Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Book Triad: Vampire Heroes, Speculative Philosophy, and a Literal Stairway to Heaven

It's reading week, which admittedly doesn't mean a lot for a grad student who is doing a research assistanceship for a term. Mostly, I just appreciate having fewer students around campus, as I am essentially an agoraphobic misanthrope.  I'm also between chapters at the moment, so I'm trying to capitalize on the week to capitalize on doing all the research I need to do to focus really hard on the next one. 

But that focus is clearly shot, because here I am doing a blog post book triad.  Reviews of

Gothicka: Vampire Heroes, Human Gods, and the New Supernatural by Victoria Nelson
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Circus Philosophicus by Graham Harman

after the break.

 Gothicka by Victoria Nelson.  Nelson's basic premise is that the religious spirituality and belief that used to infuse Western society is resurfacing in modern fandom, and the means of that long process is the Gothic. Essentially, when Protestant England and America reaffirmed its separation from Catholicism, it kept the fascination with the supernatural, dark side of the Catholic faith--demons and witches and so forth. That fascination expressed itself in the gothic, and, as time went on, in the supernatural in general, to today, where we've shifted from a notion that Gothic has to be evil, and settled into using it to express the godlike in humans, from Hellboy to Twilight. And she makes her case over twelve chapters, each of which draw on a different aspect of the Gothic tradition as it's currently reflected. (Well, okay; ten aspects, and starting and finishing chapters that wrap things up.) Topics include: Dan Brown-esque thrillers and the positing of God as an ordinary man; Cthulhu and the worship of fandom; half-demon tragic figures like Preacher, Hellboy, Son of Satan, and Constantine (which is pushing it a bit, but we'll let that slide); Death and the gothic romance as it now appears in books of the Anita Blake vein; the transcendence of Bella in Twilight; Zombies and love beyond death; gothic performance and the Hell House; horror film around the world; and the films of Guillermo del Toro; and the New Christian Gothick as found in Young's The Shack and the Left Behind Books. As that ridiculously long list probably suggests,the great benefit of Nelson's book is the breadth of her examples; by showing all these possible iterations of Gothic (or Gothick,as she calls it), she demonstrates all the ways in which her thesis seems correct. My main criticism is that, as a game scholar, I have to take issue with the way she peppered the book with references to how videogames were part of the Gothic trend, but never went into any detail with a specific example. If you're going to spend pages on religions based on Cthulhu, you can take a bit of time to research games whose users number in the millions. But that's more of a private rant; for the most part, it's a very good book.
 Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. 
Stories of your Life and Others -- and, more generally, Ted Chiang--was recommended to me by a friend. And it was a good recommendation. Chiang's a very high-concept sort of writer (which is admittedly pretty typical for sci-fi short stories); each story starts with a basic premise, then explores the human consequences of that premise. "Tower of Babylon" imagines that the Tower was real, and that reaching Heaven was a viable possibility--what culture comes out of such a pursuit? "Understand" takes a process that restores brain function for formerly comatose patients, and asks what happens if it restores function far beyond basic human understanding. In "Divide By Zero," the fundamental tenet of mathematics stops working; 1+1 = 2 is no longer the case. In "Hell Is the Absence of God," all of God's miracles and punishments literally happen, but always beyond the understanding of mortals. An angel will manifest, heal one person, and, in the explosive process, wound a dozen others. Hell opens up to take up sinners. The story looks at what faith means when God is undeniably real, but utterly unfathomable. Christ as Cthulhu? Maybe. Fewer tentacles, anyway. The other two highlights, for me, were "Seventy-Two Letters" and "Liking What You See: A Documentary." In the former, the premise is basically that everything that was believed about science in the 17th century or so is true: sperm is composed of little homunculi, Kaballist numerology works, and so forth. I think what impressed me so much about it was that it was a premise that could sustain a whole book, if not a series, but Chiang used it to tell something much smaller, and probably more effective. "Liking What You See" was the last story of the book, and it also had a simple premise: scientists figure out how to turn off the part of our brains that recognize whether people are physically attractive. What happens next, to the basic way we interact, and how advertising work? I respect this volume a lot. It's science fiction taken to its most basic definition. It's not a bunch of tropes about aliens or cyborgs; he takes a single element of science (or belief in general) and uses it as the grounds for exploring the human condition. He's even got an afterword that briefly explains where the ideas came from (a much longer version of the same was in the Blindsight book I read a few months back, and I really enjoyed it; more writers, especially sci-fi writers--would be doing a service to their writing if they demonstrated the research and genesis behind their ideas).My only fault with the book is that I never felt entirely "in" it; I was very aware of the craft, and the technique. Admittedly, that's probably my fault more than the book's, though. Overall, it was really good stuff.

