Posted tagged ‘literature’

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 – 3) Ensouling Language

February 6, 2022

It was feeling that brought you to writing, you know. Something in the books you read touched you, something in you wants to create writing that will touch others similarly, some deep feeling has driven you on.
— Stephen Harrod Buhner

A couple of the more popular posts on this site are the two I wrote way back in 2007 about Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures on fiction writing, From Where You Dream. Butler is adamant that real writing, true writing can only come from the unconscious, from our intuition and our capacity to “induce” a writerly “trance.” This seems to mean making line to line contact with sensual imagery which makes up the voice of the unconscious and of your fictional characters.

And although he describes some of the ways that he uses to get to that place where the truth of what you are writing wells up, I’ve always been left with questions about that process. Oh, I’ve come up with my own haphazard ways of trying to get at that for writing of novels. But I’m always on the lookout, as many other writers must also be, for a clearer way of understanding how to do that.

In the third of this series about books that the writer self can plumb for meaning, Stephen Harrod Buhner provides that clarity, in Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life (Inner Traditions, 2010).

Buhner has written a wide range of non-fiction books on plants, herbalism and environmental philosophy, including The Lost Language of Plants, a BBC Environmental Book of the Year. This explains the reference to nonfiction in the subtitle, and he does include sections about that. However all kinds of writing come within his scope.

My primary interest, as an unpublished novelist of course, is fiction, and much of what he says about writing hits home there just as much.

A Current of Feeling

There is a current of feeling within us which often willy-nilly determines the direction of our lives, and, often unrecognized, is the core of ourselves. Part of it is a faculty of feeling which is capable of perceiving extreme subtleties, a kind of perception we are not used to developing or putting into words.

Buhner writes: “One of the tasks that lies before us as writers is this reclamation of ourselves, this ecological restoration of our interior world, this restoration of our capacity to feel.”

People use the word “feeling” to mean different things. Buhner wants to focus not so much on emotional perception, although that can be a result, but on what he calls environmental perception.

He calls it a non-physical form of kinesthetic touching. A physical form would be touching a hot stove; a non-physical form would be the sensation of coming home to an empty house. “How does it feel?” That is his repeated catchphrase for taking in the world, and people, around us.

“It is your passions and your deep feelings that are the key to your writing ensouled communication, to inhabited language. As Garcia Lorca put it, you ‘must awaken the duende in the remotest mansions of the blood.’ This can only occur if you reclaim your capacity to feel deeply and keenly.”

Duende

‘Duende’ means those unusual moments, big or small, when something is deeply recognized and makes one tremble. Buhner goes to considerable lengths to try to give the quality of this experience. He quotes the poet Robert Bly about a long floating leap at the heart of the most moving work, “a leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

It is one thing to describe these leaps, and another to do them. Sorry to say, I am not always a-tremble with the ecstasy of life, able to delve at will into the well of the unconscious. I wish I was more often.

Fortunately, Buhner takes up the challenge of trying to tell us what the process of feeling deeply through our writing could be. He calls it following the “golden threads,” a term he borrows from William Blake.

Taking hold of a golden thread means to be attentive in our feeling to any meaning we may encounter, and focus on it entirely so that we may follow where it goes. This is what happens with writing capable of catching the heart of the reader. This can be a very delicate and tentative pursuit, easily fumbled, so we must bring our complete focus.

A Golden Thread

Buhner explains: “To the alert person, a golden thread may emerge from any ordinary thing and open a doorway into the imaginal, and through it, the mythic. Because no one can know when or where or from what it will emerge, the writer remains attentive to everything that is encountered, always paying close attention to how everything, even the tiniest little thing, feels.”

Stephen Harrod Buhner

He goes on: “You can begin to follow it then, if you wish, by simply writing down, as concretely as you can what you are experiencing, what you are feeling, what you are seeing, hearing, sensing. Bly describes this, brilliantly, as ‘following the tiny impulses through the meadow of language.’ It must be done slowly. Carefully. Feeling your way. Tiny movement by tiny movement. It is the feeling equivalent of catching the hint of an elusive scent. … You write a line, perhaps several, then you stop and begin to compare what you have written to the feeling that has demanded your attention.”

He provides some simple exercises to illustrate and develop this, and he takes it to the point of asking “How does it feel” of even inanimate objects, which I found particularly interesting. To me, the book is worth it just for this discussion of “golden threads” which is considerably more detailed than what I’m able to recount here.

But think of poetry which is particularly meaningful to you. Poetry is the most concentrated form of this way of approaching writing. As an example, he quotes the following from the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

It is good knowing that glasses
are to drink from;
the bad thing


is to not know what thirst is for.

This is a duende, a long floating leap, as Buhner says: “The long trembling moment, and then the silence.”

