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John Holbo

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.

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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.

I’m doing a lot of SF research these days. Specifically, I’m reading (takes a breath): The statesman’s manual: or, The Bible the best guide to political skill and foresight: a lay sermon, addressed to the higher classes of society, with an appendix, containing comments and essays connected with the study of the inspired writings, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1816).

It’s not really about science fiction. It’s best known, I guess, for Coleridge’s well-known distinction between allegory and symbol, drawn in these pages. But it’s fun! Remember when I had the great idea of reading all the Silmarillion in the voice of Lumpy Space Princess? Well, I would get behind a Kickstarter to record all of the Statesman in the voice of Monty Burns:

Yet this again – yet even Religion itself, if ever in its too exclusive devotion to the specific and individual it neglects to interpose the contemplation of the universal, changes its being into Superstition, and becoming more and more earthly and servile, as more and more estranged from the one in all, goes wandering at length with its pack of amulets, bead-rolls, periapts, fetisches, and the like pedlary, on pilgrimages to Loretto, Mecca, or the temple of Jaggernaut, arm in arm with sensuality on one side and self-torture on the other, followed by a motly group of friars, pardoners, faquirs, gamesters, flagellants, mountebanks, and harlots.
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Famous Monsters of Plantland: The Green Thing!

by John Holbo on February 25, 2018

My Erasmus Darwin post got such a huge response that a follow-up is in order!

A Note About Responsibility

by John Holbo on February 25, 2018

Law-makers are responsible for the laws they make, and support, and do not repeal. They are responsible for the intended effects of their legislation, also for unintended but easily predicted effects. (They are even semi-responsible for less easily predicted bad effects – although the degree to which legislation should be a strict liability business is debatable.) None of this is mitigated if mediated through a causal chain that includes other actors besides the legislators.

If law-makers favor legislation that makes it easy for immigrants to enter the country illegally, they are faulted (or credited!) accordingly. It usually isn’t fair to say that legislators ‘favor’ or ‘like’ effects of legislation that are, most likely, regarded as costs, not benefits. But it’s fair to say that legislators are responsible for the costs. [click to continue…]

The Botanic Garden: Famous Monsters of Plantland

by John Holbo on February 24, 2018

A couple weeks ago I was, as one does, declaiming selections from Erasmus Darwin’s poetry around the table, for the moral edification of the females present. I was explaining to the young daughters, in particular, how and why people were upset that Darwin poetized plants having sex all the time in The Botanic Garden, volumes 1 and 2. Especially volume 2.

The younger daughter: Oooh, fifty shades of green!

They grow up so fast. [click to continue…]

The Hard Bigotry of Rock-Bottom Expectations

by John Holbo on February 23, 2018

1) Obviously this arm-the-teachers idea is going nowhere.
2) Obviously this arm-the-teachers idea is nothing but a ball of unintended, flagrantly terrible consequences waiting to happen. And it would be incredibly costly and legally and administratively challenging just to get to the point of all those bad consequences actually coming about (but see 1).

No one will be talking arming the teachers in two weeks. [click to continue…]

This Does Not Look Like You Care About These Adults

by John Holbo on February 22, 2018

A lot of conservatives are taking a ‘who will think of the children?’ approach to the aftermath of the most recent school shooting. As Erick Erickson writes: “I think putting them on television after a mass murder at their school is not caring about them. It is using them.” True, these kids have first-hand experience with guns that seems to qualify them to speak, but the truth is that they are too close to the issue. For them, this is their identity now. It’s existential. They aren’t prepared to debate policy, and the raw emotions behind their speech – even if they express themselves eloquently and apparently reasonably – are not conducive to level-headed policy debate. No one is allowed to question the authenticity of their experience with guns, so no one is allowed to suggest they are just wrong about policy.

Let it be so. In the aftermath of the next school shooting, no one for whom gun-ownership is a deeply-felt identity issue is allowed on TV. For their own good. [click to continue…]

Psychomyths and Thought Experiments

by John Holbo on February 22, 2018

I’m writing something about Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous tale, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (I’m sure you’ve read it.) I’m reading the author’s story notes, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters [amazon]. She calls it a ‘psychomyth’. In her introduction she elucidates the neologism thusly: “more or less sur-realistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which — without invoking any consideration of immortality — seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.”

So reads my Kindle edition. I suspect ‘sur-realistic’ is not what it says in the paper edition. But maybe Le Guin is literalizing the ‘beyond real’ sense, for some reason, by hyphenating, playfully? Will someone kindly walk over to their shelf, check the paper, and confirm or disconfirm the hyphen. Thank you. (Amazon ‘Look Inside’ is not settling it for me.)

While we are on the subject, and awaiting our test results, a few thoughts. [click to continue…]

Panpsychism, Erewhon Edition

by John Holbo on February 19, 2018

A couple weeks back I posted about panpsychism. Is it as preposterous as all that? Opinions differ! Today I discovered that there are arguments for it, in effect, in Erewhon, by Samuel Butler (1872).

As you may know, the utopian Erewhonians, in Butler’s famous novel, are anti-machinist. But I hadn’t realized their attitude was grounded in explicit fear of the rise of conscious machines, rather than some other model of industrial catastrophe. The narrator himself has some trouble piecing it together: [click to continue…]

Food For Thought

by John Holbo on February 14, 2018

It was not until I had attended a few post‐mortems that I realized that even the ugliest human exteriors may contain the most beautiful viscera, and was able to console myself for the facial drabness of my neighbors in omnibuses by dissecting them in my imagination.

J. B. S. Haldane

I got that one from a book on thought-experiments [amazon]. How have I not come across it in a book about serial killers? I read both sorts of books, like any person with normal beliefs and desires, healthy impulses and interests.

Adam Roberts has been fighting the good fight, keeping blogging real. He’s been reading his way through H.G. Wells’ collected works so you don’t have to. You can just piggy-back along for the ride. But all good things must end. He just published the post for Wells’ final work, Mind At The End of Its Tether. I’m no Wells scholar but I actually had read that one. It’s astonishingly pessimistic. Nigh-Lovecraftian. And it isn’t even supposed to be fiction. It’s what Wells was feeling in his last days. Here is the book’s opening: [click to continue…]