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John Holbo

Utopian Commonplace Book

by John Holbo on October 18, 2017

Per my previous post, I’m thinking about utopia/dystopia. Do you have any fun quotes from philosophers or poets? Here are a few: [click to continue…]

Utopia and Fairy Tales

by John Holbo on October 17, 2017

I’m lecturing about Utopian/Dystopian SF this week. I’ve lectured on this before but I’m looking to up my game, so I’m open to suggestions. Lots of writings on or around this subject, as well as stories to choose from. We had a whole book event about Real Utopias here at CT. What critical writings in this vicinity do you find particularly insightful/interesting?

Yesterday I was browsing through The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, seeking inspiration/information. From the introduction to Kenneth M. Roemer, “Paradise Transformed: Varieties of 19th Century Utopias”:
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Robert A. Heinlein and James Branch Cabell

by John Holbo on October 14, 2017

A few weeks ago Henry linked to the pledge page for Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming Robert A. Heinlein book. I’m glad to see she’s now hit the mark but it’s not too late for you to join the cultural clamor of folks banging their desks, demanding hefty Heinlein monographs! I just chipped in modestly to the tune of an e-version of the final version, but I’ve already been working through a draft she was kind enough to share. I’m not going to quote pre-print stuff but I’ll pass along one detail I never would have guessed. Heinlein was, apparently, a huge James Branch Cabell fan. He loved Jurgen: A Comedy of Justice. I have just started rereading Jurgen myself, since I’m done with Dunsany. (I’m not making any systematic early 20th century fantasy circuit, mind you. We just shifted houses and, somehow, an old, long-unregarded 60’s paperback copy of Jurgen floated to the top. Perhaps this universe’s God is a Richard Thaler-type, giving me a nudge. Also, Mendlesohn is apparently not the first to note that Heinlein liked Cabell. Wikipedia knows. I am, apparently, last to know. But perhaps you have been in that sorry boat with me.) [click to continue…]

I’m reading Lord Dunsany, The King of Elfland’s Daughter (1924). I’m also preparing to lecture on fantasy and fairy tales in my Science Fiction and Philosophy module (fun!) So I am pleased to find the following passage about the forging of the hero Alveric’s blade. The sword is made from thunderbolts, you see, dug up from a witch’s cabbage patch. (She lives in an especially thunder-prone mountain region. Nothing special about cabbage, apparently.) Thunderbolts are unearthly space metal knocked from the sky in thunderstorms. Science fact.

Nobody can tell you about that sword all that there is to be told of it; for those that know of those paths of Space on which its metals once floated, till earth caught them one by one as she sailed past on her orbit, have little time to waste on such things as magic, and so cannot tell you how the sword was made, and those who know whence poetry is, and the need that man has for song, or know any one of the fifty branches of magic, have little time to waste on such things as science, and so cannot tell you whence its ingredients came. Enough that it was once beyond our Earth and was now here amongst our mundane stones; that it was once but as those stones, and now had something in it such as soft music has; let those that can define it.

So there’s my epigraph for the chapter about the relationship between science fiction and fantasy, when finally I get around to writinbg it. Science fiction is like that sword.

Just a thought. I’m not on Twitter so it works as a post title. It flattered my vanity that, when I googled, no one had made the joke yet.

Robert Heinlein writes letters to editors and librarians

by John Holbo on September 12, 2017

Enough Lovecraft! Robert Heinlein! I’m reading Innocent Experiments:Childhood and the Culture of Popular Science in the United States, by Rebecca Onion. Chapter 4, “Space Cadets and Rocket Boys: Policing the Masculinity of Scientific Enthusiasms” has quite a bit of good stuff on Heinlein – well it would have to, wouldn’t it? If you’ve read some Heinlein you kind of know what Heinlein is like. But there’s good stuff here about his exchanges with editors. The guy was one serious SJW, insisting on his minority quotas. Of course, he always manages to make it weird in his cosmopolitan-but-All-American, messianic-rationalist-masculinist libertarian-disciplinarian anti-authoritarian-but-in-an-authoritarian-way way.

