Archive for the ‘Remembering’ category

A Personal List of the 20 Best Science-Fiction Novels

October 7, 2022

Often the internet seems like a collection of lists: the 100 best pop-songs, the 15 worst scams, and all the rest.  People seem to respond to numbered compilations.

In the science-fiction realm, I’ve read quite a few lists about some aspect of “best”, whether of this year, or by women authors, or the most technologically significant.

In the end, they are all personal lists – usually one person’s idea and often displaying whatever social correctness we are supposed to elevate.

This is my list, based on an admittedly incomplete sampling, although over quite a few decades.  Many of them were written in the 1950s through 1960s, which to me is the bedrock of modern science-fiction.  You can’t really understand where science-fiction is today without recognizing the immense talent that preceded the current flowering of the genre and its many brilliant authors.

If you were to read the novels mentioned here, I feel you could only come away with a deep appreciation for the wonder and otherness that science-fiction seeks to portray.

Such is the depth of the field that many variations of this list are possible.  This particular one though has stories that touched me on many different levels, and I think still could for anyone who reads them anew.

As I went through these titles, I was struck hard again by the sweep of imagination of the authors.  The daring.

A few of the entries below are trilogies or series, but in my mind those are one big novel.

I will go through them chronologically.

1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley

I was hard-pressed whether to select this dystopian novel, published in 1932, or George Orwell’s later take on the same theme, 1984.  I read them both in a log cabin in northern British Columbia in the 1960s as an impressionable boy.  They served to make me deeply suspicious of all forms of authority.

BNWIn the end, Huxley’s novel is the more menacing of the two.  While 1984 portrays overwhelming brutality against the individual by the state, in Brave New World people are effectively seduced to accept their utter servitude. As Huxley stated in a letter to Orwell:

“Within the next generation I believe that the world’s rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”

2. Foundation Trilogy, Isaac Asimov

Set against a backdrop of galactic empire, the psychohistorian Hari Seldon founds a secretive branch of mathematical sociology.  It enables him to predict the future of large populations, and through it, he predicts the fall of the empire.  He foresees a new Dark Age lasting 30,000 years, but through his new discipline, he endeavours to slightly deflect for the better the onrushing series of events.  In later millenia he appears as a kind of hologram, although long dead, to help guide what happens, due to his calculations.

FoundationI still remember holding the hard-back volumes of this intriguing story by Isaac Asimov which began with the trilogy from 1951 onward, eventually extending to more volumes in the 1980s.  I read it several times during my teenage years.  Hari Seldon was an amazing character to me.  Foundation won the one-time Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966.

Of course Isaac Asimov was one of the most famous of science-fiction writers, with work ranging from the I, Robot series to the novel The Caves of Steel.

3. Childhood’s End, Arthur C. Clarke

The human race is about to enter a new phase.  At the end of this poignant story, published in 1953, we come to understand that children are undergoing a transformation.  They are metamorphosing into something that transcends human existence.  The facilitators of this change are a tragic alien race who peacefully invaded Earth.

CEThe aliens are only caretakers of the human race while it undergoes the transformation into something spiritually superior.  What has been the human race will be no more.

The English author, Arthur C. Clarke was a writer, futurist and inventor who also wrote the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other novels such as Rendezvous with Rama.  He was a well-known proponent of space travel. 

I remember him also for short stories such as The Nine Billion Names of God, where Tibetan monks strive to encode all the possible names of God.  They believe the universe was created for this purpose.  They need modern technology to complete their task, and enlist the expertise of two Westerners.  As the monks complete their long mission, “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.” 

4. More Than Human, Theodore Sturgeon

A novel about six misfits, each with a strange power, who come together after many tribulations to form a new kind of human being, homo gestalt, a whole of combined consciousness.

MoreThe story, published in 1953, was praised by some reviewers for “its crystal-clear prose, its intense human warmth and its depth of psychological probing.”

Others said the novel “transcends its own terms and becomes Sturgeon’s greatest statement of one of his obsessive themes, loneliness and how to cure it.”

Sturgeon also coined “Sturgeons Law”: “Ninety percent of science fiction is crud, but then, ninety percent of everything is crud.”

5. The Kraken Wakes, John Wyndham

Another novel from 1953, this apocalyptic story begins with a journalist and his wife observing the fall of mysterious objects into the ocean.

Kraken

The story has three sections: the first where the aliens arrive and do mysterious underwater things, the second when the aliens attack in “sea tanks” that send out sticky tentacles and drag people into the water, and the third where the aliens raise the sea level and change the climate, and civilization collapses. This all takes place over many years.

A professorial third character with considerable insight tries to warn everyone about what may happen, but is widely ignored due to his alienating manner.

Even by the end of the novel, nobody ever sees the aliens.

Reviewers praised the novel as “a solid and admirable story of small-scale human reactions to vast terror.”

John Wyndham, a British author, also wrote The Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids, among other notable works.

6. A Canticle for Liebowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.

Published in 1959 and winning the Hugo Award for best science-fiction novel in 1961, this story covers a post-apocalyptic period of thousands of years. The apocalypse was occasioned by nuclear holocaust.

In the 26th century, Brother Francis Gerard of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz of the Catholic Church is on a vigil in the Utah desert. Brother Francis discovers the entrance to an ancient fallout shelter containing “relics”, such as a 20th-century shopping list which becomes sanctified as a holy remnant of an ancient world. The Church persists as the preserver of civilization.

Canticle

The novel has been subject to considerable literary and critical analysis. In other words, it came to be treated with respect outside the science-fiction genre.

The novel is structured in three parts separated by six hundred years. This book was my first exposure to any model of cultural history. In Miller’s own words from another work: “All societies go through three phases…. First there is the struggle to integrate in a hostile environment. Then, after integration, comes an explosive expansion of the culture-conquest…. Then a withering of the mother culture, and the rebellious rise of young cultures.”

