Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Lethem’
* The kids are all right: Last Friday night, the Harvard College Undergraduate Council announced that the student body had voted 72% in favor of Harvard University divesting its $30.7 billion endowment from fossil fuels.
The trope of invasion is doubly brilliant, first because the invasion plot is a mainstay of SF and second because the trope captures quite neatly what it must feel like for some literary intellectuals to be forced to confront the increasing cultural cachet of SF, to face its meteoric rise over the last thirty years from lowbrow genre to literary respectability. The genre now comfortably occupies university syllabi, best-of lists, and handsome Library of America editions — though some hardened highbrows might suspect its popularity is more a function of marketing than of quality.
For all its brilliance, Clowes’s trope of invasion makes an important mistake, failing to note that the invasion is largely moving in the other direction. After all, one wouldn’t expect Asimov’s Science Fiction to run a special issue featuring “literary fiction,” but publications like the New Yorker apparently do feel the need for a science fiction issue, perhaps trying to freshen themselves up by tapping into the unruly energies of a disreputable genre. Indeed, the lure of the so-called low genres — and SF in particular — has long proven irresistible to those who otherwise fashion themselves as literary types, at least since Kingsley Amis’s classic 1960 study of the genre, New Maps of Hell.
Clowes’s New Yorker cover is, in fact, a perfect example in miniature of the subgenre Amis called the “comic inferno” — humorous dystopias such as those written by Frederick Pohl, C.M. Kornbluth, and Robert Sheckley. This subgenre, by Amis’s account, mocks ideas of progress in its humorous rendition of dystopian futures. What is dystopian about Clowes’s comic cover is very precisely that SF cannot be ignored, that it disrupts the bourgeois regularity and comfort that informs the imagination of hypothetical readers of The New Yorker. The genre — which always bears with it the threatening knowledge that the world might change inexorably, beyond human control, or at least beyond the control of those who are humanistically inclined — cannot be ignored, because the signs of our world’s deepening state of crisis (political, technological, environmental) cannot be ignored.
* Bonus: “Anthony Burgess Answers Two Questions” by Jonathan Lethem.
* Not only are student loans not a burden on the federal government, they’re a good investment. In 2012 the DOW estimated its subsidy for student lending at -17 percent. In other words, the DOE “subsidies” actually represent money coming in. Including all expenses, from loses on defaults to debt collection to program administration, the DOE will pull in more than $25 billion in profit from student lending this year alone—billions more dollars than the IRS will assess in gift and estate taxes combined, and more than enough to pay NASA’s whole budget. The DOE explains the negative subsidy through a divergence between “the Government’s borrowing rate and the interest rate at which borrowers repay their loans.” After all, no one can borrow at lower rate than the U.S. Treasury, certainly not college students and their families. Bondholders aren’t the only ones who think student debtors—including defaulters—will pay back every cent they owe, with interest. The government is literally counting on it.
* The headline reads, “Charges dropped against man arrested for wearing an elaborate wristwatch.”
This is not identical to the story with the American Airlines bankruptcy, but there’s something similar about it. There the CEO gets a large payday if he can avoid a merger, regardless of the value for the enterprise.
* The handwriting is on the wall. Until Republican candidates figure out how to perform better among non-white voters, especially Hispanics and Asians, Republican presidential contenders will have an extraordinarily difficult time winning presidential elections from this point forward.
* My name is R______. I am six years old. I think it’s not fair to only have 5 girls in Guess Who and 19 boys. It is not only boys who are important, girls are important too. If grown ups get into thinking that girls are not important they won’t give little girls much care.
* Remixed trailer of the moment: Gotham High.
* And a new game: impressions of Sean Connery as Gandalf. Oh, what might have been!
UPDATE: A Twitter conversation spawned by the article, minus the @_machinic_ quotes that aren’t public that make the stupid thing readable: Twitter v. The Wire v. Climate Change.
The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.
(alternate title: Valances of the Dialectic)
Jonathan Lethem has a rather strange but oddly compelling essay in the Believer in which he endeavors to figure postmodernism as Liberty Valance.
Soft Skull has a new book series called Deep Focus, each a long essay on the importance of a particular work of art; I mention this only because the first in the series will be written by Jonathan Lethem about They Live.