Circus Philosophicus.   In six chapters (plus a brief conclusion),Graham Harman sketches out six scenarios/objects/things that address various parts of his take on object oriented ontology. Chapter one considers a Ferris Wheel of objects, to defend thinking about objects from trends favoring events and relations. In Chapter two, Harman reconceptualizes an ex-girlfriend's concept of a local bridge by projecting it into hell and throwing the old classicists off it, in order to demonstrate how things should be thought of in terms of individualities, rather than absolute essences. Chapter Three is about Harman coming into horrifying contact with a calliope while considering how to frame Leibnez' monads in the context of Heidegger and the fourfold structure of things. Chapter Three has Harman on a deserted oil rig with China Mieville, testing their memories of the American gothic and building from the rig a theory of causation, naming it and all things polytheistic (one among many), asymmetrical (acting not itself, nor in equal measure to what it acts on), and buffered, that things do not engage directly with other things. Chapter Five ponders a haunted Japanese boat and a potential childhood deception to discuss the quadruple object, and chapter six uses a hailstorm at Bruno Latour's house and a zebra flag to discuss the dormant object. In other words, even for a philosophy book, even for Harman, the man who did a close reading of 100 Lovecraft essays, it's pretty weird. As a blend of fiction and philosophy, a series of surreal thought experiments, I appreciate that the book is trying something different. But I couldn't help but wonder if it was something necessary. Most of the philosophy I recognized from other books and writings of Harman; it's pretty much the same as he wrote it elsewhere, only elsewhere, he generally said it more lucidly, because he wasn't writing in this narrative mode. It's not really a book for newcomers either; the theory isn't described in enough detail for that. So the question is what value is added by writing in this mode. Arguably, while some of his ideas are presented more clearly elsewhere, you could say that here they are presented in their element, as ideas that strange and wonderful and sometimes scary. And there'd be some truth to that, enough to justify the book, if it needed that. On the other hand, the fictional or descriptive elements beyond the theory just lead to questions: why the surrealist, monk, and telepath at the book's end? Why use Meiville and an oil rig if they never really met there? What significance does the varied locations of the book--Paris, Japan, the middle of the ocean, India, Annapolis--have? Were they really places Harman was at, or are they metaphors for something else? The book isn't telling, and it's hard to determine what's meant for contemplation and what's an elaborate in-joke. Again,I appreciate the attempt, but it just doesn't work for me. ...Then again, it's only 80 pages. So even if you don't like it, at least it's over quick.

I suppose what this set all has in common in stories, though admittedly, that's such a tenuous bond that I might as well say they all have letters or were written in black font as well.  Nelson and Harman are connected through a somewhat mutual preoccupation of the Gothic. Incidentally, she did insist on calling it gothick, which was kind of annoying, in order to distinguish it from "gothic as pertains to the visigoths and so forth."  Honestly, that is not a mistake people are going to make very often, if they have even the most basic context.  Writing gothic as gothick is like writing magic as magick; with all the best will in the world, you're just coming off as a little pretentious.  Other reviews of Harman's book tend to pick on something I missed, or, more generously, glossed over: that the book is meant to be read as a sort of speculative realism philosophy.  That does explain some of its odder tics, but it doesn't excuse them. The book still feels like rushed philosophy with unnecessary frills (although that's a little blunter and meaner than it deserves).  But I did like the oil rig discussion.  I think it was Harman's attempts to go for Lovecraftian horror that didn't quite work. Lovecraft is about the slow uncovering of horrific, terrifying forces that can't be entirely understood, and threaten to destroy human normalcy at all moments; Harman's brand of OOO would argue that *everything* can't be understood, not entirely, and while that comes very close to Lovecraft, and occasionally overlaps, it's not entirely the same thing, and so when Harman tries to go full Lovecraftian it comes off as a little silly and over the top.  (Arguably, so is Lovecraft, but I'd say it's in a slightly different way.)   I honestly had to restrain myself with Chiang to not go into every single short story and describe it. It's good.  It's very good.  It's definitely good science fiction short form, which is rather hard to do without resorting to a bunch of cliches about robots and aliens. There's a short story on language and memory and aliens, which reminded me a little bit of China Mieville (speak of the oil rig riding devil) and Embassytown, which is also good. I have to admit, though, good as it was, I never really connected with his characters; they all felt like characters playing their role rather than people per se--something that happens a lot in sci-fi, but is still a little off-putting. That's it for this round. Later Days.

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