Author: Martin Amis.
There are two things I want to pick out before I talk about the rest of the short story. First, I enjoyed that the character Bujak goes by a “post-nuclear calendar”, so the year is PN 35, rather than 1980. It puts the story in a defensive, apocalyptic-facing mindset. Second, the narrator is an interesting guy. He says, “Even when making coffee or changing a light bulb, I think - What is it with objects? Why are they so aggressive? What’s their beef with me?” It’s just plain funny. You could take it as symbolism - oh, he’s an old-fashioned, old-technology man in a rapidly developing world, frightened by change - but I don’t care at all about symbolism. If you’re like me, and find it hard to stomach how useless studying symbolism is, then don’t pay any attention to my offhand comments about it. I’ve been trained to look for excessive meaning in probably meaningless things.
BUJAK and the Strong Force is not exactly a story I would label as “Speculative Fiction.” First of all, it has nothing supernatural or technologically futuristic in it. But it is in a speculative setting - the post nuclear world. We are post nuclear, and the characters in the story feel it more intensely than most. They have lived through the dropping of atomic bombs, and have seen the potential apocalypse. Bujak himself discusses Einsteinian physics - a real development in history, but still speculative in nature. What I like is when the characters discuss physics (Bujak talks about how the Big Bang must be followed by a Big Crunch, and cycle around again) and how Bujak is imbued with an almost superhuman strength - the “Strong Force.” I couldn’t possibly say what else the Strong Force symbolizes - something to help guide survivors through the apocalypse, Newtonian physics, something else? But in any case, Bujak is the result of nuclear warfare, whether directly or indirectly.
I’m not one to read short stories. Honestly, I don’t really like them. But I picked Einstein’s Monsters because these stories are the product of someone deeply concerned about the future - someone who wants to speculate about the post-nuclear world and what World War III might bring. We are not on the brink of planetary destruction now, but perhaps, very soon, we could be.
Do not be fooled by the lyrical language into thinking that Dhalgren is a work of fantasy. There are hints of a real world disaster, and evidence of many real world elements, that make this novel science fiction - or maybe more “speculative” than “science” because there is little explanation of technologies like holograms (which do appear in the book).
What I enjoy is the inclusion of a library within the novel - mentions of Keats, Deliverance, and Mr. Zelazny, sci fi writer extraordinaire, build a world in which speculation about the future can occur. Our world is the basic architecture (and look! here’s bits and pieces of reality) but the story does not start until we ask the question: What if?
So far, we need to find out the rest of the question. What if…there was a nuclear holocaust? What if…a town is taken out of real time by some catastrophe? What if…? I don’t know yet. Bellona is certainly a city where something disastrous has has happened. It is “the only place…” that is not “all right.” People can walk freely in and out of stores and take whatever they need, newspapers are never published correctly, the cops don’t live anywhere near town, there is new technology that is well known and old technology like microwaves that want explanation - but what happened is still unknown.
Something else that makes Dhalgren, for me, “speculative” rather than “science” is the frank and unconventional discussion of non-normative sexuality. Delany himself is homosexual, but his characters are anything from strict hetero to flamingly pansexual, and everything in between. The speculation here, the “What If” is this: What if there were a world in which sexual attraction was not a reason for discrimination? What if anyone could love and make love to anything and anyone? Delany is speculating about a future in which this is possible and how it would manifest. Why I label this “speculative” rather than “imaginative” (because it could certainly be Fantasy, as he is imagining this uncertain future) is because he is basing his speculation in what we already know about sexuality. In a fantasy world, one would have to create a reason for any particular sexuality, since we cannot transfer our knowledge of our world to another, invented one.
I guess in this way, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction intersect well. What If is a question both genres ask, but I think they do it differently, with different intentions. Any thoughts from other readers? (If there are any - really, I could be talking very happily to myself about all this.)
Dhalgren is an extremely difficult work to read. What I mean is, the language is beautiful and intensely visual, but understanding the story underneath it is a struggle. It requires concentration. You can’t skip lines or skim, like in some books. The plot doesn’t emerge until you work through the first few pages of kaleidoscopic, chaotic stream-of-consciousness writing.
But once you see it, it makes sense. Right now, I’m making connections to Einstein’s Monsters and the Introduction about nuclear warfare. It’s a theory that I’m developing about the story in Dhalgren - perhaps it is a post-nuclear world in which the story takes place. It might not be, but that’s what I’m working with at the moment.
