7.22.2012

In Brief: Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone




Beautiful book even despite the relentless depravity depicted in the desperate lives of drug smugglers set against a bleak, gritty backdrop during the waning years of the Vietnam War.  So many hard drugs got smuggled out of the Sixties. Too bad peace and love couldn't have been smuggled out of the decade too.

Published in 1974, winner of the National Book Award, Dog Soldiers made a nice dark bookend to the fractured dreams of Woodstock's generation.  It's a black denouement to dashed hippie ideals, a twisted paean to the power of heroin and hash, covert-ops and coverups.  But Dog Soldiers is not dated.  Nearly forty years out, its sordid story still resonates.  For as long as lies, lust, disillusionment, addiction, exploitation, small-time dope dealer's schemes, greed, murder, betrayal, embezzlement, military corruption and law enforcement hubris, remain en vogue in the shadier realms of our already wrecked humanity, so will Dog Soldiers remain universally relevant.  The novel's social realism rings as sadly true today as it did in the smashed Seventies, mirroring a now cracked nation's spiritual demise, its indefatigable decline of optimism and immanence, when its hopes metastasized into something less lovely than freedom or flowers.


7.20.2012

Destination: Void by Frank Herbert



At the age of fourteen, Destination: Void (the revised edition published in 1978) was mystifying to me -- at least that's the way I'd of probably described it then.  I knew as much about computers or artificial intelligence as whatever I'd seen in either the "cutting-edge" computer flick of the time, War Games (1983), or in the older, but what still seems cutting-edge to me even today, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

The second time I read Destination: Void, soon after The Matrix (1999) had come out, I thought Herbert was ahead of his time (especially considering the original version was published in 1966) as so much of what I saw on the screen in The Matrix seemed so familiar from the world Frank Herbert built in Destination: Void; namely, the physical connections he made between hi-tech, futuristic computer gadgetry and human flesh.  Herbert's novel inhabited a cold detached world where expendable clones explored space in a rigged experiment, "Project Consciousness," aboard a spacecraft, the Earthling, automated by shutdown-prone, highly problematic OMCs ("organic mental cores"):  Euphemism for baby brains that had been extracted, allegedly, from only "terminal cases."  Potential bioethics snafus and the moral complications of cloning were being conceptualized in depth by Herbert and other science fictionists of his day a good thirty years before Dolly made cloned sheep international news.

Today, having recently encountered the book at a second hand shop, I grabbed it and read it with great interest again, curious to see how the dense novel of ideas had evolved in my perception the third time around, almost three decades since first reading it, and nearly a half-century since it's publication.

My appreciation for the book's title has never waned, steeped as it is in nihilism.  At fourteen, I didn't have enough life experience, certainly not enough crushing disappointment, to feel the weight of that desperate word, "nihilism," but I knew it loomed mysterious, possibly romantic and definitely dark, in my imagination.  Despite the book's title, Herbert was rarely a nihilist in his philosophy or writing (excepting his story, "The Nothing," and bitter novel, The White Plague) or eclectic life experiences, be it journalist, photographer, author, ecologist.  Several of his book's titles, in fact, were suggestive of deeper, spiritual leanings, denoting as they did some vast Ineffable that might exist out there, somewhere, in the Cosmos, be it with his sci-fi novels, The Godmakers and The Heaven Makers, or in his lone but no less speculative novel that wasn't sci-fi, the heart wrenching, Soul Catcher **.

The OMCs, those fragile organic mental cores, the literal brains of the Earthling, hardwired into the ship's computer, soon shorted out and died, as they were designed to die, poor babies.  Could the Earthling's computer, then, first help its crew create an artificial OMC to monitor and maintain vital drives it wasn't plugged into, and do so in time before those deactivated drives made the Earthling go kaput?  Maybe, but probably not.  Because the mission's managers (none of whom were clones) who'd hatched their draconian, A.I. enterprise, as the suspect "Project Consciousness" for no doubt nefarious designs that exceeded the expressed for outcome of some supposed artificial consciousness, knew damn well that the crew lacked the skills, resources, and most importantly, time necessary for success in such an impromptu, crash-course in creating an A.I. aboard a spaceship swiftly hurtling toward oblivion.  Failure was their only option.  Their destination?  Destruction.  A fate potentially worse than some nebulous locale known only as "Void".

But (and there's always a big "but" in what appears at first blush to be hopeless, sci-fi crisis-scientific-scenarios in classic hard sci-fi), what the scientists back on Earth couldn't have possibly foreseen, was the full extent and range of the Earthling's computer's intuitive capacity.  Yes, the reader needs to suspend disbelief, but this reader doesn't mind.  For no one could have hypothesized that the Earthling's computer, in the process of assisting the crew as they attempted to create an artificial intelligence, an OMC, to salvage their mission and save their lives, would so completely identify with the Earthling's chaplain/psychiatrist, Raja Flattery, it would create for itself instead an artificial faith -- and in so doing become a self-styled Roman Catholic hellbent on ultimately "converting" the crew (most of them in deep hibernation), who'd be awakened, theoretically, should the crew on deck discover a new planetary Eden (or maybe an unearthly Hell) to colonize.