In the end, this cyclical process catches up, in a tragic way, to all that humanity hopes to accomplish.

7. The High Crusade, Poul Anderson

When an extraterrestrial scout ship lands in medieval England, it is encountered by a knight recruiting a force to help Edward III in the Hundred Years War against France. It seems the aliens have forgotten how to do hand-to-hand combat, and Sir Roger and his men capture the ship.

High

The whole set-up still makes me grin. Sir Roger and company think the ship is a French trick. The local villagers finish off the rest of the alien force, except for one, and join the soldiers in the ship. Sir Roger determines to go to France to win the war and then liberate the Holy Land.

With the grudging aid of the last alien, representing a tyrannical empire bent on invading Earth, they take off. The alien misleads the Englishmen and the ship actually heads off towards another of the alien empire’s worlds. Adventures ensue.

The prolific Poul Anderson was one of the great science fiction authors. His books were nominated for seven Hugo and three Nebula awards. The High Crusade was published in 1960. Anderson also wrote such novels as There Will Be Time (1972) and The Boat of A Million Years (1989).

8. Dark Universe, Daniel Galouye

Another post-nuclear-apocalypse novel, Dark Universe from 1961 finds survivors retreated underground, where they live in total darkness.

Dark UniSince the survivors have no visual ideas of Light and Darkness, the concepts become religious. They believe that the Light Almighty banished humankind from Paradise during a conflict with the demon, Radiation, and his two lieutenants, Cobalt and Strontium.

Jared is the son of the leader of the survivors who use click-stones and echoes to navigate the darkness. Jared goes on a quest for Darkness and Light and encounters another clan of survivors who use infrared to get around.

Galouye creates an ingenious world, which in the end is redeemed by the Light. Many have noted the resemblance of the story to Plato’s allegory of the cave.

The novel was nominated for a Hugo in 1962, but lost out to the next novel in this list.

9. Stranger in A Strange Land, Robert Heinlein

This is the story of Michael Valentine Smith, born on Mars and raised by Martians, who comes to Earth and encounters the United States after World War III, where religions are powerful.

He becomes a celebrity and his presence begins to transform human society. He exhibits psychic abilities and superhuman intelligence, while having a kind of open-minded innocence.

However, his appearance and actions on Earth shake the political and cultural balance and his life becomes in danger.

According to Wikipedia, Heinlein named his main character “Smith” because of a speech he made at a science fiction convention regarding the unpronounceable names assigned to extraterrestrials.

Stranger

He also was to write about the novel, “I was not giving answers. I was trying to shake the reader loose from some preconceptions and induce him to think for himself, along new and fresh lines.”

It became the first science-fiction novel to enter The New York Times Book Review‘s best-seller list.

During the 1960s, the book became a countercultural favorite, not least for the word “grok” which took on the meaning of a coming together of subject and object that can’t always be articulated. When you grok something, you not only understand it, you become, in some sense, a part of it, and it, a part of you.

10. The Immortals, James Gunn

Published in 1962 and incorporating several previously published stories, this is the chronicle of a small group of immortals surviving on the edge of a dystopian society which is striving to hunt them down.

Immortals

They are living fountains-of-youth, due to a genetic mutation, whose blood can make others immortal too (if replenished every month).

As one reviewer on Goodreads notes: “…The Immortals opens with scenes that could almost come from a crime novel rather than a science fiction story. Private detectives are hired, people are on the run, evil rich men will do anything to get what they want, no one can be trusted.”

I remember it for its thriller-like excitement and the tense pacing of its writing.

James Gunn, who only recently died in 2020, was a well-known professor of English and promoter of science-fiction as a humanistic endeavour at the University of Kansas.

11. Cities In Flight series, James Blish

This four book series was published from 1950 to 1962, but the one that sticks with me most was A Life For the Stars from 1962.

The premise is that entire cities from Earth fly among the stars using an anti-gravity device called the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, or spindizzy for short.

Cities_in_Flight

The spindizzy allowed some cities to escape the oppression of a tyrannical regime on Earth and look for work among the other denizens of the galaxy.

The 1962 book describes the rise of 16-year-old Chris Deford who eventually becomes the city manager of New York City as it wanders through the cosmos.

These are stories for which the term “space opera” was invented.

The American writer James Blish also wrote a series of Star Trek novelizations and the Hugo Award winning A Case of Conscience in 1959.

12. Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak

As a lonely teenager, there was something about this story of a young man managing a way station for time travelers that resonated with me. The young man, Enoch, stays the same age while those in the normal world around him get older, and this gets difficult to explain after a while. Originally he is a Civil War veteran.

Way

Eventually after a hundred years or so, the US Government takes an interest and a CIA agent is sent to investigate him. This is the beginning of many adventures.

Published in 1963, the book went on to win the 1964 Hugo Award for best novel.

Clifford Simak had an unique, warm style of writing.

He once stated:

“Overall, I have written in a quiet manner; there is little violence in my work. My focus has been on people, not on events. More often than not I have struck a hopeful note… I have, on occasions, tried to speak out for decency and compassion, for understanding, not only in the human, but in the cosmic sense. I have tried at times to place humans in perspective against the vastness of universal time and space. I have been concerned where we, as a race, may be going, and what may be our purpose in the universal scheme….”

In 2019, Netflix announced plans, so far unfulfilled, to make a movie based on the book.

13. White Lotus, John Hersey

Here is a writer from the literary mainstream who created one of the best alternative history novels that I’ve come across. Some might call it speculative fiction, or other terms to make it more respectable, but it is still science-fiction to me.