I’m part of the year-end Independent Weekly “What Our Writers Are Reading” feature this week, with capsule reviews of Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City, and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Galileo’s Dream. Here’s the takeaway ‘graph from the Robinson review:
In both genre and mainstream literary fiction, America’s vision of its future has been dominated for decades by dystopia and apocalypse. Robinson is perhaps the last, best utopian in American letters, unapologetically crafting in his novels visions of the better world that he believes can still emerge, through struggle, out of this one. Individual lives, he writes in The Years of Rice and Salt, always end with the tragedy of death; it’s only in the long history of collective struggle, over lifetimes, that we can hope to find the possibility of comedy, of happy endings. (As Martin Luther King put the same idea: “The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”) The first principle for Robinson, King and any other citizen of Utopia is not just the belief that a better future is possible but the conviction that the dream of the future can help us save the present; in the two-millennial span and twisting grandfather paradoxes of Galileo’s Dream, that political and philosophical commitment is made, for the first time in Robinson’s long career, spellbindingly literal.
Dollhouse, Flashforward, and a few SF links.
* Both Dollhouse tonight and Flashforward yesterday were noticeable improvements over a string of weak episodes, but problems persist. On Flashforward, the characters remain essentially interchangeable ciphers, with almost no tension or mystery surrounding their relationships or their individual participation in these events. (This is perhaps the one area where the show really should have cribbed more from Lost.) But the tease that China may have been involved is a nicely paranoid reading of the disastrous consequences of the Flashforward for the Western hemisphere and a clever post-9/11 twist on the novel, which has no such subplot—and the connection of the isolated L.A. office to a larger investigatory framework has been much needed. And the episode was just more fun.
The Sierra episode of Dollhouse was good, but I can’t help feeling as though the show is being quietly retooled yet again; the actions of most of these characters just aren’t commensurate with either half of last season. In particular, most of last season was devoted to a multi-episode arc in which the Dollhouse staff struggled to stop the dolls from “glitching”—but now the exact same glitches are considered perfectly acceptable to everyone involved. Echo is allowed to openly discuss her newfound continuity of memory without consequence or even particular interest from the staff, while Victor and Sierra are apparently now allowed to openly date. What has happened to account for this radical shift in Dollhouse policy? Dr. Saunders’s disappearance and the generally chaotic atmosphere that plagues the Dollhouse week to week should incentivize them to keep a closer eye on the dolls, not give them freer reign.
Likewise, the idea in the episode that the Dollhouse staff had been “misled” about Priya’s situation—a fairly clear attempt to retcon one of the characters’ most heinous crimes—doesn’t really hold up to scrutiny; patients in mental institutions can’t consent to secret medical experimentation (or, for that matter, sex slavery) any more than kidnapped women can. There’s no excusing what’s been done to Priya either way, and that Topher supposedly believed he was somehow “helping” her barely qualifies as a fig leaf. I think I preferred the harder edge of Original Recipe Adelle and Topher 1.0.
Other things rankle, too. The violent final scenes in the Evil Client’s House are well-acted, but the sequence of events makes little sense outside the heat of the moment. What did Priya and Topher think was going to happen, and why were they so utterly unprepared for what obviously would? Topher would have given her a ninja update at the very least.
Seeing so much praise for this episode from critics and the Twittotubes just shows again how badly people want this show to be better than it really is. I’m still enjoying Dollhouse, but abandoning the 2019 arc and failing to sign Amy Acker as a regular are starting to look like fatal flaws for the series. Even an heavily hyped episode that (for once) didn’t focus on Echo doesn’t compare to last season’s stellar second half (1.6-1.11 and 1.13). I hope the upcoming focus on Senator Wyndham-Price and the inevitable introduction of Summer Glau help pick things up.
No new episodes until December, in any event.
* Harlan Ellison has won $1 from Paramount Pictures in his suit regarding Star Trek‘s “The City on the Edge of Forever.” In fairness, $1 was all he asked for.
* Christopher Hayes reviews Ralph Nader’s “practical Utopia,” Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!.
* And Gregory Cowles reviews Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City for the New York Times.
Lethem’s Manhattan is an alternate-reality Manhattan, an exaggerated version where an escaped tiger is rumored to be roaming the Upper East Side and Times readers can opt for a “war-free” edition dominated by fluffy human-interest stories. Instead of terrorist attacks, an enervating gray fog has descended on the financial district and remained there for years, hovering mysteriously. (Mysterious to the novel’s characters, anyway; investigators may want to subpoena DeLillo’s airborne toxic event.)
