A history of human stupidity

Cat’s Cradle
by Kurt Vonnegut.
Penguin Books, 1965 (1963).

“Why should I bother with made-up games when there are so many real ones going on?” — Felix Hoenikker

In early 1961 the world teetered on the brink of nuclear destruction at the height of the Cold War. Barely a decade and a half before this the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been virtually annihilated by atomic bombs, those supposed children of theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer.

Meanwhile, another scientific polymath – Irving Langmuir, with whom Vonnegut’s brother worked – was developing techniques in the 1940s to de-ice aircraft wings and to seed clouds for the purpose of inducing rainfall (though Langmuir’s attempts to lessen the force of a hurricane only succeeded in increasing its intensity). Around the same time, as a prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut famously survived the 1945 Allied firebombing of Dresden by sheltering in a slaughterhouse’s meat locker. Motifs from all these historical events, along with much more, will find their way into Cat’s Cradle (1963).

The author, born in November 1922, had lived through momentous times, and unsurprisingly this novel reflects them. But it also has an extraordinary historical footnote of its own: in 1970 Vonnegut persuaded the University of Chicago to accept Cat’s Cradle in place of the thesis for his master’s degree in anthropology which he’d never completed. In effect it was a “history of human stupidity” such as that referenced in the final sentence of the novel.

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A being darkly wise

Roadside Picnic
by Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky.
Translated by Olena Bormashenko,
foreword by Ursula K Le Guin,
afterword by Boris Strugatsky, 2012.
Gollancz, 2012 (1972).

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

From ‘An Essay on Man: Epistle II’ by Alexander Pope

Superficially a speculative thriller, the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic for me turned out to be a deeply philosophical novel under its science-fictiony veneer. For the most part it focuses on a character called Redrick, a chancer who lives for the pleasures of alcohol, tobacco, gambling and occasional sex, living at some unspecified future time somewhere in North America. So, initially, a not very edifying tale.

The ostensible premise is that extraterrestrial visitors have touched down at six points on the Earth’s surface and then just as mysteriously departed, leaving behind their detritus in what turn out to be highly dangerous, disturbance-filled Zones. It is for this debris that Redrick and others enter the Zone adjacent to Harmont, to retrieve alien junk for the black market.

But there are deeper matters to think about than mere cupidity. At the central point of the novel we find ourselves listening to a conversation about the implications of this First Contact, implications that should matter to all humankind but which if ever considered are soon forgotten. In its underhand way Roadside Picnic encourages us to quietly consider those implications.

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A novel of its time

Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons
Bussard Ramjet, NASA image: Wikipedia Commons

Tau Zero by Poul Anderson.
Gollancz SF Masterworks, 2006 (1970).

A few centuries hence fifty specialists, twenty five of either gender, set out on a journey to the star Beta Virginis to colonise a new planet.

Their transport is the Leonora Christine, an interstellar spaceship powered by a Bussard ramjet, capable of accelerating to near light speed (tau zero).

Just before their halfway point, while still accelerating, disaster strikes with damage to the propulsion, meaning that the craft will continue its acceleration and not only miss its target but potentially never stop. How do the crew cope, and do they survive?

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Across the divide

© C A Lovegrove

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss.
Granta Books, 2019 (2018).

A vivid image comes to me: a rudimentary fence of thin branches stripped of leaves, two or three sheep skulls perched atop uprights. It’s the 70s, on a Welsh hillside, and the kids – this is a family holiday after all, though some of us adults are excavating an early medieval site – have, unconsciously imitating The Lord of the Flies, fashioned their ramshackle barrier to keep us out of their den.

This memory emerged like a body exhumed from a peat bog as I read Sarah Moss’s novella. Set in the late 80s or early 90s after the fall of the Berlin Wall Ghost Wall describes a poorly organised experimental archaeology summer school in Northumberland where a professor and three students are joined by Silvie, her cowed mother and her bus driver husband who fancies himself an expert in Iron Age prehistory.

But the opening pages take us back a couple of thousand or so years, when a community is about to ritually kill a young woman and then pin her down in a bog. Details echo what came to light when Lindow Woman was discovered in Cheshire, and of Danish bog bodies such as Haraldskær Woman and Huldremose Woman. How may this relate to Silvie as the modern group attempt to re-enact prehistoric life on an upland Northumbrian moss near the North Sea coast?

And will a ghost wall be sufficient to keep outsiders out, or will it fall just as the Berlin Wall did?

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Paranoid perspectives

Sketch of Arkham’s street plan, by H P Lovecraft

Lovecraft and Landscape‘ (1978)
by Angela Carter,
in The Necronomicon,
edited by George Hay and introduced by Colin Wilson.
Corgi Books, 1980 (1978).

In 1980, at the age of forty, Angela Carter took a year-long teaching post as visiting professor at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island. While there she attempted, together with her friend – Christopher Frayling, an expert on popular culture – to locate the grave of the horror writer H P Lovecraft, though without success.