In this 1965 novel, white Americans have become enslaved by the Chinese and are now a subservient race. The story follows a young Arizona girl renamed White Lotus.

White Lotus

In the memorable prologue of the story, White Lotus raises one knee and stands on the other foot to take the posture of a sleeping bird, in an effort to shame the Chinese governor as a non-violent protest against tyrannical treatment.

Her simple act of standing before her captors on one leg, head bowed like a sleeping bird becomes an often repeated act of nonviolent civil disobedience, an unconventional act in the spirit of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King.

John Hersey was born in China, the son of Protestant missionaries, and learned to speak Chinese before he learned English.

As a journalist, his account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, celebrated for its thoughtful and horrified humanity, was judged the finest piece of journalism of the 20th Century by a 36-person panel associated with New York University.

Hersey’s first novel, A Bell for Adano, about the Allied occupation of a Sicilian town during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel in 1945.

14. Ubik, Phillip K. Dick

Phillip Dick was a strange and volatile man. He is now celebrated for the movie adaptations of such writings as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner) and The Minority Report (Minority Report).

He had a hallucinogenic view of reality fed in part by actual hallucinogens.

But as Wikipedia points out:

Ubik

“His fiction explored varied philosophical and social questions such as the nature of reality, perception, human nature, and identity, and commonly featured characters struggling against elements such as alternate realities, illusory environments, monopolistic corporations, drug abuse, authoritarian governments, and altered states of consciousness.”

His 1969 novel Ubik illustrates much of this. In it psychic powers are used by corporations for business espionage, and cryonic technology preserves recently deceased people in hibernation.

It follows Joe Chip, a technician at a psychic agency who, after an assassination attempt, begins to experience strange alterations in reality that can be temporarily reversed by a mysterious store-bought substance called Ubik.

15. The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula Le Guin

In this 1971 novel, a man wakes up one morning and discovers that his dreams have the ability to alter reality. 

From this simple and imaginative premise, Le Guin devises a tale about a man who goes to a psychiatrist about his problem. The psychiatrist understands immediately the power his patient wields.

Lathe

At one point the protagonist dreams of aliens who become a reality.

The patient finally understands that he must preserve reality itself as the psychiatrist becomes adept at manipulating the man’s dreams for his own purposes.

Of course Le Guin is famous for many of her thoughtful, culturally significant novels, including The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness and the Earthsea trilogy. She also wrote much non-fiction, including essays about her craft, which I found quite inspiring (Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story).

16. The Sheep Look Up, John Brunner

This novel from 1972 is the third in what has been called British author Brunner’s near future “Club of Rome Quartet.” The Sheep Look Up concerned itself with consumerism and rampant pollution. Stand On Zanzibar was about overpopulation, The Jagged Orbit concerned itself with racial tension and violence, and the later The Shockwave Rider dealt with technology and future shock.

Sheep

As much as I admire these books and Brunner, they often now seem outdated, surpassed by actual events. But his prescience in many cases was spot-on. In Shockwave Rider from 1975, for instance, he created a computer hacker hero before anyone even heard of such a thing.

In The Sheep Look Up, water pollution is so severe that “don’t drink” notices are frequently issued. Household water filters are popular items. Air pollution has reached the point that people in urban areas can’t go outside without wearing masks. The fumes left behind by aircraft are such that it causes air sickness in planes trailing behind. California is blanketed by a thick layer of smog that prevents the sun from shining through. Acid rain forces people to cover themselves in plastic so that their clothes don’t get ruined. The sea has become so polluted and the beaches so strewn with garbage, that people now vacation in the mountains. (Not so far-fetched, no?)

It follows several characters over the course of a year as their paths intertwine while they struggle to cope with the drastic changes in the environment, and as the United States starts to collapse under the weight of pollution. It is a pessimistic novel redeemed for me by its somewhat experimental structure, and the density of its ideas and insights about our world’s problems.

17. Lord Valentine’s Castle, Robert Silverberg

Robert Silverberg is one of my favorite science-fiction authors for the excellence of his writing, the philosophical cast of his mind, and his tendency towards themes of transcendence.

He is more celebrated for earlier novels such as A Time of Changes, The World Inside, and Downward to the Earth, deservedly so, but for some reason this novel sticks with me more.

Lord Val

Lord Valentine’s Castle (1980), part of what is known as the Majipoor Series, incorporates aliens, galactic empire, descendants of colonists, lords, castles and wizards to become that odd genre creature, science fantasy.

The story takes place on the gigantic planet Majipoor. It is about ten times the size of Earth, with cities often housing as many as 10-20 billion citizens. We follow a young man named Valentine who suffers from amnesia and who joins a troupe of jugglers during celebrations for the ascension of a new Coronal, the emperor of this planet, also named Valentine (which is said to be a very common name).

Gradually, we learn that the juggling Valentine has been robbed of most of his memories, and has had his true body stolen from him. He is the rightful Coronal of Majipoor.

The planet of Majipoor becomes another character in the narrative. It is full of people, creatures, machines, alien races and interesting locations.

This straightforward, in many ways, adventure story exhibits Silverberg’s wonderful writing craftsmanship.

18. Plague Year Trilogy, Jeff Carlson

Microscopic machines designed to fight cancer instead go awry and begin to disassemble warm-blooded tissue to make more of themselves. Eventually the human body succumbs to the onslaught of the spore-like machines. They spread like a virus by way of bodily fluids and through the air.

Plague

Either on purpose or as a design flaw, the nanovirus is limited by altitude, namely 10,000 feet. All warm-blooded animals are killed below that elevation, while humanity retreats to high places.

