The Myths of Capitalists

In the Sept/Oct edition of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, renowned writer Lucius Shepard, went on a brief rant in his Films column about the contemporary penchant for describing blockbuster superhero movies as the myths of our times.

“Myths…are not simple stories with cartoonish morality foisted upon a dumbed-down audience, but intricate distillations that arise from a culture over time. They do not come attached to automobile tie-ins—they have nothing to sell other than a consensus expression of mankind’s place in the universe.”

My first instinct, as a lover of the classics, is to embrace Mr. Shepard’s comments, but both the durability and elasticity of superhero stories, and the socio-political contexts of ancient myths, counter his arguments.

Let’s start with the purpose of ancient myths. Mr. Shepard contends that they represent a “consensus expression of mankind’s place in the universe.” That sentiment is true, to an extent, but these stories also represented the unique worldviews of the people who originated these myths—including cultural signifiers, prejudices and ulterior motives.

As an example, let’s look at the Enûma Eliš, the sacred text of the Babylonians. There are any number of scholarly treatises on the original purpose of this text—here’s a good essay by Stefan Stenudd—that all agree it was designed to promote the elevation of Marduk, the chief god of the Babylonians, above all other Mesopotamian deities; and by extension, reinforce the presumed supremacy of Babylon itself. The Enûma Eliš represented the myth of Babylon that the Babylonians wanted to tell themselves.

But does the fact that the original purpose of the Enûma Eliš was primarily political negate the resonance of the stories it contains? I wouldn’t be alone in arguing: absolutely not.

In Supergods, Grant Morrison wrote:

“Writers and artists build by hand little worlds that they hope might effect change in real minds, in the real world where stories are read. A story can make us cry and laugh, break our hearts, or make us angry enough to change the world.”

A quote that could just as easily apply to the storytellers of ancient societies as to the creators of modern-day superhero comics.

Furthermore, the superhero stories of today might serve the same purpose in terms of our “place in the universe” that Mr. Shepard mentions. In an interview with Wired—based on his book Supergods—Grant Morrison argued that superheros…

“…fill the gap in a secular culture, because they open up dimensions of the cosmic and transcendent, which is stuff legends usually have to deal with. It’s not so much that they are new versions of the gods, because the gods were always just our eternal qualities. Superman possesses the qualities of the very best man we can imagine at any given time. In that sense, he’s divine. Batman is representative of our dark subconscious, who nevertheless works for the good of humanity. They embody the same ideals.”

Maybe a little New Age-y for my taste, but Mr. Morrison makes a valid point about the way humankind used ancient myths to relate to the world being essentially the same way we currently use superhero stories. Gilgamesh and Enkidu represented different aspects of human nature (much like Superman and Batman) in addition to being a possible retelling of earlier stories and a version of the lives of historical figures—all at the same time. The literary construct of Gilgamesh was as elastic as Superman and was as open to reinvention by successive artists for different purposes.

When we look back at the myths of Babylon we see traces of stories that existed prior to the creation of the Enûma Eliš and continued on through into Zoroastrianism and The Old Testament. Part of the enduring quality of myths are their adaptability. In Grant Morrison’s words again:

“Actually, it’s as if [Superman is] more real than we are. We writers come and go, generations of artists leave their interpretations, and yet something persists, something that is always Superman.”

The longevity and variation of superhero stories points to their being something more than simply marketable franchises. I would also argue that, somewhat contrary to Morrison, the iterations rather than the overall process of “distillation” (Mr. Shepard’s word)—or the original sources—are more important to us. How and why each new version of a myth is told reflects the culture of the moment and impacts how those stories continue to echo into the future. Where did most of us first encounter Norse myths for example? In Marvel comics.

Further, Marvel’s Captain America movies are, to me, a perfect example of a modern myth. In the movies, Cap is an old-before-his-time, world-weary survivor, besieged by enemies without and within, who nevertheless retains a core of unspoiled decency that others are drawn to—even in spite of their cynicism.

Captain America represents the myth that the American empire wants to tell itself today—and that myth is inextricable from the worldview, and even the consumer products, it’s meant to sell.

Comics in the 1980s: Transcending Genre

As a long-time comics reader and creator—let’s just say it, lover—when I look upon the art form now in North America, I see elements familiar and banal, refreshing and revolutionary. I also see the results of a process that began in the 1980s.

On one side of the equation, you have the familiar tropes and market share of comics about super-heroes, bolstered by the spate of recent Hollywood adaptations. (Need I give examples here?)  On the other, what can only be described as non-genre comics are finding their readership thanks to a combination of book store distribution, greater cultural awareness of seminal works, and, um, a spate of recent Hollywood adaptations. (e.g. American Splendor, Art School Confidential, V for Vendetta)

Both sides can be found in various formats, primarily what is now called “pamphlet” (or ‘comic book’ form back in the day), graphic novel, art book or electronic. With the exception of super-hero comics and some other genre work (e.g. The Walking Dead) the pamphlet format has largely been supplanted by the graphic novel or art book for non-genre works. The latter formats better serve the logistical interests of traditional book stores and the largely self-contained nature of non-genre comics story-telling; whereas, the primarily serial nature of super-hero and other genre works can be served by the monthly offerings in the four-colour pamphlets. Cannily, publishers of the genre pamphlets have been eager to adopt the graphic novel format as it allows an opportunity to reach non-traditional audiences with their works. Within the serial story-lines of super-hero comics, the gradual adoption of “story arcs” within the continuity has made the packaging of the genre graphic novels easier and more satisfying for the new or casual reader.

So that is where we are today. But how did we get here? Was it a “natural” evolution of the form and market? I would argue it was not; that this state of affairs can largely be credited to four cartoonists: Wendy Pini, Jaime Hernandez, Gilbert Hernandez and Dave Sim, all of whom were prominent figures in comics in the 1980s.