Not to take away from his verdict on the 20th century: Ballard’s a bard of techno-anomie, of late-capitalist disaffection, and his writings are just the tonic if your local cloverleaf traffic jam or gated community or global warming harbinger has got you feeling out of sorts. But it’s precisely his grounding in deeper undercurrents of cosmic-existentialist wonder that give that tonic its fizz. His is the voice reminding you not to take the postmodern hangover too personally: it was always going to happen this way.
Jonathan Lethem eulogizes J.G. Ballard in The New York Times Book Review.
Friend of the show Jonathan Lethem returns to SF with his new novel, Chronic City.
* Startling: 50% of people think women should be legally required to take their husbands’ names. Watch out, most married woman under forty I know! They’re coming for you.
* Jonathan Lethem talks to The Jewish Daily Forward about the greatness of Philip K. Dick.
* AMC greenlights zombie series. Sounds promising. Between this and Red Mars AMC is making a strong push for my particular demographic.
* As of tonight, Microsoft can no longer sell Word.
* Another Battlestar reboot? Already? Really?
* And Ze gets philosophical.
You partake in a medical experiment. In the experiment you are given one of two pills. You don’t know which one until after you take it. One shortens your life by 10 years, and the other lengthens your life by 10 years. You have just found out which pill you took. The question is: which pill do you think will increase the quality of your life the most? Would one make you change the way you live your life more than the other?
Jonathan Lethem on the squandered promise of science fiction. Here’s a taste:
Other obstacles to acceptance remain hidden in the culture of SF, ambushes on a road no one’s taking. Along with being a literary genre or mode, SF is also an ideological site. Anyone who’s visited is familiar with the home truths: that the colonization of space is desirable; that rationalism will prevail over superstition; that cyberspace has the potential to transform individual and collective consciousness. Tangling with this inheritance has resulted in work of genius – Barry Malzberg tarnishing the allure of astronautics, J. G. Ballard gleefully unraveling the presumption that technology extends from rationalism, James Tiptree Jr. (nee Alice Sheldon) replacing the body and its instincts in an all too disembodied discourse. But the pressure against heresy can be surprisingly strong, reflecting the emotional hunger for solidarity in marginalized groups. For SF can also function as a clubhouse, where members share the resentments of the excluded and a defensive fondness for stories which thrived in 12-year-old imaginations but shrivel on first contact with adult brains. In its unqualified love for its own junk stratum, SF may be as postmodern as Frederic Jameson’s dreams, but it’s also as sentimental about itself as an Elks lodge or a family.
I’ve been blogging for a few years now, and over that time I’ve linked to Philip K. Dick related material a whole lot of times. Here, in honor of reading Dr. Bloodmoney this week, are just a few PKD highlights, all to the glory of the man Fredric Jameson once called “the Shakespeare of science fiction”:
* “How to Build a Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later.” In some ways this is the definitive PKD essay, and it’s the one referenced somewhat famously at the end of Waking Life. [+/-]
It was always my hope, in writing novels and stories which asked the question “What is reality?”, to someday get an answer. This was the hope of most of my readers, too. Years passed. I wrote over thirty novels and over a hundred stories, and still I could not figure out what was real. One day a girl college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.
But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into the heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener. Sometimes when I watch my eleven-year-old daughter watch TV, I wonder what she is being taught. The problem of miscuing; consider that. A TV program produced for adults is viewed by a small child. Half of what is said and done in the TV drama is probably misunderstood by the child. Maybe it’s all misunderstood. And the thing is, Just how authentic is the information anyhow, even if the child correctly understood it? What is the relationship between the average TV situation comedy to reality? What about the cop shows? Cars are continually swerving out of control, crashing, and catching fire. The police are always good and they always win. Do not ignore that point: The police always win. What a lesson that is. You should not fight authority, and even if you do, you will lose. The message here is, Be passive. And—cooperate. If Officer Baretta asks you for information, give it to him, because Officer Beratta is a good man and to be trusted. He loves you, and you should love him.