With thriller-like pacing, the Plague Year trilogy (begun in 2007) portrays humanity in extremis with two key characters struggling to survive and turn the tide. Over the three volumes, with Plague War in 2008, and Plague Zone in 2009, we are taken on a remarkable adventure. Cam, a ski bum with full emergency medical training and an impressive talent for survival, and Ruth, a genius capable of manipulating and designing nanotech together fight to save the world.

In 2008, Plague War was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

Sadly, Jeff Carlson died in 2017 of cancer at only 48 years old.

19. The Passage Trilogy, Justin Cronin

Justin Cronin, another author from the literary mainstream, wrote The Passage, 2010, The Twelve, 2012, and The City of Mirrors, 2016, after his daughter asked him to write a book about a “girl who saves the world.”

Passage

These are books slightly hard to define in that they straddle the intersection of the science-fiction, horror and fantasy genres. Some blithely describe them as novels about vampires, which are a major element, but this categorization does an injustice to the depth of the writing, characterizations and story.

I was swept away by the quality of the writing. One reviewer said of the trilogy, “There is a sense as you read this series that you are witnessing the creation of a modern classic.”

Colonies of humans attempt to live in a world filled with superhuman creatures who are continually on the hunt for fresh blood. It all starts when an abandoned young girl named Amy becomes an unwitting test subject in an attempt to use an ancient Bolivian virus to create a perfect super soldier. The virus may be the source of the vampire myth. That young girl goes on after many harrowing adventures to eventually fulfill Cronin’s daughter’s wish.

The reviewer quoted above also writes: “The scope of the trilogy is staggering at times. We see characters grow from scared kids to brave heroes, going on to become parents, then grandparents, then legends.”

20. The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam

This trilogy has been described as a “postcyberpunk thriller”. The three volumes, Nexus, Crux, and Apex were written by their American author (born in Egypt) from 2012-15.

Set in 2040, the hero Kaden Lane is a scientist who works on an experimental nano-drug, Nexus, which allows the brain to be programmed and networked, connecting human minds together. As he pursues his work, governments and corporations take an interest and begin to threaten.

Nexus

Near the beginning of the trilogy genetically enhanced supersoldiers become vegetarians and pacifists after being dosed with Nexus and realizing first-hand the suffering caused by their actions. At the same time, sociopaths dose with Nexus so they can feel the pain they inflict on others.

At the climax of the final book a distributed intelligence made up of thousands of Nexus-linked humans tries to save the world by healing a posthuman AI goddess who was tortured into madness by her near-sighted human captors.

I was enthralled by the books. The pacing and events are definitely that of a thriller, while the wild possibilities of computer-brain interfaces, and linked human consciousness, are explored in depth.

In Conclusion

This was a sentimental journey back to considering many of these novels, although their worth is much more, I would argue, than pure nostalgia.

I did realize one insight as a result of doing this. The force of thinking and feeling realized in Emerson’s and Thoreau’s transcendentalism, that quest for the true and transcendent in our lives, has gone largely dormant in our culture. But I believe that in not a few of the science-fiction novels noted here, that quest reappears to evocatively light up the minds of talented writers. It has been expressed through narratives which include aliens and galactic empires, and stories about dreams and reality and the nature of consciousness.

It is amusing to reflect on the possibility that the best of Emerson and Thoreau lives on through science-fiction.

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Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

November 21, 2021

The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, by James Hillman, Ballantine Books, 1996
The Winged Life: The Poetic Voice of Henry David Thoreau, by Robert Bly, Sierra Club Books, 1986, republished by Harper Collins, 1992
Ensouling Language: On the Art of Non-Fiction and the Writer’s Life, by Stephen Harrod Buhner, Inner Traditions, 2010
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I often have the sense that the part of me that struggles with writing is a self different than the everyday one that goes grocery shopping or the self that tries to charm my wife.  (This latter effort usually fails and all my selves, and hers, have a good laugh about it.)

I think of that crazy man and mystic G.I. Gurdjieff in this connection.  Gurdjieff, of Armenian and Greek descent, was born in what was Russia at the time.  He became a philosopher, a mystic, a composer, and a wanderer both geographical and spiritual.   As a spiritual teacher, he used methods including shock, music, dance, and hard labor to induce self-confrontation in his followers.  Although he died just after WWII, his writings and students continued to have influence.  There’s an interesting article from 1979 worth looking at in The New York Times upon the occasion of a preview of the feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men, about his life.  It gives the flavor of the man and his teachings.

Here is a relevant quote from Gurdjieff:

“One of man’s most important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I. … Try to understand that what you usually call ‘I’ is not I; there are many ‘I’s’ and each ‘I’ has a different wish.”

The writer Buster Benson makes a similar observation.  “We are better understood as a collection of minds in a single body rather than having one mind per body.”

(If you want to explore even more down this weird road, into one of the odder varieties of human consciousness, check out the “tulpamancers” described in an article in the journal Narratively.)

So to return to Gurdjieff’s formulation, the wish of my writing self is to conjure with words the closest, truest representations of the world and my experience of it that I can manage.  This is something I inarticulately feel strongly I have to attempt.  The act of trying to do so sets it apart from the rest of my selves, and it becomes a kind of identity.

These three books, each in its own way, have made this aspect of me sit up and take notice. I intend to write a post – part reflection, part review – on each of them after this introduction.

The first, The Soul’s Code by James Hillman, is a book I often came across, years ago, browsing in bookshops, but never really felt attracted to until recently.  Hillman, who died in 2011, was lauded as the most important American psychologist since William James

Deeply influenced by the psychology of Carl Jung, he went beyond it in incisive ways.  He founded a movement called archetypal psychology which, as others have pointed out, would be more accurately described as imaginal psychology, due to the importance he places on the imagination in the formation of our human reality.  His ideas are actually quite subversive to the usual run of thinking about our place in the world.  In The Soul’s Code, he proclaims the primacy in our lives of the “acorn” — all people already hold the potential for the unique possibilities inside themselves, much as an acorn holds the pattern for an oak tree.