In a [1946] letter to Blassingame written while he was working on Young Atomic Engineers [which became Rocketship Galileo], Heinlein wrote that his heroes were of Scotch English, German, and American Jewish extraction and warned, “You may run into an editor who does not want one of the young heroes to be Jewish. I will not do business with such a firm. The ancestry of these three boys is a ‘must’ and the book is offered under those conditions. My interest was aroused in this book by the opportunity to show to kids what I conceive to be Americanism.” The conflict did not arise, perhaps in part because Morrie, of Rocket Ship Galileo, was never explicitly identified as Jewish, despite the presence of certain vaguely invoked cultural and religious markers. During the editorial process for Tunnel in the Sky, which included a prominent black female character, Caroline, Heinlein told Dalgliesh [this is 1955] that he “wanted Caroline identified as Negro from the start. . . . This girl’s characterization all through the book is believable only if she is colored, I want her tagged from the start.” Replying to Dalgliesh’s concern that “this Negro secondary character would lose us sales in the South,” he wrote back, “This is not a point on which I am willing to budge.” He did, however, change the identifier used to describe Caroline from “black” to “Zulu,” thereby giving her an exotic provenance that would explain her “characterization” as a brash, uncouth female warrior while also abstracting her from present-day conflicts in the United States. While Heinlein defended Caroline’s right to exist, he marked her as different: loud, violent, and romantically unfit (important in a book whose plot included more than a few romantic pairings).
We can laugh about it now, but it was 1955 at the time.
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Irma

by John Holbo on September 10, 2017

Stay safe, CT readers! And anyone else in Florida. The aftermath in the Caribbean is already unbelievably awful.

H. P. Lovecraft – Precocious Provincial

by John Holbo on September 9, 2017

A second Lovecraft post, since the first is getting some love. He doesn’t love the Irish. (They seem to be the half of the Hiberno-Prussian herd he likes least.) From “Americanism“:

The greatest foe to rational Americanism is that dislike for our parent nation which holds sway amongst the ignorant and bigoted, and which is kept alive largely by certain elements of the population who seem to consider the sentiments of Southern and Western Ireland more important than those of the United States. In spite of the plain fact that a separate Ireland would weaken civilisation and menace the world’s peace by introducing a hostile and undependable wedge betwixt the two major parts of Saxondom, these irresponsible elements continue to encourage rebellion in the Green Isle; and in so doing tend to place this nation in a distressingly anomalous position as an abettor of crime and sedition against the Mother Land. Disgusting beyond words are the public honours paid to political criminals like Edward, alias Eamonn, de Valera, whose very presence at large among us is an affront to our dignity and heritage. Never may we appreciate or even fully comprehend our own place and mission in the world, till we can banish those clouds of misunderstanding which float between us and the source of our culture.

But the features of Americanism peculiar to this continent must not be belittled. In the abolition of fixed and rigid class lines a distinct sociological advance is made, permitting a steady and progressive recruiting of the upper levels from the fresh and vigorous body of the people beneath. Thus opportunities of the choicest sort await every citizen alike, whilst the biological quality of the cultivated classes is improved by the cessation of that narrow inbreeding which characterises European aristocracy.

Total separation of civil and religious affairs, the greatest political and intellectual advance since the Renaissance, is also a local American—and more particularly a Rhode Island—triumph …


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H.P. Lovecraft, the opening paragraphs of “Old England and the Hyphen” (1916):

Of the various intentional fallacies exhaled like miasmic vapours from the rotting cosmopolitanism of vitiated American politics, and doubly rife during these days of European conflict, none is more disgusting than that contemptible subterfuge of certain foreign elements whereby the legitimate zeal of the genuine native stock for England’s cause is denounced and compared to the unpatriotic disaffection of those working in behalf of England’s enemies. The Prussian propagandists and Irish irresponsibles, failing in their clumsy efforts to use the United States as a tool of vengeance upon the Mistress of the Seas, have seized with ingenious and unexpected eagerness on a current slogan coined to counteract their own traitorous machinations, and have begun to fling the trite demand “America first” in the face of every American who is unable to share their puerile hatred of the British Empire. In demanding that American citizens impartially withhold love and allegiance from any government save their own, thereby binding themselves to a policy of rigid coldness in considering the fortunes of their Mother Country, the Prusso-Hibernian herd have the sole apparent advantage of outward technical justification. If the United States were truly the radical, aloof, mongrelised nation into which they idealise it, their plea might possibly be more appropriate. But in comparing the lingering loyalty of a German-American for Germany, or of an Irish-American for Ireland, with that of a native American for England, these politicians make their fundamental psychological error.

