Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A Canticle for Leibowitz

As experimental Jazz guru Sun Ra used to say, "It's after the end of the world ... don't you know that yet?" The period from the 1950's the the early 1970's saw the glory days of post-apocalyptic literature and film, and saw the human race wiped out in a wide variety of ways, by mutant ants, giant crabs, mind-controlling aliens, and global warming. Of course, all of these were essentially stand-ins for the great fear of that age, of global nuclear war and its capacity to reduce all of our vaunted civilization to ashes and ruins.

Walter M. Miller, in some ways, resembled others of the ambitious young Sci-Fi writers of the "pulp" era; a WWII veteran with a panache for the fantastical, banging out story after story on a portable typewriter. But in one important respect, he was different: the future he imagined was not a secularized one, but one both bound together and riven by faith. In some accounts, it was Miller's participation in the bombing of an ancient Benadictine monastery that inspired Leibowitz; Miller displaced the time from the past to the future, and imagined a monastery rising anew from what were now nuclear ruins.

The first section of the novel (now that entitled Fiat Homo, Latin for "Let there be Man") appeared in the April 1955 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, alongside now-forgotten writers such as J. Francis McComas and Maurice Procter; the same issue contained an early review of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, which had just been published in the United States. Miller continued his story in further installments, including "And the Light is Risen" (later Fiat Lux) and "The Last Canticle" (1956). Realizing he had not simply a series of stories, but a full-blown novel on his hands, Miller rewrote and extended these sections, and the novel appeared in full in 1960; it has been in print ever since, and often appears atop lists of the greatest Science Fiction novels of all time.

The story lures the reader in slowly. A novice monk is enduring his time in the wilderness. He's not a particularly bright or gifted monk -- in fact, he's a bit of a klutz -- so much so that he literally stumbles into his greatest discovery -- a metal case containing some writings and technical diagrams by a long-dead electrical engineer named Leibowitz. It's sheer brilliance: but of course, the circuit diagrams he finds are seen not for their meaning, but their beauty; adapted into illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows, they preserve their powerful knowledge in a manner unperceived by the monks who copy them. And yet might this not all be part of some strange, possibly divine, plan?

So read A Canticle for Leibowitz -- and imagine. Might not the most durable of human institutions, given the enormity of a nuclear war, be one that endured for so many centuries before it? And what if, within that community, the unplanted seed of the very technology that rendered such destuction possible, were to be somehow incubated?

Your thoughts below.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The First Men in the Moon

The Moon continues its reign as our nearest -- and most fascinating -- celestial body in H.G. Wells's The First Men in the Moon. Published at the dawn of the twentieth century in 1901, it manages to be both Victorian and modern at the same time; strewn with brass plates, glass portholes, and anti-gravity paint, it may well be the mother of all "steampunk" novels and films (and we'll be watching the excellent 1960's film adaptation next week).

Wells, whose name for some time was as synonymous with science fiction as was that of his precursor Jules Verne, opens with a characteristically casual and low-key story: that of a businessman, Mr. Bedford, who heads off to a country retreat to write a play, with the notion that it's an easy way to make money (a notion Wells himself, of course, knew to be untrue). There he meets his eccentric neighbor, Mr. Cavor, who is working to perfect a mysterious new material (humbly named "Cavorite" after himself), which will have the effect of blocking gravity. One can at least say that, should such a material exist, it would be a far more humane method of conveyance to the moon than be shot there from inside a giant space gun (which, due to inertia and the laws of motion, would have reduced its inhabitants to bloody jelly in a nanosecond). Not that Wells has given up on space guns -- we'll see another in the 1936 film he wrote, Things to Come -- but the story here calls for something that could plausibly be invented and put to use by a country gentleman, equipped with nothing more than ample spare time and a gifted amateur's command of chemistry.

Once on the moon -- or rather in it -- here Wells blends together such notions as Symmes's theory of a hollow earth with tales of subterranean wonders from the Theosophists' Agartha to Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth -- only here, the inhabitants are insectoids along the lines of large, intelligent ants. Wells manages to combine here our fear of the 'colony mind' (think of 1998's Antz) with his favorite theme, that of an alien race technologically superior to humankind. Throughout it, though, Bedford and Cavor remain human, and humane beings, unwitting ambassadors to an alien race, and perhaps harbingers of its doom (a theme brilliantly picked up by the frame narrative of the film version).