The second book, The Winged Life, by the poet Robert Bly, is a commentary and examination of the writings of transcendentalist and naturalist Henry David Thoreau.  “He believed that the young man or young woman should give up tending the machine of civilization and instead farm the soul.”

Bly also refers to Ralph Waldo Emerson, that older fellow traveler of Thoreau’s, and his understanding: “…All mean egotism vanishes.  I become a transparent eyeball.”  Bly follows Thoreau’s poetic and wide-ranging investigations around the meaning of this metaphor.

The third book, Ensouling Language, by non-fiction author and poet Stephen Buhner, is the one most directly concerned with writing, and what makes it good.  Although the subtitle emphasizes “the art of non-fiction”, the book’s discussion, about how to follow the hints from the deepest parts of ourselves, can apply to any kind of writing, including and especially fiction.

In Buhner’s own words:

“I am and always have been interested in the invisibles of life, those meanings and communications that touch us from the heart of Earth and let us know that we are surrounded by more intelligence, mystery, and caring than our American culture admits of….”

The most common thread uniting the intent and meaning of these books is that of the poet Robert Bly himself.  The author of the book on Thoreau, he is also cited in the other two books, especially that of Buhner’s.  I was fortunate to take in one of Bly’s presentations many years ago, which had an impact that I recounted in a post on “The Shadow,” one of Bly’s preoccupations.  Hillman and Bly both approached psychology from a Jungian perspective (in the broadest sense) and they gave workshops together during the height of the “men’s movement” of the 1980s.

index rv

Robert Bly

A little of his outlook can be gleaned from his statement: “It’s so horrible in high school when they say, ‘What’s the interpretation of this poem?’” He wanted to shake off the intellectualism of “modernism”, as noted by the poet Elizabeth Hoover, in favor of the passion of Spanish poets like Federico García Lorca.

It is sad to know that Bly, now in his mid-90s, is suffering in the last stages of Alzheimer’s (recounted on Buhner’s blog).  As Buhner observes:

“He is greatly missed . . . even by himself. After the Alzheimer’s had taken hold, he once said, after watching a video of himself with his family, ‘I think I would have liked him.’

So, in the near future I will work through these three books in separate posts about what I found meaningful to the writer in me in each one.

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My Book House

April 19, 2021

My Book House, edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, 12 volumes, 1937; For My Book House, A Parents’ Guide Book, 1948.
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For those of us who are readers, what we read as children is at the core of who we are and the paths we’ve taken.

I have a dim memory of going as a child to second hand bookstores with my father and mother in Washington state searching for books to take with us to the wilds of northern British Columbia.  This was in the early 1960s.  I was 9 or 10 years old.

Their finds included all the volumes of the famed 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, literature such as Ernest Thompson Seton’s Wild Animals I Have Known, Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, and the 12-volume set of My Book House, by Olive Beaupré Miller, 1937 edition.  It must have been my mother who insisted on completing the set with the 1948 parents’ guide, since the older grouping didn’t have it.

Inside the front cover of Volume 10

Sixty years on, I still have the My Book House volumes.  It is amazing to hold them – the illustrations are so evocative and bittersweet.  A reminder of a completely different time and place.

The volumes are slender blue books, in this fourth edition, numbered 1 to 12. They very roughly correspond to grade levels in their contents, although the first volume is oriented to much younger children, to be read to them.  Miller was an ardent believer in education for the young, and began these books, originally in a six-volume set in the 1920s, when she found that nobody was providing the graded stories, poems and illustrations she thought important for her daughter and other children.  

Books to grow with

The books were meant to “grow” along with their intended audience.  Early volumes contained nursery rhymes and simple stories and later volumes drew upon Chaucer, Shakespeare and Swift among many other classic writings which Miller adapted.  Sometimes, she wrote the stories herself.  Not only were fables, stories and poetry intended to be read by children, but also to be read by parents to them.  And the illustrations!  The illustrations by well known artists including a book cover by N.C. Wyeth do a wonderful job of creating imaginative space for the stories to dwell in. 

Miller set up a company with her husband to publish these books in Winnetka, Illinois and the first one, In The Nursery, was issued in 1920.  The first six-volume sets were often, as a promotion, enclosed in a small wooden house.  The six were eventually split into 12 thinner books for the benefit of small hands.  An interesting aspect of her publishing company was its staffing predominantly by women, including the sales force.  This was most unusual at a time when women were deemed best suited to staying at home.

The last edition was published in 1971.  Miller had continued to revise her books until her retirement in 1962. She died in Arizona in 1968.

A father’s Grand Adventure

Not only do these books connect me to my childhood and the northern log cabin I grew up in, but in an indirect way to my father.  He died of a stroke a couple of years after he moved his wife and three sons to the pioneering life he imagined and hungered for in the north.  He was only in his mid 40s.  He fought in the Second World War in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima, went to university where he met my mother, and dropped out with her to start a family. He worked for years as an architectural draftsman and trouble-shooting machinist, before embarking, his family in tow, on his Grand Adventure.

These books were part of his design for his family (along with serious advice from my mother, without doubt) as he took us to the Bulkley Valley in British Columbia to live on a section of land without electricity, phones or indoor plumbing.  He changed all our lives, and our futures, in a fundamental way and for the better.  We boys were given, on the outside, the gift of wild spaces, and our interiors were furnished by My Book House and all the other books that made the inside of our small cabin seem like a library.  Even my mother, who at first regretted our departure from the States and its amenities, came to love where we made our home.

So these books mean a lot to me.  I’d like to give just a sampling of their content.