It was in the eighties that comic books underwent a significant transformation and, by the nineties, began their long trek to social-artistic acceptance by the general public. Some scholars would claim the process dates back to the underground works of the sixties by the likes of Robert Crumb and the artists associated with Zap! Comix.  While this work was largely non-genre (I don’t think “drug-induced” or “psychedelic” constitute genres), its impact was limited to a particular cultural milieu and geography, that of the hippie counter-culture of northern California and upstate New York. It did have its particular distribution (through head shops) but once the hippie zeitgeist blew itself out in 1972, with it went the underground comics. Revival attempts of the undergrounds were made by Bill Griffith (of Zippy the Pinhead fame) and Art Spiegelman (Maus)1, but none would take hold until, you guessed it, the 1980s. And the eighties return of some of these underground artists wasn’t paved by other ex-hippies, but a generation of artists following, who came out of the fandom of mainstream comics.

These eighties titles that were the vanguard of a movement towards non-genre comics in fact began as genre comics. The three most influential were Cerebus by Dave Sim, ElfQuest by Wendy Pini, and Love and Rockets by Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez (with occasional contributions by another brother, Mario). The transformation occurred on many fronts, however, and it wouldn’t be fair not to mention also Frank Miller (Daredevil, The Dark Knight Returns, Ronin), Will Eisner (A Contract With God), Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), and Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta) as significant contributors.

Love & Rockets began in 1981, a year that marks the creative nadir of the mainstream comics industry in its entire 100+ year history. The industry then, as now, was dominated by Marvel Comics and Warner Brother’s DC Comics, both of whom were churning out superheroes of unparalleled vacuousness. Stan Lee, the publisher of Marvel Comics in 1981, was starting to dabble in Hollywood for some movie deals based on Marvel characters. He was frustrated because his contacts would not commit due to the changeability of the characters (insurmountable obstacles such as costume redesign and new superhero team rosters. Horrors!)2 Finally, at one point, Lee ordered all innovation and change to stop. This is true. This from a company whose nickname was “The House of Ideas”!

Meanwhile, DC, as it had since being overtaken by Marvel in clout and sales in the sixties, followed suit. At the same time, the underground cartoonists were more marginalized than ever, and other innovative creators such as Eisner and Harvey Kurtzman (Mad Magazine) had either withdrawn from such a restrictive industry or could not get publishing houses and distributors to take their work and still retain ownership over it. The result was a black-hole of stagnation, plummeting sales, and general despair and malaise in the industry. New cartoonists were no longer being hired. Established cartoonists were clinging onto whatever viable titles left. There was serious talk about how much longer comic books would survive.

The crumbling of the comics industry monoliths inadvertently sparked the revolution. Fan creators, confident they could produce something better than the dreck of the time, started small, independent companies run by themselves. Or perhaps their love of the medium was such that they wanted comics to exist in whatever form possible. Regardless, the first of these to gain prominence were Wendy Pini’s WaRP comics (the odd name was an acronym for Wendy and Richard Pini, her husband) and her lone title, Elfquest and Dave Sim’s Aardvark-Vanaheim title, Cerebus.

Elfquest began as a magazine format, black and white comic published quarterly and was a fantasy story of elves finding their homeland. A comic whose story was in another genre than superhero was startling enough at the time, let alone the unconventional format and distribution.  The art was also a departure, deviating from the Jack KirbySteve Ditko super-hero aesthetics and leaning towards a cutesy wide-eyed manga style only just beginning to be known in North America.

Pini was also the sole creator on the book and a woman, which had not been seen even in the sixties underground comix (which were almost always anthologies and by men primarily). The story evolved along themes such as love and family and gradually the fantasy elements became so secondary as to be unnoticed. It was the cast of characters and their interlocking personalities that became the narrative thrust, not the rigours and conventions the genre required. The characters lived and breathed, loved, lost and had a sexuality. Subjects were dealt with maturely, with no black or white answers, and a controversial but tasteful hetero- and homosexual orgy was once depicted. Pini also declared at the outset that her story was finite, to last twenty issues, and would not be some super-hero title dinosaur wrung of every last element of life then left to slip into the mire.

With Elfquest, Pini had single-handedly initiated and prophesized many of the new trends in eighties comics—the limited series (to be taken up by Marvel in 1983), the graphic novel3, the independent mainstream comics publisher, deviation from the Comics Code4, “direct sales only” title (meaning only sold in comics stores, a relatively new form of retail in the early eighties), the creator as writer, publisher, artist, and owner of her own work, and finally, the use of genre as a readership “hook”, only to later shuck almost all vestiges of the genre by story’s end. With Pini’s success, she paved the way for other creators such as the Hernandezes.

At the same time in Kitchener, Ontario, unbeknownst to one another, fan-boy Dave Sim was doing something similar by self-publishing his parody of Barry Windsor-Smith’s Marvel comic, Conan the Barbarian, titled Cerebus the Aardvark, a black and white pamphlet comic with a colour cover. Like Pini, Sim soon declared the Cerebus story finite (three hundred issues), totally wrote and drew the book5, and it was only to be sold in comics stores, freeing it from the Comics Code. Also like Pini, Sim’s Cerebus was entrenched in a genre, a funny animal parody, but by the twenty-fifth issue, he had branched out into politics, religion, mature love, feminist critique and the genre elements still retained had taken on a non-genre life of their own.

As stated, both of these books’ successes relied upon capturing an audience with the familiarity of genre fiction but then transmogrifying the stories to more closely and  align with the creators’ idiosyncratic concerns and whimsy. Both Sim and Pini were influenced creatively by genre comics (with the exception of some undergrounds and Mad Magazine, there was no other kind in North America) and did their own take on them when they self-published. This changing of these comics into works dealing with more individual preoccupations could only have occurred at the time in the alternative press where formulas and editorial board standards did not exist and where creators owned, hence cared more, about the work they were creating.6

The Hernandezes’ story is similar. Raised on what they describe as “junk culture” (super-hero comics, pro wrestling, b-movies), they did their own genre stories when Love & Rockets first began. These stories were at times a pastiche of genre, sci-fi meets pro wrestling super-heroes for example, but set apart even from the start by a cast predominantly made up of Latin Americans. The Hernandez brothers soon realised the freedom that was to be had in the alternative press and shucked many of their genre elements to focus on the concerns of their characters. These stories were from time to time sprinkled with genre conventions (the book was called Love & Rockets, after all…) but over the span of a couple years, the readership had expanded beyond the hardcore fan of genre fiction.

