From the category archives:

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic

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…]

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…]

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.

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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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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…]

The Fallacy of Unnatural Deceleration?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2017

As a reward for my sins, I read this review of Daniel Dennett’s latest, by David Bentley Hart. (My efficiently causal sin being: reading The Corner.) [click to continue…]

The Trinet

by John Holbo on November 2, 2017

Discuss.

Before the year 2014, there were many people using Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Today, there are still many people using services from those three tech giants (respectively, GOOG, FB, AMZN). Not much has changed, and quite literally the user interface and features on those sites has remained mostly untouched. However, the underlying dynamics of power on the Web have drastically changed, and those three companies are at the center of a fundamental transformation of the Web

….

We forget how useful it has been to remain anonymous and control what we share, or how easy it was to start an internet startup with its own independent servers operating with the same rights GOOG servers have. On the Trinet, if you are permanently banned from GOOG or FB, you would have no alternative. You could even be restricted from creating a new account. As private businesses, GOOG, FB, and AMZN don’t need to guarantee you access to their networks. You do not have a legal right to an account in their servers, and as societies we aren’t demanding for these rights as vehemently as we could, to counter the strategies that tech giants are putting forward.

The Web and the internet have represented freedom: efficient and unsupervised exchange of information between people of all nations. In the Trinet, we will have even more vivid exchange of information between people, but we will sacrifice freedom. Many of us will wake up to the tragedy of this tradeoff only once it is reality.

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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“Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth …” – H.P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West – Reanimator”

Years ago I made a parody Christmas book mash-up of Lovecraft/Haeckel/Clement Clark Moore. I called it Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness: A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep. I made print versions but then took them down (they weren’t quite it.) Yet it lived, lurking beneath the surface, in the form of a perennially popular pair of Flickr albums and this old Hilo post. Hidden, winter sun-dappled tide pools of hideous, unfathomable, happy depths for kiddies to dip their toes in! But 2016 is the year of fake news. You can’t spell ‘fake’ without the ‘Haeckel’. So my fraudulent yet innocent concoctions have wandered and, eventually, been mistook for genuine Victoriana. Oh, well. I can’t completely blame them. Real Victorian X-Mas cards are often dark and weird. Hence the joke.

Caliginous gloom is the best disinfectant. If, as some whisper, ‘even death may die’, then perhaps it is possible to quash a rumor that Haeckel actually designed X-Mas cards. Accordingly, I have seized the seasonal opportunity to republish and set the record straight. A new, improved version of the print edition is now on Amazon! It is also available on Kindle. Somehow Amazon not seen the connection yet, but I imagine that will resolve itself. (Also, I made slightly different covers for the two editions. Which do you prefer?)

For impoverished urchins, with nary a penny to spare, yet high-speed internet access, I have updated the Flickr galleries with some higher quality images. The old ones were skimpy. My most popular images, Blue Boy and Feeding Birdies, are available in larger sizes. Some others, including several of my favorites. (Maybe I’ll get around to doing all of them. But not today.)

Boy Blue and Blue Jelly (front)

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Swords Against Punditry!

by John Holbo on August 14, 2016

In the hopes that everyone will stop commenting on Corey’s post, hence at considerable risk to myself: a fresh Trump post.

Since becoming aware of this thing called ‘US politics’, some decades ago, I have been addicted to the consumption of punditry. I don’t say it with pride, or because I suppose it makes me special. I just thought I’d mention that one thing that makes Trump’s candidacy weird – in a phenomenological sense, I guess – is that there is no pro-Trump pundit class. This makes his candidacy inaudible along one of the frequencies I habitually tune in. By and large, I can’t go to NR or The Weekly Standard or Red State, much less Ross Douthat or National Affairs, to get pretzel logic confabulations on Trump’s behalf, because they actually haven’t gotten on board. To their credit. Twitter is a snarknado of negative partisanship. Breitbart and Drudge are entropically dire, in a Shannon-informational sense. Hugh Hewitt? Nixonian party loyalist. He’s defending Trump the way he defended Harriet Miers, i.e. it really has nothing to do with the quality of the candidate. The only Trumpkins comfortable in their skins are the alt-right folks, reveling in rather than regretting the fact that Trump is constantly escaping from the Overton Straitjacket; and pick-up artists who regard Trump’s alpha male posturing as a feature, not a diagnosis. Oh, and there’s Scott Adams. “The fun part is that we can see cognitive dissonance when it happens to others – such as with my friend, and CNN – but we can’t see it when it happens to us. So don’t get too smug about this. You’re probably next.” Duly noted. [click to continue…]

Another Kierkegaard post, then! The masses are clamoring for them, demanding this sweet release from ongoing Olympic coverage! Also, Trump!