Volume 5, Over the Hills, contained stories about Abraham Lincoln, Jack and the Beanstalk, the boyhood of Robert Fulton, and Wilbur and Orville Wright, among others, drawn from many classic sources. 

I think my favorite from this volume though was “Casey Jones, A Song of the Railroad Men.”  It goes: “Fireman says, ‘Casey, you’re running too fast. You ran the block signal, last station you passed.’…”  Then later: “He turned to his fireman said, ‘Boy, you’d better jump. ‘Cause there’s two locomotives that are going to bump!'”

Volume 8, Flying Sails, featured for me “Gulliver’s Travels to Lilliput” adapted from Jonathan Swift.  The accompanying illustrations are marvelous, of Gulliver tied down by many tiny figures.  This volume also included a couple of stories from the Arabian Nights, “The Adventures of General Tom Thumb,” and Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

In Volume 10, From the Tower Window, we have the story of the Children’s Crusade, “The Home-Coming of Odysseus,” legends of the Round Table, the Spanish tale of “The Cid” and what moved me, for some reason, as a teenager, the tragic “Song of Roland.” 

In this last, retold from the Chanson de Roland, Roland heroically blows his horn, Oliphant, at the end of a great battle to call for relief for his men and himself, only to finally die.

In demand for homeschooling

In an interesting twist to the saga of the long out-of-print My Book House, the volumes, in all their many versions, are in demand as part of the homeschooling movement.  The set, as the Parents’ Guide points out, has 2752 pages of graded selections from over fifty different countries with two thousand illustrations, many in full color. They are a valuable resource for any family, homeschooling or not.

Homeschooling as a movement began in the 1970s as a rebellion against the rote regimented learning of the standard classroom, and has spread in many different directions, from the free school perspective to the evangelical.  But to me, My Book House is ideal as an underpinning for any youngster’s education.  I’m grateful that it was part of mine.

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References:

For more information on My Book House, here are some sites of note:

Winnetka Historical Society

Books In Heat: Books As A Passion

Circe Institute

Arthur Chandler

Plumfield and Paideia

TurtleAndRobot.com

Pam Barnhill

A Novel Is A D-9 Cat

February 19, 2021

Once upon a time, in the north-central part of the province of British Columbia, I worked in a coal mine.

(I will get to the nub of this post encapsulated in the title, but it will take me a little while.)

British Columbia is not particularly well-known for its coal, but in their day coal mines on Vancouver Island and in the north in the Telkwa area supplied home stoves and wider industry too.  At Telkwa where I worked one high-school summer at a small mine in the last half of the 1960s, some coal was hard enough to be considered metallurgical and all types were exported through the port of Prince Rupert in the post-World War II era.  Of course, there are modern-day large coal producers in the eastern part of this province.

But when I went to work at Bulkley Valley Collieries for $1.87 an hour that one summer, the old mine, once underground but now open pit, was barely supplying local coal stove needs.  Most people had wood stoves, and even then coal was considered too dirty for widespread use.  And trees were much more plentiful and accessible than coal.

I was looking for summer work, and we knew Les Hatfield, who hired me on.  Les was a neighbour who lived with his family way back in the woods around Walcott, a barely-there old railroad station on the Bulkley River.

Les was an interesting guy.  In most weather, he liked to wear vests made out of shirts with the sleeves cut off, revealing impressively tanned and muscular arms.  He and his family emigrated from Oregon to the Bulkley Valley not long after our family had done the same from Washington state.  He was an ex-race car driver, in the lower circuits, who claimed that he had once raced alongside A.J. Foyt.  He was a Bible-thumper, obsessive about the Book of Daniel.  He was also a hard-working, genuinely decent man.

So Les – Mr. Hatfield to me – hired me on at the coal mine for 10-hour days when he ran things for the manager for awhile.  He seemed to love to work outdoors and with machinery. At least those were the jobs easily accessible to him, whether in logging or mining.

The mine could only support a few workers at that time.  So mainly it was Les and me, occasionally his son Terry, whoever up on the hill was excavating coal with machinery – often Les no doubt – and an old German guy with a nose like a potato who was my immediate boss.

At the coal mine years before the conveyor belt there was a track for underground workings.. I identify with that guy with the smudged face.

The coal mining worked as follows.  An excavator would claw coal out of the ground well up in the foothill surrounding the mine buildings below.  That coal would be dropped in a waiting dump truck, which then trundled a ways down the hill to deposit its load on the top of the widely spaced iron grill of a large hopper.

My mission, which I accepted, was to then use a heavy pick to break up the large pieces of coal so that they could pass through the approximately eighteen-inch squares of the grid, and fill the hopper.

The other part of my job, after dealing with the truck load, was then to race below under a long canopy covering a conveyor belt where the old German fellow sat next to the hopper outlet.  I remember him as being extremely grumpy.  He plucked out pieces of clay and dirt from the coal as it passed by on the slow-moving conveyor.  He gruffly pointed out my mistakes as I occasionally missed a clump of clay covered with coal dust.

It was a job, but not one I particularly liked.  The 10-hour days seemed to go on forever, although Les would usually drive me home to our cabin on the way to his more remote farm.

One day, I think he must have taken pity on me during a lull in production.  The mine had a monster of a bulldozer, a D-9 cat, rarely seen in our environs down below.  For some reason, probably for Les to work on during a weekend, it sat at the beginning of the long gravel grade leading past the hopper and up the hill to the coal face.  Les explained he needed to go up and clear off overburden so the excavator could get at the coal.  We were going to “walk” the machine up.

A D-9

He climbed on and fired it up with a roar, the cover of the diesel stack fluttering as black smoke puffed and belched.  He beckoned me over.  It was too noisy to talk, but he gestured me on board.  The 49-ton machine seemed huge, its tank-like tracks a chest-high hurdle to climb up over and into the covered cab.