England, despite the contentions of trifling theorists, is not and never will be a really foreign country; nor is a true love of America possible without a corresponding love for the British race and ideals that created America. The difficulties which caused the severance of the American Colonies from the rest of the Empire were essentially internal ones, and have no moral bearing on this country’s attitude toward the parent land in its relations with alien civilisations. Just as Robert Edward Lee chose to follow the government of Virginia rather than that of the Federal Union in 1861, so did the Anglo-American Revolutionary leaders choose local to central allegiance in 1775. Their rebellion was in itself a characteristically English act, and could in no manner annul the purely English origin and nature of the new republic. American history before the conflict of 1775-1783 is English history, and we are lawful heirs of the unnumbered glories of the Saxon line. Shakespeare and Milton, Dryden and Pope, Young and Thomson, Johnson and Goldsmith, are our own poets; William the Conqueror, Edward the Black Prince, Elizabeth, and William of Nassau’ are our own royalty; Crecy, Poictiers, and Agincourt are our own victories; Lord Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton, Hobbes, Locke, Sir Robert Boyle, and Sir William Herschel are our own philosophers and scientists; what true American lives, who would wish, by rejecting an Englishman’s heritage, to despoil his country of such racial laurels? Let those men be silent, who would, in envy, deny to the citizens of the United States the right to cherish and revere the ancestral honours that are theirs, and to remain faithful to the Anglo-Saxon ideals of their English forefathers!


(I’m reading the book, but if you google you can probably find it.)

Jack Kirby was born on August 28, 1917.

I celebrated his birthday by rereading a bunch of old Jack Kirby comics. [click to continue…]

I Hope If You’re In Houston You’re OK

by John Holbo on August 28, 2017

That’s all I have to say. Stay safe and stay as dry as you can.

The Temptation of St. Anthony

by John Holbo on August 27, 2017

Today I read Gustave Flaubert’s novel, The Temptation of St. Anthony in the Lafcadio Hearn translation. It’s a bit different from, say, Madame Bovary. I don’t think it’s just Hearn’s translation that seems to be aimed at the Weird Tales market. [click to continue…]

Good Grief

by John Holbo on August 21, 2017

The Federalist has gotten weirder. If you feel this way about Charlie Brown, just think what you would think if you ever met that Ur-Lucy, Socrates. Perhaps Cornford said it best: [click to continue…]

That post of mine, below – one theme of which is that groupishness is next to underdogliness, in potentially problematic ways – is too long. For the less literate CT reader, then, the present post provides an opportunity to track attitudes towards patently superfluous Confederate statuary, going back. It’s interesting that the joke is: we are perversely proud of failure, including moral failure. (But it would be indelicate to indicate the actual, main moral failure of the Confederacy in such a connection.) In general (no pun intended), it’s hard to pin down how much the romance of the Lost Cause has always been not just an attempt to sublimate the stain of slavery into a nimbus of state’s rights, but a kind of romantic antiheroism. Who doesn’t love a good antihero, after all?

Thinking About Groups

by John Holbo on August 20, 2017

In the hopes of writing something that isn’t rendered obsolete by Donald Trump in 48 hours, I’m going to say a few (thousand) words about how I got a lot out of Jacob Levy’s good new book, Rationalism, Pluralism, Freedom. At its core is a dilemma – an antinomy: two models of the optimal form and function of groups within a liberal order. Neither model can be quite it. It seems we need to split the difference or synthesize. But there is no coherent or necessarily stable way. (Well, that’s life.) There, I gave away the ending. [click to continue…]