So hop on board -- suspend your disbelief (you must be getting used to it by now), and see what you make of this extraordinary voyage.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Adventures of Baron Münchausen

By varying accounts, Terry Gilliam's 1988 film The Adventures of Baron Munchausen is either one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, or an epic failure of almost cosmic proportions. There's no question that Gilliam's ambitious production plans clashed with the expectations of the film's producers, and that the set was -- as it often is in one of his films -- chaotic at times. Commercially, it was a failure (failure being defined as costing much more to make than it made in profits), but in retrospect, it remains one of his best and most delightful films.

And one might have expected no less -- Münchausen, after all, was born from disaster, grew via prodigious invention and prodigious plagiarism, and was stranded for some time on the nursery bookshelf along with such congenial fellows as Gulliver's Travels and Robinson Crusoe -- none of which really belonged there. There was, in fact, a "real" Baron Münchausen, whose lively tales of his experiences in the Russian army in two of its campaigns agains the Turks gained modest fame. Then came Rudolf Erich Raspé, a man of some repute as a legitimate historian, who'd landed a job watching over a collection of gold medallions, some of which were later found missing. Fleeing from his employer, he landed on his feet in England, where -- as a member of the Royal Society -- he still had some friends of note. He secured a job overseeing mines in Cornwall, and while there wrote and published the first of his Münchausen tales, later adding more. His death in Ireland in 1794 (his grave is on the estate of Muckross House, hereditary home of the Guinness family) did nothing to stop fresh editions, and more stories, from accumulating in Münchausen's name.

It was a perfect set-up for Gilliam, who could play off the idea of a "real" Baron against a theatrical one, on all kinds of levels, and pick and choose from the canonical (and not-so-canonical) stories at will. As the Baron, he cast the brilliant Canadian actor John Neville, and as his three remarkable assistants he chose fellow Python Eric Idle (Berthold), Charles McKeown (as Adolphus -- he also wrote the script), and Jack Purvis as Gustavus. Sarah Polley (as Sally Salt) and Uma Thurman (as the goddess Venus) made their film débuts here, and Robin Williams does a brilliant (and uncredited) turn as the King of the Moon. It's a fantasy about fantasy, and the politics of the repression of fantasy. In a brilliant exchange between the Baron and the "Right Ordinary Horatio Jackson" (Jonathan Pryce), the gauntlet is thrown:
Jackson: "You, sir, seem to have a weak grasp of reality!"
The Baron: "Your 'reality,' sir, is lies and balderdash, and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of its whatsoever!"

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Lucian's True History

Lucian of Samosata was anything but a stodgy old classical Greek writer. In fact, he made a living making fun of stodgy old classical Greek writers; one can think of him as a very early stand-up comic. He knew that his listeners were familiar with Homer and the other great Greek authors, and he used the classics as fodder for irreverent freestyles that brought him fame (and money) all over the eastern Mediterranean.

One of his styles was what was known as "Menippean" satire, which involved parodying men, ideas, and other styles of writing, often all at once. He was a particular master of one sub-genre of this kind, the so-called "Dialogues with the Dead." Here, Lucian, like an ancient version of Father Guido Sarducci, made mock visits to dead celebrities and conducted farcical interviews with them (you can see something of this in his interview with Homer in Book II of The True History). Menippean satire has had, largely because of Lucian, a lasting influence on English fiction, from Chaucer to Swift to Carlyle; more recent practitioners include the Irish novelist Flann O'Brien and the American Thomas Pynchon.

But what Lucian excelled at was, in a word, sheer invention. While loudly proclaiming that everything in his story was false, he set out a "true history" that opened the floodgates of fantasy and science fiction long before those genres came into their modern existence. 

You'll see Lucian's influence as well in the films of Terry Gilliam, especially in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. The idea of a "King of the Moon" who rides on a three-headed vulture and casts asparagus-stalk spears is right out of the True History -- in part, this is Gilliam's fancy, but it's also because the original tales of Baron Münchausen penned by Raspé in the Eighteenth Century were richly plagiarized from other authors, Lucian chief among them.

So plunge in! Have fun! And remember, not a word of this is true!