Ever more interesting is Samuel R Delany’s style. I love how grand it is. He does not simply describe - he creates new ideas with language and makes sentences a matter of interpretation and creation. His is what I aspire to, although I would hope to be slightly less convoluted. Entertainment and art can intersect, and I think he spends more time on art and building something beautiful and meaningful than he does in trying to win over the audience. This does not detract from the importance of Dhalgren, in my opinion, but it does make it less accessible.
Other Novels by Samuel R Delany (That You Should Definitely Read):
Babel-17 and Empire Star
The Fall of the Towers
Babel-17 is my personal favorite novel of all time (included with the short story Empire Star - they are connected and should not be read separately). It is a brilliant commentary on the theory of linguistic influence. The whole book is about how language forms the way we think, and the language is in itself visual, creative, and different from anything else I’ve ever read.
DO WE LIVE IN A DYSTOPIA?:
The idea of a dystopia is to reflect a people’s worst fears and parody them. More than that: IT IS A PLACE WITHOUT HOPE. 1984 and Brave New World did this in anticipation of a future where America’s (and the Western World’s) values would be stripped away. Comparing today’s world with the dystopias in these works of fiction does not ring true to me. Our government and society have many negative aspects, but we are far from becoming several nations filled with mindless, drugged-up drones constantly monitored and controlled by the ruling powers. Yes, our government spies on its citizens. So does every other government. Yes, we have problems with education. But this does not mean that people have stopped reacting or fighting back. We do not live in Aldous Huxley’s world, where anyone who does not belong and who fights the status quo is inevitably, inexorably drawn into a “mindless” state, and individuality is destroyed. We are aware of our issues.
In comparing high school to The Hunger Games, I have to laugh. High schools as we know them have existed for decades, and gladiator-style combat has been around since before the Romans. Modern sports are reminiscent of combat, but is there something wrong with violent entertainment? It is tragic when someone is injured, maimed, or killed, but it is an individual’s choice to participate; they are not the slaves or indentured servants of Roman times. As for high school, I don’t understand the comparison. Yes, it is a trial. But everyone has to go through adolescence at some point. Gay students or outcasts who are bullied or commit suicide are not the result of a dictatorial oligarchy that is the 1% of America. They are the result of an endemic fear and hatred of difference that has festered in many societies for centuries.
As for the 1%, I agree that too few people control too much of the world’s wealth. Income disparity has worsened over the past ten years, and we can see the effects in our daily lives and the lives of people who are less fortunate than us. I am not in the 1%, but I am still an upper middle-class white female who was blessed with the care and concern of a mother who is a teacher and who believes in education. I was able to go to a good college and graduate with no debt, and I am currently teaching English in China for twice what Chinese teachers make. This does not mean that we live in a world without hope. We do not live in a world without individuality or critical thought. This does not make the world a dystopia, it is simply unfair.
What Is Speculative Fiction, Anyway?:
I was under the impression that speculative fiction was a subgenre of science fiction where authors “speculated” about technology or alien life forms, but it makes sense that the genre could cover fantasy and horror as well. After all, speculation does not have to be relegated to the scientific; things that are fantastic or horrific may be speculative, as well.
The inclusion of “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka is interesting. Initially, I thought this was a study in philosophy and the human mind. Speculative Fiction can include a philosophical thought experiment, however, which makes me think that the genre might be too chaotic - including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories with Kafka and Cthulhu does not seem sensible to me. But once you think about it, the term Fiction is just as broad. Speculative Fiction is a branch in the fiction tree that further branches off and intertwines with other genres. So, if we extend “Speculative” to its furthest meaning, the genre could potentially be regarded as one filled with thought experiments, rather than any particular “idea” like Mysteries or Romance.
In this way, it separates itself from types of fiction such as the Road Trip (like Jack Kerouac), which could potentially be considered Speculative Fiction if one defines it as simply “imagination.” I would not think of anything that is “a fantasy world” as speculative. Speculative Fiction should have an element of compounded knowledge. It is based on what we already know, but takes that base knowledge and derives something else from it. This is why I think Speculative Fiction lends itself more easily to science fiction than to fantasy. Fantasy is “imaginative” rather than “speculative” because it is not necessarily based on knowledge of the real world. Urban Fantasy could be included in the speculative sub-genre, because it is based in the real world, but it has so many fantastic elements, based in myth and legend rather than real-world knowledge, that it is uncomfortable there.