Love & Rockets was first created as a “mini-comic” (or “zine”7), a photocopied, smaller format, b&w pamphlet that was sold on the street by the creators themselves. To get some publicity for their book, the Hernandezes sent their first issue to Fantagraphics Book‘s The Comics Journal, the industry’s most prestigious trade magazine.8 Fantagraphics liked the book and wanted to publish it.

L&R was published in a format virtually identical to Elfquest, magazine format, colour cover and b&w interiors. The comics material itself was divided into two sections: those stories created by Jaime and those created by Gilbert. Each cartoonist did his own work and wrote about themes relevant and interesting to himself; Jaime the everyday, if sometimes extraordinary, lives of a multicultural group in a Los Angeles barrio; Gilbert the fictional and highly political Latin American town of Palomar. (The two rarely collaborated.) Like Sim and Pini before them, the Hernandez brothers emphasized characterization in their stories, but unlike them, their central characters were mostly women. Their explanation for this rather radical approach to a male-dominated male-consumed medium was their love of drawing beautiful (but individual) women and from a story point of view, women generally dealt with their feelings more, therefore had more dramatic possibilities.

Love & Rockets was slow to catch on in the mainstream due to the radical approach the title had almost right from the outset.

Meanwhile back in the industry, other publishing houses for alternative comics were being born due to the obvious market for alternatives discovered by Pini and Sim. The difference between these new companies and their underground predecessors (like Rip Off Press of San Francisco) was their distribution would be through mainstream comics stores. One of these new publishers, Vortex Comics of Toronto, lured the Hernandezes away from Love & Rockets for four months in 1985 to do a comic book called Mister X. The character, Mister X, was company-owned  and was a sci-fi dystopian tale of an architect who designs a city using “psychetecture” but has to return and live in his creation because something has gone “wrong”. Gilbert wrote the story based on Dean Motter’s premise and Jaime drew it and their work was coloured. The book was a great success, but the two soon returned to their own Love. Their brilliant work was noticed and soon Love & Rockets began to be discovered and bought. Soon the title was dubbed “the only comic worth killing trees for.”

During this same time, the influence of Sim was growing in the industry. Taking their cue from Sim, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird did their own funny animal parody, this one of Frank Miller’s popular Marvel comic Daredevil, called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the rest is history, this immensely popular b&w book caused a black and white comics speculation “boom” in 1985, where all the fan-boys were buying up anything small press and in black and white. Many b&w comics publishers soon flooded the market, all through the comics stores or “direct retail outlets”. As with the undergrounds in the late sixties-early seventies, most of these new comics were of poor quality and none proved to be the next “big thing”. Speculators had been fleeced again and in 1987 the boom went bust.

Sim and the Hernandezes both benefited from the boom and survived quite handily after the bust due to high standards of quality, a regular publishing schedule and the loyal, mature audiences they had cultivated.

One of the side effects of the boom-bust was the emergence of a new genre, the rock & roll comic. The boom had been influenced by what was called “the musical attitude”9 of Cerebus and Love & Rockets. One element in Love & Rockets was extrapolated into punk comics, heavy metal comics (not to be confused with Heavy Metal the comics magazine) and eventually into copyright-infringing rock biographies of real artists.10 The eclectic attitude of L&R and Cerebus was now the “standard” in the direct-sale press, influencing such titles as Bernie Mireault‘s The Jam and Mackenzie Queen, Alan Moore’s Watchman and V for Vendetta, and Scott McCloud’s Zot! In fact, the influence went both ways: a British pop band, friends of Alan Moore who introduced them to the book, named themselves “Love & Rockets” (to the chagrin of the Hernandezes who now had to endlessly explain that they were the original L&R and not a derivative medium of the band); another less popular band named themselves Zot! Dave Sim, an increasingly outspoken proponent of comics creators’ rights, was beginning to take on legendary status amongst fans due to his outrageous behaviour during comic book conventions. He soon earned the title, “comics’ first rock star”.

In 1983, the first solid steps into producing a “graphic novel” had been taken by Sim, Pini and a few others.11 In 1987, Love & Rockets was collected into eight volumes and sold in bookstores to moderate success. Later that year, Mister X was compiled as well. Sim had begun a second reprinting and compilation of his Cerebus work, this time into massive volumes structured around complete story arcs within the ongoing series.

Another side effect of the b&w bust was, as the market collapsed and unrestrained by the Comics Code,  creators turned to more and more sensationalist themes to attract or retain readership: sex, extreme violence and racism. DC Comics, always looking for an edge over its rival Marvel, was the first to adopt a softer version of this “aesthetic” and apply it to its super-hero titles. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was a public backlash unseen since the 1950s. Comic shop owners were arrested; books were burned; there was local legislative censorship and import barring of American comics by Canada and the United Kingdom. One of the titles pointed to as corrupting the nation’s youth was Love & Rockets. Obviously the censors had only glanced at the book which, at times, did depict nudity, hetero- and homosexual activity and used naturalistic language including those swear words, but did so to no greater extent than Hollywood did. The focus soon shifted to more extreme examples at DC Comics and to porn or “erotic” comics.

It was phenomenon tirelessly repeated since demonstrating that the two things that will raise a fuss in North American culture are sex and politics. Put those together in a medium still perceived as being exclusively for children and you invite trouble. Worse, add those elements to the super-hero genre and you’ve blurred more lines than Robin Thicke. That Cerebus, Elfquest and Love & Rockets weathered that storm was another testament to their quality and adult approach to the material. They did not fall into the porn genre. Or the rock genre. Or fantasy. Or sci-fi. They were unique books, beyond pigeon-holing, and they had each attracted a readership which had stopped following a genre, but were now following an artist and his or her creative journey.

This was new to comics in the 1980s. In fact, it was a revolution.