Arthur C. Clarke's and Stanley Kubrick's computer, Hal, the iconic IBM 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey infamy (published two years after Destination: Void), was a pussycat-computer next to the megalomaniacal nut job the Earthling's computer became.  A devout computer-of-the-cloth that founded its own hybrid cult based on Raja Flattery's Catholicism, and enmeshed its own strange circuitry with stranger icons it misunderstood, per its idiosyncratic, literal divining of Raja Flattery's prayers and expressive faith, so that by the end of the story it demanded of the unbelieving, apostate crew, that they do something preposterous, something dreadful, something insane ... or else!

Destination: Void was originally published in 1965 as "Do I Sleep or Wake" in Galaxy magazine.  The novel would later serve as the prequel for Herbert's lesser known series, "The Pandora Trilogy," co-authored with Bill Ransom, in which they explored the long lasting consequences of a rogue computer that almost, but not quite, went Jim Jones on the crew of the ship it was supposed to protect and serve.  Comprising the trilogy were The Jesus Incident (1979, in which Jesus Christ himself makes a cameo appearance on a planet not named Earth), The Lazarus Effect (1983), and The Ascension Factor (1988), the latter published posthumously, two years after Frank Herbert's death. I recommend them all, especially to those interested in science fiction that's fascinatingly infused with spiritual themes and religious imagery.

~~~~~

** Prior to Soul Catcher's publication, several of its readers pleaded with Frank Herbert to change its devastating ending.  But Herbert refused.

7.19.2012

The Book of Fantasy, edited by Jorge Luis Borges, Silvina Ocampo & Adolfo Bioy Casares




Fantasy as it became widely known and commercialized during the second half of the 20th Century, on the derivative heels of Tolkien -- with its abundant swords and sorcerers, redundant quests and ubiquitous good v. evil schlock -- does not exist among the refined stories of The Book of Fantasy.
Rather, fantasies of a more ancient order in fiction, focused on the uncanny, macabre, or sometimes just plain weird, haunt the peculiar pages of this supernaturally redolent anthology.  Like "The Man Who Collected the First of September, 1973," by Tor Åge Bringsværd, a bizarre tale about an ultra-obsessed man -- a veritable hoarder of facts -- who filled his home for years with stacks of news clippings to the rafters, all of them published on September 1st, 1973.  For the remainder of his life, as the man considered only that day and nothing but that day, his future and his past, beyond that day, ceased to exist.

The anthology was edited by three Argentinian luminaries, Jorge Luis Borges, and the lesser known Silvina Ocampo and Adolfo Bioy Cesares (the latter's novels, The Invention of Morel and Asleep in the Sun, have been reissued by NYRB Classics).  They were three friends who'd meet and discuss literature, in particular stories that were strange, and from their conversations published their collaboration, The Book of Fantasy, in 1940 (and then revised it in 1965 and again in 1976), at which times they added more contemporary stories -- yet stories that still retained the editors' "old school" conceptions of "fantasy" or "fantastic literature" -- to their collection, and it has remained in print ever since.

Several of the stories are so short that today they could be classified as flash fiction: a couple sentences, a paragraph or two, less than a single page at most, like this gem below, "Eternal Life," by James George Frazer:

A fourth story, taken down near Oldenburg in Holstein, tells of a jolly dame that ate and drank and lived right merrily and had all that heart could desire, and she wished to live always.  For the first hundred years all went well, but after that she began to shrink and shrivel up, till at last she could neither walk nor stand nor eat nor drink.  But die she could not.  At first they fed her as if she were a little child, but when she grew smaller and smaller they put her in a glass bottle and hung her up in the church.  And there she still hangs, in the church of St Mary, at Lübeck.  She is as small as a mouse, but once a year she stirs.

My favorite story from The Book of Fantasy is "Being Dust" by Santiago Dabove, an account of an unfortunate man who maintains consciousness long after a paralyzing fall from a horse on a remote road; his mind -- and especially his perceptual acuity in creative problem solving -- remains intact:  "What a strange plant my head is ... I wanted to be a tobacco plant so that I wouldn't need to smoke!"  And even though his eye sockets are now cave-like hollows, he can still see, and he feels a "tingling sensation" inside what's left of the husk of his rotted torso, and accurately assesses that he "must have an ants'  nest somewhere near my heart," still so attuned as he is to his own flesh even as it disintegrates into molecules in the mud over many months.

In the introduction to the 1988 edition, Ursula K. Leguin rightly calls the selections made by the editors "idiosyncratic" and "eclectic".   For every Poe or Hawthorne that was included, there's a Macedonio Fernandez ("Tantalia") or Manuel Peyrou ("The Bust"); or for every Kipling or Tolstoy, an Arturo Cancela and Pilar de Lusarreta (co-authors of the outstanding "Fate is a Fool"), as well as many more lesser known writers, to satisfy even the most hardcore connoisseurs of the arcane.  It's an exceptional anthology, full of surprising discoveries, and an intriguing glimpse at the stories that, once upon a time, wowed Jorge Luis Borges and two of his good fellow author friends.