So I ask, in my writing, What is real? Because unceasingly we are bombarded with pseudo-realities manufactured by very sophisticated people using very sophisticated electronic mechanisms. I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing. It is my job to create universes, as the basis of one novel after another. And I have to build them in such a way that they do not fall apart two days later. Or at least that is what my editors hope. However, I will reveal a secret to you: I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos. There should be more of it. Do not believe—and I am dead serious when I say this—do not assume that order and stability are always good, in a society or in a universe. The old, the ossified, must always give way to new life and the birth of new things. Before the new things can be born the old must perish. This is a dangerous realization, because it tells us that we must eventually part with much of what is familiar to us. And that hurts. But that is part of the script of life. Unless we can psychologically accommodate change, we ourselves begin to die, inwardly. What I am saying is that objects, customs, habits, and ways of life must perish so that the authentic human being can live. And it is the authentic human being who matters most, the viable, elastic organism which can bounce back, absorb, and deal with the new.
Of course, I would say this, because I live near Disneyland, and they are always adding new rides and destroying old ones. Disneyland is an evolving organism. For years they had the Lincoln Simulacrum, like Lincoln himself, was only a temporary form which matter and energy take and then lose. The same is true of each of us, like it or not.
* Another great essay at Grey Lodge Occult Review: “If You Find This World Bad, You Should See Some of the Others.”
We are accustomed to supposing that all change takes place along the linear time axis: from past to present to future. The present is an accrual of the past and is different from it. The future will accrue from the present on and be different yet. That an orthogonal or right-angle time axis could exist, a lateral domain in which change takes place — processes occuring sideways in reality, so to speak — this is almost impossible to imagine. How would we perceive such lateral changes? What would we experience? What clues — if we are trying to test out this bizarre theory — should we be on the alert for? In other words, how can change take place outside of linear time at all, in any sense, to any degree?
Interviewer: What did you think of Vonnegut’s attitude towards his characters (in Breakfast of Champions)?
PKD: Disgusting and an abomination. I think that that book is an incredible drying up of the liquid sap of life in the veins of a person like a dead tree…that’s what I think. I also love Kurt Vonnegut.
(cross-posted at culturemonkey)
I’m actually still catching up from the weekend, so that “return to full strength” I mentioned will probably have to wait until later this afternoon or Tuesday morning. Still, I have been saving up some links:
* Be warned: delicious Coca-Cola will destroy your kidneys.
* Via Pandagon, Pittsburgh man Tasered in his own home while sleeping on his own couch.
Police Chief Henry Wiehagen said the officers would not comment, but he disputed Hicks’ version of events.
Hicks wasn’t asleep, Wiehagen said, he was on the couch prone. The officers could not be certain he was unarmed and Hicks “didn’t respond to their reasonable commands,” he said.
“These policemen are very cautious and I don’t blame them for being cautious,” Wiehagen said, noting officers in his department have been shot at.
* Mini-Obama Endorsement Watch: Toni Morrison, who famously proclaimed in 1998 that Bill Clinton was “our first black president. Blacker than any actual person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,” endorses Barack Obama.
Jonathan Lethem, probably the best living writer with whom I’ve had personal correspondence (sorry Kurt), has a new story in the New Yorker this week: “The King of Sentences.”
We disparaged modern and incomplete forms: gormless and garbled jargon, graffiti, advertising, text-messaging. No sentence conveyed by photons or bounced off satellites had ever come home intact. Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and Biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood? Sentences were bodies, too, as horny as the flesh-envelopes we wore around the house all day. Erotically enjambed in our loft bed, Clea patrolled my utterances for subject, verb, predicate, as a chef in a five-star kitchen would minister a recipe, insuring that a soufflé or sourdough would rise. A good brave sentence (“I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring”) might jolly Clea to instant climax. We’d rise from the bed giggling, clutching for glasses of cold water that sat in pools of their own sweat on bedside tables. The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, we were also sure that sentences of the right quality could end this hideous endless war, if only certain standards were adopted at the higher levels. They never would be. All the media trumpeted the Administration’s lousy grammar.
Before I found out Jonathan Lethem was going to write a relaunch of Omega the Unknown, I’d never heard of him. After reading the first issue, I feel like I still don’t really understand what’s going on—but I’m intrigued enough to pick up #2 and see where it goes. Omega the Unknown seems like an almost-too-perfect fit for Lethem; it’s essentially giving him the chance to rewrite Fortress of Solitude as an actual comic, which is of course both a good and a bad thing.