1. most notably Arcade, the Comics Revue.
2. to give the Hollywood Powers-that-be their due, they were clearly just waiting for CGI to be invented to do the characters justice…
3. although Will Eisner had created a few by this time, their readership was low, the books hard to find, and inspired only the most dogged of cartoonist-collectors.
4. a self-imposed comics industry-controlled standards council dating back to the 1950s. Restrictions included no depictions of sex, bad guys must lose and no decapitations.
5. he would later bring a local artist, Gerhard, in to help with background illustration and cover colouring
6. not that work-for-hire cartoonists didn’t necessarily care about what they did, but the best often went through an early-career enthusiastic stage then ended on sour, bitter notes as the fruits of their labour (beyond their page rate) benefited solely their employer.
7. zine comics were another innovation in the medium that took place in the 80s mainly brought about by the accessibility and affordability of xeroxing. The zine subculture would crest in popularity in the mid-nineties thanks to review magazines like Factsheet 5 but collapse shortly thereafter with the advent of the internet. The zine culture did introduce some notable creators though: Chester Brown (Yummy Fur, Louis Riel), Julie Doucet (Dirty Plotte) and Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve) among many others.
8. the influence of The Comics Journal is an article unto itself. Started by two frustrated fans, Gary Groth and Kim Thomson, the journal was a tireless champion of good comics over mediocre and followed and exposed cartoonists that pushed the envelope in terms of story-telling. While never turning its back completely on genre comics, the editorial was consistently disparaging of creators wasting time reinventing super-heroes and urged them to explore different themes and do more personal work.
9.  on a superficial level this referred to Sim’s taste in classic rock influencing things like titles of chapters. It primarily meant Sim’s lyrical use of sequential images, his pacing and timing. His narrow, vertical panels, especially in his graphic novel Church & State are as close a graphic representation of musical beat you will find in any medium. In Los Bros Hernandez’s case, one of the main protagonists in Jaime’s stories was the singer in a punk band and many stories centred around that lifestyle.
10. admittedly, the genre didn’t start in the b&w boom. A licensed comic book rock biography of KISS was published by Marvel in the late seventies as they threw any comics concept at the wall to see what would stick. The sales must not have met expectations as the experiment was never repeated.
11. Jim Starlin was also a pioneer in the mainstream press with his Metamorphosis Odyssey series of graphic novels; Don McGregor with his Sabre graphic novel; and Will Eisner with his A Contract With God.

Geek Market Postgame Highlights

We survived the Geek Market and are now in various states of recovery, thanks for asking.

A convention or trade-show-type event like the Geek Market is an exhausting, but rewarding enterprise.

We sold some books, sure, but the best part really is connecting with new book lovers over our shared interests; and this year’s Geek Market afforded us a great new venue for that exchange. It’s always heartening to discover there are still book people out there, of all ages and backgrounds.

And for those of you who are visiting this website for the first time because you joined us at the booth this past weekend, we hope you keep watching this space for new offerings and developments, welcome.

We’d also like to thank our families for all their hard work and tolerance—you know who you are—we couldn’t do these things without you.

Ottawa Geek Market, Oct 19-20, 2013

Just a reminder to check out the Geek Market in Ottawa, Canada this weekend, October 19th and 20th at the Carleton University Fieldhouse, 1125 Colonel By Drive. Please click here for more information. Last years’ event was a blast and we’re thrilled to be a part of this one.

Albino Books will be at booth #115. You can click here to find a floorplan and see a list of other vendors.

We’ll be selling a wide range of books (used & collectible paperbacks & hardcovers, fine press limited editions, sets) and other interesting paper items in all price ranges from $5 on up.

We highly recommend going to the Geek Market in general, and hope you’ll come by to say hello and check out the Albino Books display.

The Magic 8-Ball: Science Fiction Predicts

It’s a cliché among writers and critics of science fiction to say that the genre is not about predicting the future, but instead is meant to hold a mirror up to the present. There’s obviously some truth to this when we read books like 1984—famously titled as a reversal of 1948, the year it was written. And in the words of William Gibson:

“I think the least important thing about science fiction for me is its predictive capacity. Its record for being accurately predictive is really, really poor! If you look at the whole history of science fiction, what people have said is going to happen, what writers have said is going to happen, and what actually happened — it’s terrible. We’re almost always wrong.”

What this vigorous denial of the predictive ability of science fiction somewhat obscures though, is the interesting back-and-forth exchange between fantastic literature and the real world.

Beginning long before science fiction emerged either as a term or a distinct genre, Jules Verne imagined, in startling clarity, many now commonplace technologies such as submarines, televisions, and even the taser. Like many later science fiction writers, Verne spent hours in research at the library—specifically in Verne’s case the Bibliothèque nationale de France—immersing himself in recent scientific and geographic writings. He would then extrapolate from general knowledge a possibility. What separates an SF writer from a futurist is the ability to take that possibility and turn it into a story. Sometimes the predicted tech becomes a metaphor, but Verne inspired many more scientific minds than his with the rigour of his imagination. For example, Michio Kaku noted Verne’s influence on a young  Edwin Hubble, describing the budding astronomer as “enthralled” by Verne’s tales in his book Parallel Worlds.

Arthur C. Clarke also acknowledged his debt to Verne, writing, in an introduction to a biography of Verne:

“Jules Verne had already been dead for a dozen years when I was born. Yet I feel strongly connected to him, and his works of science fiction had a major influence on my own career. He is among the top five people I wish I could have met in person.”
—Butcher, William (2006), Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press

Clarke himself wrote a letter to Wireless World in 1945 proposing geosynchronous satellites, which later became a key component of the space elevators in his novel The Fountains of Paradise. Geosynchronous orbit is still known as Clarke Orbit in some circles. He is often cited in discussions around the validity of science fiction as a predictive tool, but I would argue that Clarke wrote a formal proposal to a scientific paper and only later turned his concepts into a story.

And for both Verne and Clarke, telling a story was more important than designing the future, otherwise wouldn’t they have become researchers or scientists of some sort?

A 1964 article in the New York Times by Isaac Asimov is, for me, the perfect microcosm of the accuracy of science fiction writers. Parts of Asimov’s predictions for what future visitors would see at the 2014 World’s Fair are suprisingly accurate:

“…by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works…”

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set…”

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

But for many of his more accurate predictions, Asimov falls down on the specific details. Of the television, he goes on to say that:

“…transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible…”

Despite writing that robots will still not be very good in 2014, a thoroughly accurate prediction, he still imagined that they would be in general use for gardening. And where are the moving sidewalks in urban centres? No, airports don’t count.