Buhner writes:

“Mostly we feel only what we have been taught to feel, not what we truly feel. With the attentive noticing of the soul, we step away from our programming and what we think we know. We feel something and then we stop and genuinely look, identifying what has caught our attention. Then we begin to really see it, noticing whatever it is as if for the first time. The senses begin to bring us tidings of invisible things, all of them filled with meaning.”

He is careful to point out that these experiences are not only for those of us who write and feel compelled to describe our experience, but for all who want to live an “inhabited life.”

I would encourage anyone who is interested in these matters to read Buhner’s book, whether or not you accept all that he says. The essence of it is inspiring. And there is much more to it than I have recounted here, especially in a large section called “Dreaming and the Journey to the Imaginal.”

In conclusion, I keep returning to a quote attributed to the poet Paul Eluard. It’s one you take in with intuitive feeling right away, and then you’re not sure whether it makes any sense, and then you realize that maybe it does, and your mind makes that leap back and forth:

“There is another world but it is this one.”

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Notes

This is the last book considered in a series of posts:

Three Books for the Writer Self – Introduction

Three Books for the Writer Self – 1) The Soul’s Code

Three Books for the Writer Self – 2) The Winged Life

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.
___________________________________________________

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

Distraction – Science Fiction For Our Times

August 22, 2020

Distraction, by Bruce Sterling, 1998, Bantam Books
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Science fiction pioneer H.G. Wells is often given as an example of a writer who predicted the future. For example, almost 100 years ago he foretold wireless communication systems, and before that he wrote about devastating atomic weapons and the doomsday scenarios they might cause.

Given that the pace of technological and social change has accelerated so much from Wells’ time, Bruce Sterling’s feat of prognosis in his sci-fi novel Distraction, from 1998, is equally impressive in its way.

For me, it is not so much the specifics of the world in 2044 that Sterling imagines, it’s that he’s captured much of the weird atmosphere that we’re living through today.

Although published in 1998, Sterling must have been writing it for at least a couple of years before that. This is before Google, and Y2K; before Napster and massive downloading of music files; just after the first online purchase (of pizza) in 1994; and before social media platforms, and corporate and political interests, have turned the internet into a surveillance system mixed with genuine information and outlandish conspiracy theories.

In brief, the story’s protagonist, Oscar Valparaiso, is a political operative who has just got a senator elected, and is casting about for work for himself and his “krewe” (anyone who can afford them has such an entourage). Oscar has the advantage of not having to sleep very much, and the social disadvantage of having been birthed as a clone from a test tube, with a few genetic tweaks. He is quite philosophical about this.

Oscar comes across as a well-meaning guy who wants to see the world progress, while all around him the political and social system is coming apart at the seams.

Extortion by bake sale

An Air Force base nearby in Louisiana, mistakenly left out of the budget by the dysfunctional national government, has soldiers blockading roads with the pretense of a bake sale to extort money from the citizenry.

The renegade governor of Louisiana is running his own nomadic militia and using outlaw biotech to further his presidential ambitions.

Rabid internet disputes become street fights between ideological militias. Half the population is unemployed and the United States has a 20-year-old State-of-Emergency. Covert wiretapping is a national pastime. Whites are considered a violent, unpredictable, suspect minority. Squatters take over federal buildings as needed. Climate change has made genetically modified crops necessary for people to survive.

“There were sixteen major political parties now, divided into warring blocs…. There were privately owned cities with millions of ‘clients’…. There were price-fixing mafias, money laundries, outlaw stock markets. There were black, gray, and green superbarter nets. There were health maintenance organizations staffed by crazed organ-sharing cliques, where advanced medical techniques were in the grip of any quack able to download a surgery program.”

Plausible deniability

There is one particular situation that Sterling imagines that really knocked me out with its futuristic insight and potential for harm that to a certain extent has already happened in our world.

He imagines political bosses throwing out ridiculous, extreme conspiracy theories about an opponent which no sane person would believe. They’ve compiled large lists of dangerous lunatics, though, and feed them all the inflammatory rubbish.

“Finding the crazies with net analysis, that’s the easy part. Convincing them to take action, that part is a little harder. But if you’ve got ten or twelve thousand of them, you’ve got a lotta fish, and somebody’s bound to bite. …That [opponent] guy might very well come to harm….

“Somebody, somewhere, built some software years ago that automatically puts [the politican’s] enemies onto [such] hit lists.”

Talk about plausible deniability.

In the midst of all this, Oscar soldiers on as a new member of a national science committee, appointed there by his senator, who by the way has become bi-polar. Oscar is good at manipulating people, mostly for their own good, but is not averse to dirty tricks either if he deems them necessary. He sees the only possible path out of the nation’s quagmire as starting with a new mission for science, where the practice of science becomes the actual primary function, rather than striving for the blessing of committees and making desperate appeals for funding.