We started to move slowly, in an amazingly loud cacophony, grinding over the gravel, Les at the controls.  Walking was an apt metaphor.  I could have jumped off and kept up easily.

I have a vague recollection of the controls, but there was no steering wheel, just a collection of vertical and horizontal metal sticks to grab — clutches and throttles, chokes and hydraulics.  Les had me turn the beast by standing on one of the track brakes, like a car brake, but on either side of the operator’s seat.  This enormous clanking pile of metal, smelling of oil and iron and diesel smoke moved up-slope.  It was fun, but too soon it was back to breaking big ones into little ones again at the hopper.

So, a novel is like a D-9 cat?  Really?  It struck me, as I got 8000 or so words into the first draft of this second science-fiction effort that a novel is a bulky, clanking thing.  A bit of a behemoth to even think of directing.  Lots of moving parts with an uncertain driver at what he thinks are the controls.  The shaking noise of it like thoughts banging around about characters, and plot, and meaning.  It moves at a slow speed, unduly slow it seems often as the operator strains to get to the imagined sweet terrain ahead.

Or perhaps the process of a novel is more like what that lone teenager did, trying to keep balance on crossing metal struts, swinging that pick up and smashing down into the large pieces of coal.  Getting into the nitty-gritty of each scene, emerging finally with a smear of hard-earned dust on a forehead.  Maybe it’s like that.

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In Praise Of Westerns

May 8, 2020

Here in the midst of our Covid time, I am on my own, since my wife is stuck in China (fortunately in good health).  This is not necessarily bad, as I am a solitary sort, and thus there are few people coming upon me to randomly scatter virus.

In the evenings, after I work on development of a second novel, I like to watch DVDs from a collection accumulated mostly by happenstance.  I’m watching most of them for at least the second time, and it’s remarkable how much I’ve forgotten about each one!

Lately I’ve focused on westerns for some reason, and they make me think about my own history and that of the genre.  The four movies I’m going to pay attention to here are: Appaloosa (2008), 3:10 to Yuma (2007), Little Big Man (1970), and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2006).

Back in the ’60s

Along with my mother and two younger brothers who loved to play cowboys and Indians, we lived in 1960’s rural north-central British Columbia in a log cabin. We had almost unlimited space to imaginatively populate the trees, creek and hillocks with what we saw on TV and the occasional movie.

After my father died, our little household was more or less adopted by a huge-hearted neighbour family.  The older I get the more unusual I realize their caring was.

maxresdefaultAlmost every Sunday, and often other days during the week, my mother would drive the four of us up the narrow dirt driveway to the neighbour’s house on a rise above the highway.  We were always there to watch Bonanza with the Cartwrights just after we all finished Sunday dinner.

Westerns on TV

Westerns were the most popular genre on TV.  Other shows we boys watched with great enjoyment whenever we could (at our cabin we had no electricity and no TV) included Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Have Gun Will Travel, Rawhide, Wagon Train, Wanted: Dead or Alive, The Virginian, Daniel Boone, and especially, for me, Maverick.

Maverick starred James Garner. To see the wiseacre gambler, mildly larcenous with a hidden good heart make his way amidst the dust and guns of the West, often playing off Jack Kelly as his brother, greatly appealed to me.  It was in some ways the same kind of role that Garner would perfect as the reluctant hero in the much later detective drama The Rockford Files.

It reflects changes in American culture that Gunsmoke was the longest running prime-time TV series of all time until it recently lost out to Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, an urban police drama about disturbing sex crimes.  (Which is very good in my estimation: the acting and the writing are top notch.  But still… my mother would never have let us watch it if it had been around. For that matter, it would have been impossible for that show to even be on TV then.)

At the end I would like to touch again on this contrast.

So here I am with my four movies of interest.  They are all from a later era than the TV glory days, but hearken back in varying degrees.  All of them, it turns out, are about male friendship, even Little Big Man, that older movie of the four.

Appaloosa

indexThis is the most traditional western of the four to me in tone, character, and wonderful cinematography. But the set-up is not so usual: it is that of two itinerant lawmen who travel the west hiring themselves out to pacify lawless towns.

The two men played by Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen have been doing this for 12 years and know each other well.  Appaloosa is the town they come to, and due to a rogue rancher tyrannizing the place, the two are hired by the frightened town fathers.  They promptly and rather dictatorially take over and put things right.

Of course, a woman comes between the two men, interestingly portrayed by Renee Zellwegger, and although the friends eventually resolve that, there are the standard confrontations with the bad guys and final justice done.

Ed Harris also directed the film, and it is amazing to me how he fulfills that role and acts with such focus at the same time.  (This is similar to the equally impressive Tommy Lee Jones taking on both jobs in The Three Burials….)

3:10 to Yuma

yumaThis is more modern in tone, directed by James Mangold, with Russell Crowe and Christian Bale in the lead roles.  Appropriately enough, it is a remake of a decent western from more than 50 years ago.

Crowe, who plays a masterful and murderous outlaw leader, is captured. A poor dirt farmer played by Bale, takes on the duty, after everybody else is too scared, to shepherd Crowe to a trailhead and thus off to prison and a death sentence.  Bale needs the reward money.

Crowe is an outlaw with a nihilist philosophy, but he is smart enough to have a philosophy in contrast to the men he leads.  He has become, almost despite himself, a student of human nature.

It is hard for Bale’s character to explain to either himself or his family how he has ended up in such a dangerous enterprise.

The two men slowly discover with some shock that they can make themselves understood to each other.

Peter Fonda is in the mix as a Pinkerton bounty hunter, and along with nasty henchmen from Crowe’s gang, they up the violence quotient.

But in the end, the heart of the story becomes the unlikely respect that forms between the two leads.