Her biographer, Edmund Gordon, tells us she was keen on Lovecraft’s fiction, “finding in it ‘an odd stylistic resemblance’ to [Jorge Luís] Borges,” his work doubtless resonating with her own taste for the macabre.¹ Despite the fruitless grave search – unsurprising given that there are some forty thousand interments in the 60-acre cemetery – the pilgrimage was a logical extension to her interest in weird fiction.

Two years earlier that interest had already manifested itself in a collection of fictive studies of Lovecraft’s own concept of an occult volume ascribed to the ‘mad Arab’ Abdul Alhazred, to which she contributed – as had Frayling – a piece about the Providence author. Published by Neville Spearman Ltd, The Necronomicon reflected the publisher’s customary eclectic taste for a range of off-beat topics, and Carter’s piece on Lovecraft’s visionary landscapes obviously suited the brief.²

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When the year dies #TDiRS22

Llyn Mwyngil, Tal-y-llyn lake © C A Lovegrove

The Grey King by Susan Cooper,
The Dark is Rising sequence, Book 4.
Illustration by Julie Dillon.
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2013 (1975).

“On the day of the dead, when the year too dies,
Must the youngest open the oldest hills
Through the door of the birds, where the breeze breaks.”

The Grey King

The fourth book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence opens with a prophetic rhyme which, with its alliterative phrases, antonyms and allusions, reads like a riddle to be solved – which in a way it is. The day of the dead is the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain, the modern Halloween, which once upon a time marked the end of summer and the start of the new year as autumn begins ushering in winter.

Noson Galan Gaeaf – ‘the eve of the first day of winter’ – is the Welsh term for All Hallows Eve, an ysbrydnos or ‘spirit night’ when the departed walk abroad in spirit. Cooper’s The Grey King is set in Gwynedd, the northeast corner of Wales, at precisely this period, and it’s especially fitting that I completed it at the very time and in the area where the story’s action takes place, around Tywyn near Aberdyfi.

It was in 1950s Aberdyfi – where, Cooper tells us, she spent many teenage holidays – that her Welsh Uncle Llew told her about the Brenin Llwyd or “Grey King” who features at the sinister heart of this spellbinding fantasy. It’s to nearby Tywyn and its hinterland that eleven-year-old Will Stanton comes to recuperate from hepatitis and where he has to call on all his powers to combat the malign forces on the slopes of the Cadair Idris massif.

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Appreciating the preposterous

Frontispiece by Philippe Jullian

Nursery Rhymes. An essay
by V Sackville-West.
Illustrated by Philippe Jullian.
Michael Joseph, 1950 (1947).

“Coleridge had a proper appreciation of the preposterous, astounding, yet entirely acceptable propositions which go to make up the thaumaturgy of the nursery. No one lacking that appreciation is advised to read any further in this essay.”

p 7

Well, I’m one of those who, like Coleridge, appreciate the preposterous thaumaturgy of nursery rhymes, so Vita Sackville-West’s enthusiastic paddling in the shoreless pool of childhood lore naturally appealed to me. That she does it with humour yet without condescension was a bonus, and that there were unexpected delights hiding under various rocks she turns over satisfied my abiding curiosity.

Surprisingly, for what now counts as a period piece, she’s prepared to be critical of antiquarian ‘explanations’ concerning the origins of these rhymes and what they supposedly signified, but her mockery is gentle and she’s even prepared to admit to her own mistakes, as first appeared in an earlier limited edition.

The whole is embellished by Philippe Jullian’s whimsical drawings all printed in plum-coloured ink, their style very much conforming to contemporary adult attitudes regarding nursery lore – genteel and aloof but maybe not absolutely reflecting their historical origins.

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Tokyo at night: WordPress Free Photo Library

Convenience Store Woman
(Konbini Ningen) by Sayaka Murata,
translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Granta Books, 2019 (2016).

Quirky. Hilarious. Weird. Funny. Comical. Cute. Dreamy. Just some of the adjectives from press reviews littering the cover of the edition I read of Sayaka Murata’s Konbini Ningen. Yet, strangely, these wouldn’t have been the words I’d’ve used, which perhaps only goes to show that I’m an atypical reader.

Sad. Affirmative. Blistering. Honest. Critical. Familiar. Unconventional. These are the terms that come to my mind after having completed this first-person novella of a woman in her thirties who works part-time in a Japanese convenience store. Not a trace of dreaminess, quirkiness or real comedy did I detect. It really matters who’s in the audience for this little drama.

For the fact of the matter is that Keiko Furukura doesn’t fit the norm of a woman approaching middle age in Japanese society; and her attempts to fit in as best she can lead to rather mixed results. Can she – or rather should she – be “fixed” or “cured” of her thinking and behaviours? That’s the crux of this thought-provoking piece of what one might class as autobiografiction.

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In the continuing struggle between the Light and the Dark that features in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence we’ve so far seen the Dark manifested in Mr Hastings and in Mr Withers and his sister Polly in Over Sea, Under Stone (1965), while in The Dark is Rising (1973) it’s principally represented by Mr Mitothin, the Dark Rider himself, along with two humans who are somehow drawn across time as allies of the Dark.

Now, in Greenwitch – the third title of the sequence – we have another human who’s allied with the Dark, a counterpart of Merriman Lyon’s associate Hawkin who also tried to betray his allegiance, though in this instalment the motivation is different.