Still, it’s no accident that Honda’s torturous acronym for their prototype robot is ASIMO. Science fiction has, without a doubt, been a huge influence and often a direct inspiration on the scientific community. But although to say that science fiction inspires scientists is true, it limits the scope of what is really a complex web of interrelations. Remember the hours and hours Verne spent in the library pouring over recent theories?

And what’s the downside of this incestuous relationship between the scientific community and science fiction?

William Gibson tells an anecdote about the fear he has around imagining future tech in his work: that someone will make it real. Apparently a group of West German hackers were once caught selling secrets to the KGB for cocaine and cash. At the trial, their twenty-something-year-old leader* stood up and told the judge he’d never understand them or their culture unless he’d read Neuromancer.

The thing is, not all science fiction writers imagine new technologies as an endless progressive bounty, some, like Gibson, are busy writing cautionary tales—or at least with ambivalence. The import of a given story is really up to the reader in the end. In the words of Doris Lessing:

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.”

*Possibly a reference to the trial of Marcus Hess? I can’t find a clear source for this anecdote, but trust me, Gibson has told it more than once…maybe No Maps for these Territories? I’ve lost my copy…

Copper Cylinders: More Than Human

I’ve read a few sci-fi books over the years, but really only a few. I read widely generally, but sci-fi is to me what non-fiction and hard-boiled are to me—I know so little that I don’t even know where to start! Andrew invited me to do a regular feature here on Albino Books and we agreed that approaching the classics of sci-fi and fantasy from the perspective of an outsider, a newbie, an ill-educated blunderer, was the only way to go. The name of this feature, Copper Cylinders, comes from an almost entirely forgotten 19th-century Canadian novel by James DeMille called A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder. DeMille’s novel is a very odd mixture of adventure, travel, dystopia, meta-fiction, and early sci-fi. It tells the story of a ship stranded at sea by a persistent and desperate lack of wind; the shipmates are close to losing their minds from sheer boredom when a sealed copper cylinder just floats along—a break in the boredom seized on with more energy than we with our 21st-century array of constant distractions can barely imagine. They retrieve the cylinder and break it open to find a handwritten story, claiming to be true, of an unknown civilization organized around principles entirely alien to their own. The manuscript is read aloud to help pass the interminable time on the calm, wine dark sea.

Sci-fi abounds with strange manuscripts waiting to be picked up and opened. I begin with Theodore Sturgeon’s 1953 fix-up More Than Human.

I was a bit lost, at first, reading More Than Human. I hadn’t expected to find the prose so…Cormac McCarthy-ish when I began it. Sturgeon was clearly better able to write a complete sentence than McCarthy is, but I suppose I was expecting something less literary and more science-y (no, I can’t really tell you what I mean by the latter):

The idiot lived in a black and gray world, punctuated by the white lightning of hunger and the flickering of fear. His clothes were old and many-windowed. Here peeped a shinbone, sharp as a cold chisel, and there in the torn coat were ribs like the fingers of a fist. He was tall and flat. His eyes were calm and his face was dead. (p.1)

The idiot, who comes to be known simply as Lone, is 25 years old when the tale begins. He is pre-verbal, disconnected to his human brethren, and “purely animal—a degrading thing to be among men.” Sturgeon’s prose is alternately dense, tight, and bordering on the purplish. So when I read that when “a guard or a warden would find himself face to face with the idiot and the idiot’s eyes, whose irises seemed on the trembling point of spinning like wheels….the gates would open and the idiot would go, and as always the benefactor would run to do something else, anything else, deeply troubled,” I really didn’t know what was going on. More Than Human begins with an overabundance of metaphor, simile, figurative language—was this supposed to be literal?

As it turns out, yes—although my discovery of what Lone could do (and how and why) occurred at precisely the pace he learns it. Lone is taken in by a sad childless couple in the country; over the years, they teach him to be something resembling human. He learns to talk; he becomes a good farm worker; he feels a certain connection to the Prodds who come to accept him despite his strange and essential difference from them. Until, that is, Mrs. Prodd finds herself with child and Lone is politely asked to move on. He does, building himself a little cave in the woods, foraging for food and supplies.

He won’t remain alone very long, however. In the city, a community is forming that will find him and become his community. First there’s Janie, who makes life uncomfortable for her maliciously disinterested mother and her collection of boyfriends with alternately frightening and playful displays of her telepathic and telekinetic powers. Unwelcome in her own home, at age five, Janie “began playing with some other little girls. It was quite a while before they were aware of it,” in part because they are only toddlers. The best game involved moving their little jumpers just out of reach after they took them off, something these girls (Bonnie and Beanie) do with alarming speed: “the twins could skin out of their rompers faster than the eye could follow.” Teleportation! It’s only a matter of time before the three little girls escape their uncomprehending and hostile parents and end up starving in the same forest Lone inhabits, and only a matter of time till they all come together.

Getting to know each other is a difficult and often hilarious process for these four—three young children and one grown-up idiot of limited vocabulary. And then Baby arrives—Baby, the mongoloid progeny of the Prodds, who probably kills Mrs Prodd in childbirth and drives Mr Prodd insane. Baby is rescued by Lone, but their relationship is symbiotic: they cohere through Baby, who can’t talk but can communicate telepathically with the girls and who is, Janie reckons, like an “adding machine” that always “gives you the right answer.” Through Janie, Baby explains himself:

“He says he is a figure-outer brain and I am a body and the twins are arms and legs and you are the head. He says the ‘I’ is all of us.”

“I belong. I belong. Part of you, part of you and you too.”

“The head, silly.”

Lone thought his heart was going to burst. He looked at them all, every one: arms to flex and reach, a body to care and repair, a brainless but faultless computer and—the head to direct it.

“And we’ll grow, Baby. We just got born!”

Lone nearly bursts with the hopeful possibilities of it all—me too! But the hope can’t last, for this being, whatever it is, soon receives a new head. This occurs in the middle portion, Baby Makes Three, which lays out Sturgeon’s grand idea—and it still reads like a grand idea, goddammit, 60 years after being written.