19th Century European philosophy. Does it crack along the 1848 faultline, after which Hegel is dead? Not sure but maybe. In addition, many of the main figures are odd men out – Kierkegaard, Nietzsche (and I like Schopenhauer, too.) Hegel was huge but his stock collapsed. He went from hero to zero and later figures like Frege, whom analytic philosophers sometimes suppose must have been opposed to Hegel, just didn’t give him much thought. (Frege was worried about Lotze, i.e. neo-Kantianism, not Hegel. The notion that analytic philosophy opposes Hegel is a kind of anachronistic back-formation of Russell and Moore’s opposition to the likes of McTaggart, i.e. the Scottish Hegelians, who were their own thing. But I digress.) Philosophy in general had a fallen rep in the second half of the 19th century, at least in German-speaking regions. Also in France? An age of positivism? Natural science was what you wanted to be doing, not speculative nonsense. There is a strong regionalism. German stuff in the 19th Century is very German. The Romantics. (Whereas, in the 17th Century, the Frenchness of Descartes, the Germanness of Leibniz, the Englishness of Locke, even the Jewishness of Spinoza seem less formidable obstacles to mutual comprehension. I am broad-brushing, not dismissing historical digs into this stuff. Tell me I’m wrong! It won’t hurt my feelings.)

Kierkegaard is not the lone wolf Nietzsche will be later, but he’s a regional figure. Part of the Copenhagen scene, the Danish Golden Age. Nordic literary culture, tied into German culture and French culture, too, but distinctive and somewhat self-contained. So I’m asking myself: what are good historical handles? And I think: maybe read some Georg Brandes? He was very influenced by Kierkegaard, at the end of a passionate Hegelian fling in youth. He gave the first public lectures on Nietzsche, at a time when he – Brandes – was personally famous, a towering figure in criticism. He was responsible for Nietzsche’s fame, in effect. (Is that too strong?) He also traveled to England, met J.S. Mill, after translating The Subjection of Women into Danish.

I was very much surprised when Mill informed me that he had not read a line of Hegel, either in the original or in translation, and regarded the entire Hegelian philosophy as sterile and empty sophistry. I mentally confronted this with the opinion of the man at the Copenhagen University who knew the history of philosophy best, my teacher, Hans Bröchner, who knew, so to speak, nothing of contemporary English and French philosophy, and did not think them worth studying. I came to the conclusion that here was a task for one who understood the thinkers of the two directions, who did not mutually understand one another.

I thought that in philosophy, too, I knew what I wanted, and saw a road open in front of me. However, I never travelled it. (276-7, Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth)

Yet there’s a lot of philosophical interest in his books. (You can get a number for free from the Internet Archive, as they were all translated into English in the early 20th Century, when Brandes was at the height of his fame.) [click to continue…]

My old poker buddy Eric Schwitzgebel has, for some time, been soliciting Top-10 lists from folks who teach SF and philosophy. So I finally got around to contributing. Tell me I’m wrong!

Eric has busted into sf authorship himself since our grad school days. Here’s one of his in Clarkesworld, “Fishdance”. “The two most addictive ideas in history, religion and video-gaming, would finally become one.” It’s good!

One thing I’m going to talk about this semester is the domestication of experience machines. In genre terms, The Matrix is a bit played out. Inception. Been there, done that. Can we agree about that? Also, video games just get normaler and normaler. Yesterday I looked around on the train and I was, literally, the only person NOT playing “Pokemon Go”. True story! It felt a bit weird. They were all off together in an alternate version of the city. I was alone in the real one, with only my headphones and music to keep me warm – like some savage. There are two obvious ways to make virtual life, as an alternative to real life, appealing: make the world really messed up. Make the virtual world nice. Maybe the people behind the scenes don’t need to be Agent Smith-style jerks. The first film to play it this way, in a nice way, is Avalon. But no one saw it. Good film. More recently you get the likes of Ready Player One and Off To Be The Wizard, in which players of games – and games within games, and games within games within games – are increasingly comfortable with the whole biz. Not that there’s no lingering anxiety about the appropriateness of this life strategy! I like to think that one of my all time faves, The Glass Bead Game, is an honored ancestor. Homo Ludens. What’s Latin for ‘man, the player of virtual reality games’?

Of course, I think of myself as more of a cartoonist than an sf author. Since I’m on the subject, here are a couple graphics I whipped up for my module last time, which amused me – although I did it all fast-and-sketchy. I’d really like to remake them carefully, in a Norman Saunders-y style.

The idea is to make fake pulp covers for classic scientific and philosophical thought-experiments. [click to continue…]

Zarathustra and Kierkegaard

by John Holbo on July 15, 2016

Apologies for lack of posts. I’ve been without keyboard for 10 days. It’s silent meditation for the fingertips, if – like me – you type quickly. (I don’t count that hunt-and-pecking ground on my iPad mini as a keyboard.) But before leaving home I prepared a few “On Beyond Zarathustra” installments to hold my clamorous readership (yet you are all so politely silent!) until I return to my Cintiq at summer’s end.

I’ve been using my keyboard-free time to read news and be horrified, also to read as many hundreds of pages of Kierkegaard as I can before August. (When I get tired, I read Lord Dunsany, pagan palate-cleanser, when the Kierkegaardian Christianity gets too much.) So far I’ve gotten all the way through Either/Or, in the Penguin Classics edition, which is slightly abridged but – you know what? – I’m not complaining. (Have YOU ever read all the way through both volumes of Either/Or, as opposed to skimming “The Diary of a Seducer” for naughty bits, then getting disappointed and bored?) I have also made it through Philosophical Fragments, which is shorter but even more head-scratching. [click to continue…]