Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Burgess

Monday Night Links

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* 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.

* Barbarians at the Wormhole: On Anthony Burgess.

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.”

* Elmo accuser wants to retract his retraction. Hostess may survive after all.

Hostess Bankruptcy Has Worked Out Well for CEO Brian Driskoll.

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.

JSTOR provides free access to Wikipedia editors via pilot program.

* Cory Booker to live on food stamps for a week.

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!

Great Opening Sentences from Science Fiction

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io9’s playing with great opening sentences from science fiction. (More at MeFi.) Contrary to the aesthetics of io9’s list, it seems to me that the best are those which refuse to immediately announce themselves as science fiction. Here are just a few from favorite s.f. novels that I haven’t seen anywhere else (all links go to Amazon):

“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

“Mars was empty before we came.”
—Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

“On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
—Richard Matheson, I Am Legend

“What’s it going to be then, eh?”
—Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

Though what can match the quiet elegance of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed? “There was a wall.”

Unless of course it’s Octavia Butler in Dawn: “Alive!”

QUICK UPDATE: I realized too late that I’d omitted a book that should be on any list of this sort, Olaf Staledon’s Star Maker:

One night when I had tasted bitterness I went out on to the hill.

Burgess on Ballard, Apocalypse, and the Nature of Science Fiction

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Here’s Anthony Burgess writing about J. G. Ballard, apocalypse, and the nature of science fiction in his evocative introduction to the 1978 edition of The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard. Naturally I pretty strongly agree with what Burgess has to say both about the importance of science fiction in the culture and about the centrality of the apocalyptic in science fiction—check my dissertation for more on this topic, expected completion date August 2017—and I find it world-historically unfortunate that Ballard’s “restless[ness] to try new things” ultimately drove him (mostly) away from s.f.

The 21st century, after all, is already looking a lot like Ballard.

The first thing to say about J. G. Ballard is not that he is among our finest writers of science fiction but that he is among our finest writers of fiction tout court period. Ballard himself might retort that, granted the first claim, the second is redundant, since the only important fiction being produced today is science fiction (or the fiction of the untrammeled imagination, or of hypothesis, or of the metaphysical pushing to the limit of a scientific datum: unsatisfactory as it is, we always end up with science fiction). I understand that the only living writers Ballard really admires are Isaac Asimov and William Burroughs. This can be interpreted negatively as a rejection of the kind of fiction that pretends there has been no revolution in thought and sensibility since, say, 1945. And this, alas, means the greater part of contemporary fiction, which remains thematically and stylistically torpid, limiting itself, as to subject matter, to what can be observed and inferred from observation and, as to language, what might be regarded by George Eliot as a little advanced but, on the whole, perfectly intelligible. Ballard considers that the kind of limitation most contemporary fiction accepts is immortal, a shameful consequence of the rise of the bourgeois novel. Language exists less to record the actual than to liberate the imagination. To go forward, as Ballard does, is also to go back—scientific apocalypse and pre-scientific myth meet in the same creative region, where the great bourgeois novelists of tradition would not feel at home.

Ballard is a writer who accepts thematic limitations, but they are his own. His aesthetic instinct tells him that the task of the scientific fiction writer is not primarily to surprise or shock with bizarre inventions but, as with all fiction writers, to present human beings in incredible, if extreme, situations and to imagine their reactions. Ballard’s characters are creatures of the earth, not from outer space. Why devise fanciful new planets when we have our own planet, on which strange things are already happening, on which the ultimate strange happening is linked to present actualities or latencies by cause and effect? There is nothing in the evolutionary theory that denies living things that ability to develop leaden carapaces as a protection against nuclear fallout. In time, the demographic explosion will bring about not only fantastic living-space regulations but a habit of mind that sees a broom closet as a desirable residence. Man will suck up oxygen from the oceans to aerate habitats in orbit, the Atlantic will be diminished to a salt pool, and in the pool will be the final fish of the world, to be battered to death by vicious boys. A new kind of man evolves, enslaved by engines of subliminal persuasion to ever-increasing consumption. Our response to Ballard’s visions is two-fold: we reject this impossible world; we recognize that it is all too possible. The mediator between that world and this is a credible human being in a classic situation—tragical-stoical: he fights change on our behalf, but cannot win. Faulkner, in “The Overloaded Man,” comes closest to victory by devising an epistemological trick—reducing the objects of the detestable world to sense-data, turning the sense-data to ideas, then killing the ideas by killing himself.

It would be too easy to call Ballard a prophet of doom. It is not the fiction writer’s job to moralize about Man the Overreacher, in the manner of the old Faust plays. He lays down a premise and pursues a syllogism. If we do this, then that inevitably follows: choice remains free. We associates prophecies of impending damnation, anyway, with the kind of mentality that rejects all technological progress: once admit the acoustic phonograph and the internal combustion engine and you are lost. Both H. G. Wells and Aldous Huxley built their utopias (eutopias, dystopis) on unassailable scientific knowledge. Ballard’s own authority in various specialist fields seems, to this non-scientist, to be very considerable: I never see evidence of a false step in reasoning or a hypothesis untenable to an athletic enough imagination. The intellectual content of many of the stories is too stimulating for depression and so, one might add, is the unfailing grace and energy of the writing.

In my view, two of the most beautiful stories of the world canon of short fiction are to be found in this selection. They are not, in the strictest sense, science fiction stories: their premises are acceptable only in terms of storytelling as ancient as those of Homer. In “The Drowned Giant” the corpse of a colossus of classic perfection of form is washed up on the beach. Children climb into the ears and nostrils; scientists inspect it; eventually the big commercial scavengers cart it off in fragments. The idea, perhaps, is nothing, but the skill lies in the exactness of the observation and the total credibility of the imagined human response to the presence of a drowned giant. Swift, in Gulliver, evaded too many physical problems, concerned as he was with a politico-satirical intention. Ballard evades nothing except the easy moral: to say that his story means this or that is to diminish it. In “The Garden of Time” a doomed aristocrat, aptly named Axel, plucks crystalline lowers whose magic holds off for a while the advancing hordes that will destroy his castle and the civilized order it symbolizes. In an older kind of fairy story, the magic of the flowers would be potent but unspecified, vaguely apotropaic. In Ballard the flowers drug time into a brief trance—specific, and if one is a little off one’s guard, almost rationally acceptable. The rhythms of poignancy which animate both stories are masterly; Ballard is a moving writer.

There are three short pieces at the end of this selection which show Ballard moving in a new direction. His novel Crash evinces a fascination with the erotic aspects of violent death, or the thanatotic elements in Eros. These little sketches, highly original in form as well as content (though Burroughs seems to be somewhere underneath) play grim love-death games with public, or pubic, figures. They will serve as a reminder that Ballard, master of traditional narrative styles, is restless to try new things. Through him only is science fiction likely to make a formal and stylistic breakthrough of the kind achieved by Joyce, for whom Vico’s La Scienza Nuova was new science enough. That Ballard is already important literature this selection will leave you in no doubt.

Anthony Burgess
Monaco 1978

Written by gerrycanavan

July 22, 2008 at 6:52 pm

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