Gerry Thompson narrates this section. He tells how he eventually finds Lone and the others, is accepted, how Lone dies, how he ends up as its head. It’s an ugly, painful story, the most important parts of which are buried in Gerry’s sub-conscious. Fourteen years old, bitter and mangled after years of abuse and neglect; Gerry tracks down a psychiatrist to help him understand why he’s just murdered the woman who cares for them all after Lone dies.

What he learns is that he, Janie, Baby, Beanie, and Bonnie together form a new being, which Gerry names Homo Gestalt. Sturgeon imagines the next stage in human evolution as not physical, but instead mental—or, more precisely, psychic. Gestalt—something, loosely, either greater or other than the sum of its parts. Homo Gestalt is a fully functioning being distinct from the beings that comprise it. As the new head of this being, Gerry can control the actions of all the others—except Baby, with whom he can’t communicate directly, but he can force Janie to act as a bridge between them using his controlling whirly eye trick. (A plot hole that never gets sewn up—if, as Lone could, Gerry can look into anybody’s eyes and not only extract all the information there, but also control their behaviour, erase their memories, etc—why can’t he do this with Baby? Baby is physically deformed, never learns to talk, but is possessed of vast knowledge—why can’t Gerry just access this all directly by looking into his eyes?)

In Lone’s idiot but mostly gentle hands, Homo Gestalt is a wonderful but probably harmless thing; in Gerry’s, it quickly becomes terrifying because he is willing to do anything to preserve the Gestalt being’s life (it’s why he kills their guardian, Miss Kew—she makes life too comfortable for them as individuals). Things become more ominous when Gerry realizes that, as the controlling force behind his Homo Gestalt, he can do anything he wants, and what he wants is to have fun. Fun, that is, according to the standards of an angry, maladjusted 14-year-old: “Everybody’s had fun but me. The kind of fun everybody has is kicking someone around, someone small who can’t fight back. Or they do you favours until they own you, or kill you…I’m just going to have fun, that’s all.”

I loved this terrifying turn in the novel. I love that Sturgeon explored the schlocky possibilities of “bleshing” (blending and meshing in a symbiotic community of comfort and comfortable survival) just to knock them down to explore the darker possibilities of human physic evolution.

Gerry is sociopathic, but there is some good news: not all of the parts of Home Gestalt are essentially ruthless. Without Janie, Gerry can’t communicate with Baby, etc and so it becomes not dead, but partially disabled. Part 3, Morality, focuses on a grown-up Janie on the run from the ruthless Gerry and the enthralled Beanie and Bonnie. Enter Hip Barrows, a mechanical genius of great promise inexplicably gone mad and rescued from prison by Janie. They go through their own process of psychiatric healing—in hiding—until Hip decides to offer himself up as a sacrificial goat to try to teach Gerry about that thing he’s missing—morality. I get that; I would agree that no human or post-human being makes complete or safe sense without morality. But while I found Janie and Hip’s interactions—alternately practical, frustrated, tense, and sweet—entirely compelling, I found the resolution of More Than Human mostly frustrating. Here’s why:

Gerry accepts the sacrifice but doesn’t actually go through with it because, going in and reading Hip’s mind, he sees there’s more at stake than his own basic desires; he becomes more human. Because Gerry doesn’t sacrifice Hip, Hip becomes part of their Homo Gestalt entity. He is the missing piece that enables Gerry, as the organism’s head, to become mature and self-aware enough to earn acceptance by all the other Homo Gestalts, a community that was just waiting for him to stop the violence and bullshit so they could reveal themselves to him. Okay—but one afternoon? Actually, that’s not even what bothers me most—this is a novel of ideas, and so the timelines don’t matter incredibly much. What matters is that while the newly complete Gestalt being is made complete by morality (Hip), it can’t transcend some pretty appalling aspects of twentieth-century social structure. Janie and Beanie and Bonnie are and remain merely appendages of the being, there to be used as the head sees fit—good thing the head has morality (male) to make sure he doesn’t do too much damage! The structure of the being persistently relegates women and minorities to positions of subservience; not only that, they don’t object: Janie is happy to stop making decisions now that Hip is around to make Gerry behave himself. And the twins never learn to talk; only once does either of them take independent action, and that’s to prevent Gerry from killing Hip before he learns his lesson—and as soon as Hip gains control of the situation, she and her sister immediately begin taking orders from him.

I don’t know if the other Home Gestalts have heads that are female or black or both—I think they could be beyond race and gender, but this isn’t made explicit. All we know of them, besides that they’ve been waiting for Gerry to get his shit together before revealing themselves, is that “multiplicity is our first characteristic; unity our second. As your parts know they are parts of you, so must you know that we are parts of humanity.”

Okay. But the only characters in Gerry’s Homo Gestalt who have last names are male. And Beanie and Bonnie, who are black, not only never learn to talk (at best, they “gabble”). Making things even more uncomfortable, Bonnie and Beanie’s father speaks with all the eloquence of a minstrel show; when he discovers them naked (because young Janie has put their rompers out of reach), all I could think was ‘Oh hell, please don’t let him be black! Please!’:

‘Bonnie!’ he bellowed, ‘Beanie! Wha y’all?’ He lurched out into the open and peered around. ‘Come out yeah! Look at yew! I gwine snatch yew bald-headed! Wheah’s yo’ clo’es?’ He swooped down on them and caught them, each huge hand on a tiny biceps. He held them high, so that each had one toe barely touching the concrete and their little captured elbows pointed skyward. He turned around, once, twice, seeking, and at last his eye caught the glimmer of the rompers on the sill. ‘How you do dat?’ he demanded.’ You trine th’ow away yo’ ‘spensive clo’es? Oh, I gwine whop you.’

It soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, black. I was appalled not only because it’s just appalling, but it was more so because the disjoint between Sturgeon being able to imagine such a wildly compelling form of human evolution sits right on top of, and never questions, such contemporary prejudices. (It’s like how in Neuromancer, William Gibson invented the internet but couldn’t imagine a world without cassette tapes—but sad and disturbing rather than charming and a little funny.)