I’m talking of the unnamed painter, the artist who claims he’s half Romany and who covers his canvases and his caravan’s ceiling with nightmarish daubs that sicken those who see them. But as well as this character there are other aspects of this novel I’d like to note in this post.

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Life and a lover

‘The Two Sons of Edward, 4th Earl of Dorset’ by Cornelius Nuie, and ‘Angelica as the Russian Princess’ by Vanessa Bell (Charleston Trust)

Orlando. A Biography,
by Virginia Woolf.
Introduction and notes by Merry M Pawlowski.
Wordsworth Classics, 2003 (1928).

Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth. Roll up that tender air and the plant dies, the colour fades.

The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet.

By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. ‘Tis the waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life.

As Orlando is a welter of vignettes, a kaleidoscope with multiple patterns, and a diorama with many scenes, so might a consideration of this ‘biography’ be a sequence of thoughts, reflections and digressions.

Orlando being so well-known as an extended fantasia on Woolf’s lover Vita Sackville-West means only occasional reference to that fact needs mentioning; it’s as a piece of literature and, above all, storytelling that I think Orlando needs to be remembered, and whether it works as a satisfying experiment or not addressed.

And what is the outward show of this narrative, its material appearance? It tells the history of a young Elizabethan noble whose life, career, gender and obsessions go through a series of transformations over several centuries till we arrive at the year 1928, in the month of October, with Orlando now a woman together with, one hopes, the love of her life. Accept this wild proposition, therefore, and things start falling into place.

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#WitchWeek2022 wrap-up, plus …


Well, that’s it for 2022, our Witch Week exploration of fantasy offerings from around the world! As promised we travelled from the New World to the Old, from East to West, and across six of the inhabited continents in our quest to celebrate polychromancy. We hope you enjoyed the ride!

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 6: Around the World

© C A Lovegrove

Around the World of Fantasy in 8.0 Books, by Lizzie Ross

Chris and I had an empty slot in this year’s Witch Week roster, so the two of us arm-wrestled virtually, best two-out-of-three, for the privilege of writing ANOTHER post.

I won, to Chris’s relief, as he’s been busy with all kinds of musical performances (come to think of it, I didn’t even break a sweat during our contest – I think I’ve been had).

Anyway, I now give you a mini fantasy-world-tour, via my bookshelves. It’ll be a quick trip, along the lines of “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium”, so just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 5: Persian fantasy in Hindi literature

Chandrakanta: Bringing Persian Fantasy into Hindi Literature by Mallika Ramachamdran

A beautiful princess, a brave prince, scheming villains, battles, masters (and mistresses) of disguise and of every ruse and stratagem, enchanted mazes, and magic—this is the world that Devaki Nandan Khatri’s Chandrakanta wafts us off to.

Published in 1888, Chandrakanta was a milestone of sorts in Hindi literature, for while its author Devaki Nandan Khatri was fluent in various languages including Hindi, Persian, and Urdu besides Sanskrit and English, he chose to write the book in everyday, colloquial Hindi, making it accessible to a wider readership.

But more than just language, the novel, based on the Persian–Arabic dastan (story telling/ornate oral history) tradition but Indianizing and naturalizing it, is credited with introducing such Persian literary elements as aiyaars and tilisms to Hindi literature.

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 4: The World of ‘Black Water Sister’

Ace Books edition 2021

Lizzie: Hi everyone! Welcome to our Read-along Discussion of Zen Cho’s 2021 fantasy novel, Black Water Sister. Chris and I were thrilled to have so many participants this year, and we hope you’ll join with some comments of your own after you’ve read this. This has been edited down, for length and clarity, but if you’re interested in reading the full discussion (with illustrations that Daphne provided), you can find that document here.

Participants were Chris, Lizzie (Lizzie Ross, writer), Lory Hess (Entering the Enchanted Castle), Jean Leek (Howling Frog Books), Mallika Ramachandran (Literary Potpourri), and Daphne Lee (Daphne Lee). To help you keep track of who’s “speaking”, each participant has been given a different color: Lizzie (black) – Jean (green) – Lory (blue) – Chris (red) – Daphne (orange) – Mallika (purple).

Note: In the WordPress Reader contributions may appear in monochrome.)

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#WitchWeek2022 Day 3: Indigenous Futurism

Bunny Pierce Huffman design deposited in a Santa Fe, New Mexico museum.

by Lizzie Ross

Rebecca Roanhorse, quoted in a 2020 New York Times article, said, “We’ve already survived an apocalypse.” The “we” here refers to the Native American, First Nation and indigenous civilizations of North, Central, and South America, who were nearly wiped out as a result of European colonization.

For Roanhorse, it’s no surprise that authors from indigenous backgrounds would find a comfortable home in fantasy and science fiction genres, creating worlds newly invaded by monsters from native mythologies—monsters brought to life as a consequence of ecological, economic, and/or geopolitical disasters caused by white people.

These authors, tired of stories that wallow in past defeats, show us native communities that are strong, thriving entities, working to maintain their languages and cultures despite efforts to erase them completely.

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