In the end, Oscar creates a coalition between one of the large, disenfranchised nomadic militia groups and a bunch of renegade scientists.

Writer Michael Burnam-Fink, who is a major fan of Distraction, summarizes the outcome well: “While the nomads provide muscle and logistics, the scientists provide a sense of idealism and purpose for the nomads, who don’t recognize their own political power. The alliance threatens everything about the status quo.”

I’ve only provided a glimpse of the many imaginative wonders of this work, not all of them depressing. There are many parallels with our times. And often the book made me laugh out loud.

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The Quest to Write with Meaning

May 22, 2020

In my long quest to write with meaning, always approaching but never quite reaching, I’ve written one science-fiction novel, and now I’m almost ready to start the draft of a second one.

I’m trying to flog the completed sci-fi novel, without success so far, to agents and publishers.  But I can’t wait around, as I am not all that junior, except maybe in ability.  I’ve started the second and again I’m puzzling about theme.

I should say that this second novel situated 20 years or so in the future is well along in terms of character and plot development.  Still I feel the lack of a central cohesion.

(For a sampling of my previous self-imposed torture about what theme means, check out Thinking About Theme in Writing A Novel. I concluded then that the theme had to emerge from the struggle with the writing and, for that novel, it had most to do with freedom.)

Oh, the craft books I consume!  Many of my books on the craft of writing extol the benefit of knowing the theme of the story you are about to embark on.  Although it doesn’t seem to be much of a selling point in a query letter.

Maundering about theme

Theme is what the story is about, what the reader can take home.  It encapsulates the meaning of the story, its reason for being, really.  I feel silly to be so foggy about what should be clear.  The theme could be a statement about love or corruption or goodness or deceit or honesty.  On that kind of abstract level.

But it is not that clear cut to me, what the meaning of the story I’m starting to write now will be in the end.  Oh, I can say in a tentative way now that it is about guilt, or freedom, or redemption, but those words are pro forma at this stage, without resonance.  Except, partially, the idea of “freedom” which to me is kind of an ur-theme which other thematic notions resolve to.

At the suggestion of one craft book (The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson), I’ve resorted to diagramming my first stabs at thematic ideas, arranged in small ellipses overlapping at the edges of a large empty ellipse.

This visually-oriented strategy appealed to me: reserve the big ellipse for a statement that feels like something.

In those smaller ellipses I’ve placed words like “anger”, “shame”, “repentance”, “redemption”, “transcendence”, “struggle”.  The big empty ellipse just sits there, aloof.

This brings me to a phone conversation I had with my wife recently, stuck as she is in Shanghai in these Covid times, looking after her dying father in his nineties.

Getting older

We are both older, and sometimes we discuss the end of life, and probable feebleness of some sort eventually.  My wife, as a doctor and given her situation with her father, is occasionally given to stories of what can happen to people which might strike some as morbid.  Although she is actually a woman of considerable positivity.

She told me of one older colleague of her father, a doctor too, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness.  This colleague, she said, decided to spare himself and his relatives the pain of his suffering.  He ended it all by one day walking into the ocean.

I didn’t want the conversation to rest there, so I said, “I’d rather walk out of the ocean.”  There was a moment of silence on the phone line, and then we both laughed.

Off-hand remark though this was, it continues to reverberate for me.  It’s become a strangely deep metaphor on a lot of levels.

I have this image of a man emerging from the ocean buffeted, then released, by the clear salty water, finding his feet as he lurches forward onto the beach.  He is unencumbered, sopping wet, and headed towards he knows not what, but he is free.

Conversely, he emerges from the miasma of our culture and our times, out of the detritus of life mistakes and character flaws, onto a shore of the possible.  Sea gulls dip and squawk overhead.

This reminds me how this will to write is unavoidably a spiritual impulse, a religious one, even, in its original meaning re-ligare, to tie together again, to re-connect.

Several of the better books on the craft of writing allude to this.

Alderson in her book writes, “The Universal Story is the story of life.  The energy of the Universal Story flows through three phases: Comfort and Separation. Resistance and Struggle. Transformation and Return.”

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story says simply at the end of that book: “Let me end with one final reveal: you are the never-ending story.”

I sit back and then write my theme phrase in the waiting empty ellipse.

Walk out of the ocean.

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Note:  Here is the best short description of theme I just found in an older book from 20 years ago by Philip Gerard, Writing A Book That Makes A Difference:

“What the book is thinking about.”

Later Gerard describes it this way: “It’s the unconscious of the story.”  I like that.