So, I mostly loved this book but it made me uncomfortable and embarrassed sometimes. I read a lot of nineteenth-century fiction, so it’s not like I don’t come across such prejudices about race and gender (the former much more explicit than the latter in More Than Human) fairly frequently. But I guess, as a relative newbie to sci-fi, I’d hoped the big ideas with regards to science would necessarily seep into ideas about the present…But, after all, maybe that’s too much to ask—Theodore Sturgeon was, presumably, only human.

Precision of Naming: Science Fiction, SF or Sci-Fi?

“I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. When this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room.”
—Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

As critic and writer Damien Walter rightly notes in a post at The Guardian“If there’s one thing science fiction fans love, it’s an argument. And if there’s one argument they love more than all others, it’s the attempt to define what science fiction actually is, and what is or isn’t included in that definition.”

Mr. Walter provides a succinct and entertaining glossary of terms for the main genres of writing. I laughed out loud when I got to his definition of one of my preferred abbreviations, SF:

“Because no one knows what SF means, writers and fans are forever telling people it means ‘science fiction’ before correcting people when they say, ‘Oh, you mean sci-fi,’ which tends to annoy both parties.”

I grew up reading science fiction, or whatever, in the late 70s and early 80s—in the wake of Star Wars, sure—but also in the afterglow of the New Wave of late 60s early 70s SF. (I’ve obviously drifted into another annoying subgeneric term, but stay with me.) The New Wave was a movement characterized by rampant and occasionally ill-advised experimentation. The term “speculative fiction” arose out of that movement and is still a favourite of many good writers and critics; and is yet another entertaining entry in Mr. Walter’s glossary.

The New Wave writers—like Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, J.G. Ballard, Ursula K. LeGuin—disdained the use of the term sci-fi because Forry‘s pet name cheerfully included all the b-movie cultural detritus from which they sought to distance their art.

And despite my love of b-movies and related schlock, I read so much Ellison et al as a young man that I’ve never been able to fully embrace the name sci-fi. Which is unfortunate, as sci-fi has stuck with the majority of the public at large. That I would choose to cling to an abbreviation like SF at the risk of being misunderstood perhaps says more about my character than I’d care to examine.

Further, the choice of the name Albino Books speaks to my love of the work of Moorcock, who is one of the kings of cross-genre experimentation, where these labels cease to be meaningful.

In my last post I brought up William Hope Hodgson, who wrote for pulp magazines long before the term science fiction was invented and before the semi-rigid marketing categories of science fiction, fantasy, horror and mystery became commonplace in bookstores. The recent emergence of the term New Weird is partially a reaction to the restrictions of these current genre definitions. Writers like my hero China Miéville, equally inspired by Hodgson, Lovecraft, The Island of Dr Moreau and Advanced D&D, have returned to a Weird Tales-style soup of unexpected genre tropes—tales of the fantastic and unusual.

I contend that the the impulse to mix these seemingly disparate elements is really the natural order.

I sympathize with the dogmatic loyalty many writers feel towards hard science fiction—or, yikes, even Mundane SF—the grounding in real science that would seem to provide a firmer foundation to build a story upon. But China Miéville is the perfect example of a writer comfortable in moving freely from genre to genre—weird tale, fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction and back again—with no loss of purpose or quality. The reason for this is his ability to fashion a new, airtight internal logic in each successive story. He establishes rules for each new world he plays in, then rarely or never breaks those rules. No matter how weird, or even transgressive, a given story element may seem in some of China’s work, they all flow together in sympathetic fictional frameworks—nothing seems completely out of place, even the truly weird.

There’s also some melancholy to be found in the way these adherents to separate splinter factions of fantastic storytelling often react to each other with open hostility. Don’t get your urban, romantic,  paranormal fantasy in my post-colonial, slip-stream, steampunk, science fiction—our imaginary nerd seems to say—you just don’t get it. As fans and practitioners of sci-fi, aren’t we already marginalized enough without turning on our brothers and sisters?

I understand the impulse that leads so many to expend so much energy on defining themselves and what they do—I’m even a sucker for a good manifesto—but isn’t the act of defining an art the first step towards codifying that art?

And isn’t codifying any art an inherently reductive act?

All Hallow’s Read: A Tropical Horror

With Halloween approaching, it’s once again time for All Hallow’s Read. All Hallow’s Read was proposed by Neil Gaiman in 2010 as a gift-giving opportunity linked to the spooky season. The elegantly simple premise: give the gift of a scary book on Halloween.

I’m not sure how much All Hallow’s Read is catching on, but I love the concept and would like to encourage the practice. On the All Hallow’s Read website, Neil Gaiman provides a great list of recommended books, and in that same spirit, I’d like to humbly offer a recommendation of my own: The Dark Horse Book of Monsters.

Actually, I really have two suggestions, one of which is very cheap, bear with me.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters is a great little collection of comics about various monsters—suitable for young adult readers and up—but it also features a marvelously illustrated short story by William Hope Hodgson entitled A Tropical Horror.

William Hope Hodgson is a fascinating character from the early days of weird fiction. In addition to being a highly influential writer of pulp stories, he was also a poet, sailor, bodybuilder, marksman, photographer and all-around bon vivant who perished at the WWI battle of Ypres at the age of forty.

He left behind one of the most influential early books in weird fiction The House on the Borderland, which I have recommended before for All Hallow’s Read. Borderland was written before clear genre divisions like science fiction, horror and fantasy existed and blends them all freely into a strange and unique reading experience.

A Tropical Horror was the second story Hodgson had published and appeared in 1905. While the prose is a little creaky, A Tropical Horror is immediately engrossing thanks to a combination of realistic settings and details—acquired in Hodgson’s difficult time as an apprentice seaman—and an enveloping sense of dread built carefully through the story. By limiting the number of characters, moving the worst mayhem “off-screen” and telling the story through a first-person narrator with little to no agency, Hodgson creates a heavy sense of dread. The monster of A Tropical Horror is like a force of nature—death and destruction seems inevitable and is nearly inescapable.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters would make a lovely All Hallow’s Read gift, primarily for the Hodgson story, but also for the remaining comics, which are great fun. But if you’re looking for a more budget conscious option, how about exerting a little crafty effort?