Little Big Man

little bigI first saw this in a movie theatre in 1970, and a couple more times over the years since.  Dustin Hoffman is in the title role as the 121-year-old lone white survivor of Custer’s Last Stand.  The movie begins with the aged Hoffman, in amazing make-up, in an old folks home telling the story of his life to an interviewer.

The movie, directed by Arthur Penn (also known for Bonnie and Clyde), shifts from sincere to satirical and back again.  Hoffman relates and the movie shows the lengths he went to for survival as settler, adopted Cheyenne brave, gunfighter, medicine show spieler, cavalry scout, hermit and drunkard.

In its serious aspect, the movie is a meditation on the continuous betrayal of native Indians by an expansionist and merciless white culture.  The massacres shown of Indian villages brings this home.

But where the movie shines for me is the warm portrayal of the Cheyenne chief, Old Lodge Skins, played by Chief Dan George.  He is the father figure, and the friend, where Hoffman’s character finds his spiritual home.

Towards the end of the movie, General George Armstrong Custer, played by Richard Mulligan, arrives with his golden locks and his megalomania.  I’m sorry to hit this note, but he resembles no one so much as Donald Trump.  (The calamitous stupidity demonstrated in this very short video, is entirely emblematic and parallel to Custer’s portrayal here.)

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

51RKF1m8EnLThis has become one of my favorite movies, of any genre.  It is authentically a western, although it is set in modern times, in Texas and Mexico.  Hey, it’s got horses, guns, desert, and a laconic hero!  And it has a profound sense of hard bitten decency in the midst of the wasteland of modern life that hearkens to the best of what westerns have to offer.

As noted above, Tommy Lee Jones stars in and directs this tragic tale, which also ends with redemption of a sort.

The beginning of the movie is non-sequential in places and confusing until you realize the scenes are spiralling toward the tragedy at its core.

Melquiades Estrada, played by Julio Cedillo, is an illegal immigrant from Mexico who rides into Texas on his horse one day and asks for work from a small rancher outside a small town near the border.  Pete Perkins, played by Tommy Lee Jones, takes him on, and they become fast friends.  Estrada tells Jones’ character of his wonderful family and the little village he comes from in Mexico, and makes Jones promise to return his body there if he should die.

Estrada is shot and killed by mistake by an angry and lost young Border Patrolman, played with impressive intensity by Barry Pepper.  Pepper buries him to hide his mistake, but the body is found.  The town’s sheriff has the body relocated to the local cemetery. The sheriff has no sympathy for illegal immigrants and ignores anything that implicates the Border Patrol.

Jones’ character is pushed over the edge by this, and kidnaps Pepper at gunpoint.  This turn of events caught me by surprise.  Jones throws over everything to keep his promise to his friend.  He makes Pepper dig up the moldering body, and the two men and a cadaver take off towards the border and Mexico on horseback.

I have to mention the Texas small town.  It’s like places, I’m sure, all over North America, but the arid southwest highlights the arid emotional life portrayed here.  Everyone seems lost, desperate, alienated, without any centre to their lives, so they indulge in drinking or adultery or pornography or mindless violence.  Both the sheriff and Jones commit adultery with the aging wife of the local cafe owner. Pepper’s too pretty wife gives up on him and leaves.

Meanwhile, on the way to the destination in Mexico, Pepper tries to escape from Jones, but is brought painfully to heel.  Adventures ensue.  They fill the corpse with antifreeze so it doesn’t rot too badly.  They find a lonesome blind old man in the middle of the desert, played by the wonderful Levon Helm (of The Band fame).

Finally, they arrive at where Jones was told he should go by his friend, and finds that most of it was a lie, perhaps to make it seem like the man had a fuller life than he did.  There is no tiny village of the name Jones was given.  The wonderful family doesn’t exist.

Pepper has been a hard ass all the way along, unrepentant yet slowly breaking down from the rigors of the journey.  Jones has been tough on him.  They find a ruined house which Jones decides must be the site of the third burial.  He orders Pepper to apologize to the corpse for what he did, and when Pepper resists fires his gun at him several times, but deliberately misses.  Pepper finally breaks down completely and apologizes fervently for the wrongs he’s committed.  Jones looks on approvingly, and leaves him there, riding off on his horse, leaving Pepper with a few words that capture the moment, and their humanity, roughly: “You’re free to go, son.”  Pepper calls out after him, asking if Jones will be okay.

I’ve spent some words on this because for me the movie captures an existential truth of the human condition: we are alone, but the meaning we create is with each other.

Tommy Lee Jones’ later movie The Homesman, a kind of mid-western about women’s madness and early settlers in Nebraska, also has this feeling of apprehending difficult truth about the human situation.

Reflection

Viewing from Canada the decline of American society in recent years, I’ve formed an opinion about some of what has happened.  Watching movies like these and remembering the many westerns once on TV has reinforced it.

The shift away from westerns reflected the cultural centre of gravity moving from ranches, farms and small towns to the ever expanding large cities with all their opportunities and excesses.  Despite all the modern conveniences though, alienation from the land and from each other is rampant.  When a community of people depend on the land and its fruits, and each other, you cannot, for instance, be caught up in perpetual hateful political discourse.  You have to be neighbours.

The entertainment sought and offered also is part of the cultural environment, of course.

Given that westerns could be silly with their stereotypes of black hats and white hats, bad Injuns and good ones, of solving problems by violence, yet their essence often was that of a kind of morality play.  They modelled men, usually, striving and succeeding through honesty, decency and courage.

Men need that kind of modelling, especially.  Women tend to be more rooted in the everyday necessity of such values.  Men become distracted from them too easily.

I apologize for my sweeping generalizations, yet….

To me the demise of the western in popular culture was the beginning of the end of the American dream.

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