About andrew

Andrew James Cornell reads, writes, sometimes sells books and cooks. He spends an inordinate amount of time talking about the differences between types of dashes. He will also lecture anyone who stands still on the importance of Dune (the book), 2001 (the movie), about how under-appreciated Paul Bowles and Italo Calvino are, and the correct way to make an Old Fashioned cocktail.

Hardboiled: The Maltese Falcon

Since our launch last month, we have shortchanged part of our mandate by not talking about hardboiled lit with the same enthusiasm we’ve shown other genres. As a corrective, I’ve provided below a reworked version of a review I put up last year on Goodreads of The Maltese Falcon.

I’ve chosen Dashiell Hammett as the first hardboiled author to highlight on Albino Books because he is one of the first true writers in that subgenre and because of his influence over an important subgenre of science fiction: cyberpunk.

There’s a lot of loose talk about the noir influence in cyberpunk, and the most common reference tends to be Raymond Chandler. No disrespect to the marvelous Chandler or his admirers, but I think Hammett is a clearer influence on cyberpunk and in particular the ground zero that is the William Gibson novel Neuromancer.

Hammett’s best work is clean, diamond-hard and unsentimental—the core of what it means to be hardboiled writer.

If you spliced together the DNA of Red Harvest, The Stars My Destination and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress* the resulting hybrid would be Neuromancer.

——

Reading a book like The Maltese Falcon is a little challenging for me. I’ve seen the beloved third film version many times since I was a child—it was also the first movie I watched in the first film studies class I ever took—so my expectations going in were that I would find little in the way of fresh experience. There’s a distancing effect that happens to me where I compare what I’m reading to my recollections of a film adaptation. And those recollections aren’t always accurate, despite how many times I’ve seen the movie, so the distancing is multiplied while I simultaneously interrogate myself about my memories.

Look, I’m not going to argue with you that I’m not too introverted sometimes.

Roughly halfway through reading The Maltese Falcon though, I became fully engrossed and achieved the highly sought after Nirvana of total escapism. Mr. Hammett was that good.

From the first page, I was surprised by the differences from the 1941 film. In the book, Hammett describes his main character Sam Spade as looking like a tall “blonde Satan.” Like most people, when I hear the name Sam Spade, I think of Bogart, who was neither tall nor really devilish (at least in appearance), and certainly not blonde.

This was where I was still wrestling with my preconceptions. At about the point where Spade roughs up “the Levantine” Joe Cairo, I was fully immersed  in Hammett’s morally grey world of tough guys and femme fatales. I stopped seeing Peter Lorre and Bogart and started seeing the characters as Hammett described them.

Part of my ability to lose myself in the book is the slightly different tone it takes. Probably as a result of censorship at the time, Hammett’s novel seems harsher and darker than the movie. The book is not elaborately violent or sexy, but it definitely has more edge than the film. And Spade as a character displays an even more dubious morality than his film counterpart.

Do I need to recap the plot? It doesn’t differ that much from one of the most popular films of all time. Sam Spade, a detective, and assorted criminals including one legendary femme fatale scheme and swindle each other over a rare historical object from Malta.

Hammett gets into a surprising amount of detail about the history and provenance of his MacGuffin—I felt like I was watching a lost Indiana Jones movie. It’s a startling effective passage in the book and provides an interesting resonance to the proceedings that might otherwise be lacking if the characters were squabbling over more conventional spoils. It’s easier to imagine everyone becoming obsessed with the Maltese Falcon because Hammett provides it with more back-story than some of the main characters—which is not at all a criticism on my part.

But what’s really striking about the book, as opposed to the movie, is the ambiguity of Spade’s moral calculus. There’s some suggestion that Spade makes the decisions he makes in the course of the book because he believes in criminals being brought to justice, but it could just as easily be interpreted as Spade favouring that side of the game—just slightly. In fact, his calculated approach to life ends up alienating his loyal to a fault secretary Effie. She comes late to realize what the reader has a few scenes earlier: Spade is basically a bastard, who may or may not have some rudimentary motivations left related to issues of justice.

The Maltese Falcon, the book, expresses a deeply nihilistic worldview that the movie only hints at. The movie is unimpeachably a piece of classic film noir, but it only touched on the blackness of the novel—still a bracingly modern read, even over 80 years later.

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*I readily acknowledge the importance of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress to the development of SF, but think it’s mostly a terribly written book with some great concepts littered throughout.

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.

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…

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.

The Foods of Tomorrow

soylent-green

Other than strident dystopias like The Sheep Look Up or Make Room! Make Room! (Soylent Green), science fiction doesn’t seem to really engage with food that often. Certainly I can think of great examples of descriptive scenes of eating in fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, but if an SF work does expend the same energy on food it tends to the horrific of the examples above, or the satirical—like the genetically engineered vat-food in Brave New World or the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster.

Food is a passion and hobby of mine, so this excellent article by Jason Sheehan hits a sweet-spot for me. As an ex-chef and food writer with a love of SF, Mr. Sheehan understands the potential of food as a fictional world-building tool. He cites a couple of examples—particularly the dog food scene in The Road Warrior—that have long preoccupied me as well.

The food-related SF example that looms largest for me though is an unlikely one: The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. I say unlikely in that although Asimov is rightfully a giant in the field of SF, no one ever points to him for rhapsodic descriptions of foodstuffs—Proust he ain’t.

I read The Caves of Steel at about the age of fourteen. In the novel, Asimov imagines an enormous and nearly endless city, where many people live their whole lives without accessing open space. As a method of dealing with overpopulation, most citizens are issued chits for cafeteria-style eating rather than being allowed to prepare food at home—saving the space/resources for individual kitchens and food storage, and ensuring people only eat a ration based on their personal needs. He describes lining-up to hand in your chit and then passing on to another line for the food available to your particular circumstances.

In a weird bit of synchronicity the evening of the day I finished reading The Caves of Steel, my family visited a new restaurant for dinner. This restaurant is long since lost to the mists of time. It was a buffet place. You lined up to pay for a chit…then got into lines for individual, semi-cubicle divisions (like, yes, many men’s urinals) to stand at a space near a conveyor belt that rolled the food past you. The ambiance of the place was somewhere between high school cafeteria and a DMV.

What Mr. Sheehan understands better than the either the creators of that restaurant nightmare, or the average SF writer, is that food matters on many levels, it’s not just fuel.

Historically, Science Fiction, when it bothered to think about food at all, predicted either deprivation or pills that would make eating obsolete. No one in the Golden Age of SF ever predicted the 21st Century’s widespread resurgence of interest in DIY food production methods like canning, smoking and cheese-making.*

Food sets off reactions in our heads that we’re just beginning to understand. It’s no accident that cocaine and something fatty like bacon can light up similar regions of a brain-scan. Back to Proust again and the madeleine: food can trigger memories and emotional responses. We don’t want to make eating obsolete, we want to revel in both the sensual pleasures it affords and the cell-replacing sustenance it provides.

I’ve written before about the inherent power of imaginary food—it never disappoints. Mr. Sheehan’s article perfectly articulates the ways in which describing the food and eating habits of the characters populating a science-fictional universe can help make that universe more tangible, but I think there’s also another opportunity in this same effort. I’ve read many passages in general literature that bring to life an imaginary meal.**

I want to read more passages that attempt to convey a meal I can’t even imagine.

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*Punk Domestics is a fantastic site that highlights this renewed interest in a return to the fundamentals of self-sufficient food preparation.
**My favourite is in Under the Jaguar Sun, by Italo Calvino.