Maybe teaching in China has made me obsessed with syllabi and course schedules, but I decided to make one for December because it helps me stay organized.
WEEK 1 (12/02-12/07)
Speculative Fiction and Dystopias Intro (Online Articles)
Introduction: Talkability (Einstein’s Monsters)
Dhalgren, pp. 1-100
Bujak and the Strong Force (Einstein’s Monsters)
Dhalgren, pp. 101-250
Insight at Flame Lake (Einstein’s Monsters)
Dhalgren, p. 251-306
WEEK 2 (12/08-12/14)
The Handmaid’s Tale, pp. 1-100
The Time Disease (Einstein’s Monsters)
The Handmaid’s Tale, pp. 101-200
The Little Puppy That Could (Einstein’s Monsters)
The Man In the High Castle pp. 1-138
The Immortals (Einstein’s Monsters)
WEEK 3 (12/15-12/21)
I Cthulhu by Neil Gaiman
Dystopian Fiction and Cyberpunk Intro (Online Articles)
Virtual Light by William Gibson
WEEK 4 (12/21-12/28)
Urban Fantasy Intro (Online Articles)
Kraken by China Mieville
A Study In Emerald by Neil Gaiman
I’m starting out my December with a few articles that talk about speculative fiction and dystopias. I want to think about how we define “speculative fiction” and “dystopia” because some readers don’t know what they are, confuse them, or don’t bother to wonder what those genres even mean.
I organized these readings as follows:
1. What Is Speculative Fiction, Anyway?
2. When Dystopian Fiction Became Reality TV
American Dystopia More Reality Than Fiction
3. Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis, Introduction: Talkability
It’s important to see what others think “speculative fiction” is, and then find your own definition. More important is trying to figure out how people see the modern age and if you believe that vision is accurate. I chose these articles because I think there are several, if not “wrong”, then perhaps “not totally correct” talking points in them.
As for Talkability, the introduction to Einstein’s Monsters, I believe that it sets the tone for the entirety of what I have chosen to read for this month. More than that, it is a fantastic piece of Cold War-influenced writing and embodies a lot of the ideas and themes that also come up in the genre of Speculative Fiction.
Once, I felt estranged from Academia. Sitting and thinking and not engaging in the real world seemed unpleasant and incapable of improving me as a human being. But after graduation, moving to China, and working for several months, I find myself missing the acts of contemplation and discussion. What you do in Academia (learning how to learn and how to think and how to engage) prepares you for actually engaging when you finally enter the real world. It also lifts, in part, the kind of narrow-minded fog that blinds people who have never thought about anything more than what they know already.
So, I am forcing myself to read things and think about them, month by month, with each month pertaining to a different theme or genre or idea.
DECEMBER THEME: SPECULATIVE FICTION
DECEMBER READING LIST
What Is Speculative Fiction, Anyway? (http://www.greententacles.com/articles/5/26/)
When Dystopian Fiction Became Reality TV (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/08/dystopian-fiction-reality-realism-damien-walter)
American Dystopia More Reality Than Fiction (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-215_162-57425179/american-dystopia-more-reality-than-fiction/)
What Child Soldiers In Dystopian Fiction Teach Us About Ourselves (http://www.wired.com/underwire/2013/10/child-soldier-enders-game/)
What Is Cyberpunk (http://www.cyberpunkreview.com/what-is-cyberpunk/)
What Happened to Cyberpunk? (http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/what-happened-to-cyberpunk—2)
Urban Fantasy In the Romance Field Defined (http://tracycooperposey.com/articles/articles-for-readers/what-is-urban-fantasy-anyway-urban-fantasy-in-the-romance-field-defined/)
What Is Urban Fantasy, Anyway? (http://www.thecreativepenn.com/2013/04/03/urban-fantasy/)
Dhalgren by Samuel R Delany
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Man In the High Castle by Philip K Dick
I Cthulhu by Neil Gaiman (short story)
A Study In Emerald by Neil Gaiman (short story)
Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis (short stories)
Virtual Light by William Gibson
Kraken by China Mieville
Message me if you’d like to join in!