As the copyrights on most of Hodgson’s work have lapsed, there are a number of free versions of A Tropical Horror online, such as this one. Here’s my second suggestion: print out a copy of the story and bind it yourself. You could create your own illustrations or paste in pictures from something else—Liam’s Pictures from Old Books is a great source of material. You could also retype or hand-transcribe it in order to add a more personal touch. This might be a great activity to do with older kids so they can give it as a gift to someone else.

I like to promote the purchasing of books whenever I can to support the industry, but I think the more important point of All Hallow’s Read is just to keep people reading in general, and to help the like minded discover some cool bits of seasonally appropriate spooky writing.

William Hope Hodgson wrote some truly original and frightening work that deserves to be remembered and has a lot more to offer contemporary readers than you might suspect.

2013 Aurora Award Winners

Over this past weekend the 2013 Aurora Awards winners were announced at Can*Con in Ottawa. Albino Books would like to congratulate all the winners on some fine work.

But on a personal note, I’d like to congratulate Hayden Trenholm of Bundoran Press for winning the “Related Work” prize for the Blood and Water anthology. Blood and Water* is an excellent collection of short fiction grouped around the theme of resource conflicts of the future—a wonderfully Canadian topic for speculative fiction.

All of the stories in Blood and Water deserve your attention, but I want to highlight one entitled Hard Water in particular. Hard Water is one of those classically Canadian—in this case fundamentally East Coast—stories of rugged men braving a harsh environment in order to eke out a living. The kind of story that many of us living in contemporary, mostly urban, Canada bear begrudgingly at best. But Hard Water employs this familiar framework to support extremely persuasive SF conceits—in an authentic-feeling, sea-going adventure.

Hard Water also happens to be a story written by my sister Christine Cornell, who I am just going to go ahead and be unashamedly proud of in public. Thank you for your indulgence.

*Makes a great holiday gift, FYI.

School vs. Readers

quietly reading...shhh

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
—Ray Bradbury

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”
—Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have one formative memory of elementary school related to reading. On Halloween, when I was in grade 5, a supply teacher, or perhaps a volunteer of some kind, took a group of us to a small study room, dimmed the lights, and read Poe’s The Telltale Heart aloud with a flashlight under her chin. It’s important to note: I have no idea who this person was and never saw her again. Other than this one, shivery, excellent memory, I can’t think of another teacher in elementary school who encouraged any kind of love of reading in me—directly or indirectly. Without the influence of my family, particularly an older sister who is now a Professor of English, I doubt I would have taken it up.

Jennifer A. Franssen has written a superb piece for Canadian Notes & QueriesSchool is  no Place for a Reader, that ponders the irony of an institution—elementary school—that purports to foster reading as an important skill for children to develop, and yet offers little to no opportunities for actual reading.

Worse yet, according to Franzen, schools are becoming environments that are antithetical to real reading in the service of a utilitarian kind of functional literacy: “Arguably, the literacy agenda is a limiting approach that ill serves all children in schools. It is inarguable that it ill serves those who are already readers,” Franssen writes.

I find reading to be one of the chief pleasures in life. Many would agree with me that reading is transporting and enriching in a wide variety of ways. But, putting aside any such aesthetic and ennobling benefits, the habit of reading—of any self-directed kind, I don’t judge the format or content (much)—is an essential tool for success.

Over the past twenty years I’ve hired a number of employees in various white-collar, office jobs. Harry S. Truman once said that “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” From experience, I can say that readers, even occasional ones, have a distinct advantage in almost any workplace. Any white-collar job—and a large number of blue—requires paperwork, usually done on a computer. The advantage that any longtime reader has, is the ability to go off and sit quietly and focus for an extended period of time on a solitary task. Even the most type-A, salesman has to sit down and record that sale or finalize that contract in some manner. And I’ve seen people attain fairly high levels of employment—right up to VP level—who struggle with reading and writing. These executives can achieve a certain level of success, but most are mocked by their peers for their lack of these fundamental capabilities.

The assumption is that school will teach a child how to quietly concentrate on a task until completion, but I think that really happens at home now. Many classrooms are becoming barely controlled chaos punctuated by watching movies. Parents who are diligent in terms of quiet, focused time for homework can help prepare their kids for their future working life, somewhat. But a life-long reader, encouraged to read from an early age, will slip automatically into that focused space that real mental work requires.

Franssen is right to fear the emphasis in elementary school on literacy over reading. She quotes a teaching professional’s disdain for reading above your level: “Perhaps she is decoding that book, but she isn’t comprehending it.” Any lifelong reader knows that complete comprehension is never a criterion for either enjoyment or enrichment from a given piece of writing. She also quotes the positive influence of a Mrs Phelps, who said “And don’t worry about the bits you can’t understand. Sit back and allow the words to wash around you, like music.”

There are some professionals who would seem to agree, at least tangentially:

“The connection between reading speed and comprehension; a film is made up of still images flashed in rapid succession to simulate movement. Slow down the film, and the movement and meaning slows and the film’s impact is diminished. Viewers won’t learn as much about the film as if it were shown at normal speed. With reading the same thing can happen. When a person reads word by word, like frame by frame, they are not reading on the level of ideas. You need to read on some level that’s more conversational and allows things to coalesce into ideas themselves.”
—Doug Evans, Director of Planning, Institute of Reading Development

A child who is content to be awash in words and concepts they don’t immediately grasp, but will instinctively strive to place in context, will, I think, become a better critical thinker later in life. I’ve reread bits of experimental prose like J.G. Ballard or William Burroughs at different times in my life and gotten different things out of them each time. The experiences of my life have eventually provided the context I needed for those difficult passages. I believe it’s roughly the same process as when you’re a child and initially misuse some big word you got from Stan Lee in a comic: once that word falls into the right context, you never lose it again.

The one question I’m left with that is unanswered by either Franssen, or my own personal experiences, is this: was it ever better than this? If elementary school didn’t encourage me to read over thirty years ago, was there a time when schools did a better job of creating young readers?

“The most erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”
—H.L. Mencken

Do those of us who become lifelong lovers of reading do so out of a perversely stubborn streak of nonconformity that literacy training can’t stamp out? Maybe we read in spite of school.