist” [not very good, and not quite about solipsism, but short].

OK, I’ll accept stories in which there are fewer people than it looks, maybe not just one. Heinlein’s “They”, then. The thing is: a lot of these stories are ‘pocket universe’ stories, which is sort of its own thing. So don’t just gimme a pocket universe! I got a pocketful already. (Or I’ll make a post later if I want one.)

Gimme what you got! Solipsists of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but … oh, never mind.