Tag Archives: author

Benjamin Saves Us From Hollywood

Benjamin-screenshot

Not a moment too soon. Benjamin has arrived in California to save us from ill-conceived and poorly written screenplays vying to be the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Thankfully, Benjamin is neither the 20-something, creative-wunderkind nor a 30-something know-it-all uber-producer; he (or she) is not even human. Benjamin is an AI (artificial intelligence) based automatic screenwriter, and author of Sunspring, a short science fiction film.

From ars technica:

Ars is excited to be hosting this online debut of Sunspring, a short science fiction film that’s not entirely what it seems. It’s about three people living in a weird future, possibly on a space station, probably in a love triangle. You know it’s the future because H (played with neurotic gravity by Silicon Valley‘s Thomas Middleditch) is wearing a shiny gold jacket, H2 (Elisabeth Gray) is playing with computers, and C (Humphrey Ker) announces that he has to “go to the skull” before sticking his face into a bunch of green lights. It sounds like your typical sci-fi B-movie, complete with an incoherent plot. Except Sunspring isn’t the product of Hollywood hacks—it was written entirely by an AI. To be specific, it was authored by a recurrent neural network called long short-term memory, or LSTM for short. At least, that’s what we’d call it. The AI named itself Benjamin.

Knowing that an AI wrote Sunspring makes the movie more fun to watch, especially once you know how the cast and crew put it together. Director Oscar Sharp made the movie for Sci-Fi London, an annual film festival that includes the 48-Hour Film Challenge, where contestants are given a set of prompts (mostly props and lines) that have to appear in a movie they make over the next two days. Sharp’s longtime collaborator, Ross Goodwin, is an AI researcher at New York University, and he supplied the movie’s AI writer, initially called Jetson. As the cast gathered around a tiny printer, Benjamin spat out the screenplay, complete with almost impossible stage directions like “He is standing in the stars and sitting on the floor.” Then Sharp randomly assigned roles to the actors in the room. “As soon as we had a read-through, everyone around the table was laughing their heads off with delight,” Sharp told Ars. The actors interpreted the lines as they read, adding tone and body language, and the results are what you see in the movie. Somehow, a slightly garbled series of sentences became a tale of romance and murder, set in a dark future world. It even has its own musical interlude (performed by Andrew and Tiger), with a pop song Benjamin composed after learning from a corpus of 30,000 other pop songs.

Read more here.

Image: Benjamin screenshot. Courtesy of Benjamin.

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Colonizing the Milky Way 101

ESO-The_Milky_Way_panorama

The human race is likely to spend many future generations grappling with the aftermaths of its colonial sojourns across the globe. Almost every race and creed over our documented history has actively pursued encroaching upon and displacing others. By our very nature we are territorial animals, and very good ones at that.

Yet despite the untold volumes of suffering, pain and death wrought on those we colonize our small blue planet is not enough for our fantasies and follies. We send our space probes throughout the solar system to test for habitability. We dream of human outposts on the Moon and on Mars. But even our solar system is too minuscule for our expansive, acquisitive ambitions. Why not colonize our entire galaxy? Now we’re talking!

Kim Stanley Robinson, author extraordinaire of numerous speculative and science fiction novels, gives us an idea of what it may take to spread our wings across the Milky Way in a recent article for Scientific American, excerpted here.

It will be many centuries before humans move beyond our solar system. But, before we do so I’d propose that we get our own house in order first. That will be our biggest challenge, not the invention of yet to be imagined technologies.

From Scientific American:

The idea that humans will eventually travel to and inhabit other parts of our galaxy was well expressed by the early Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who wrote, “Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever.” Since then the idea has been a staple of science fiction, and thus become part of a consensus image of humanity’s future. Going to the stars is often regarded as humanity’s destiny, even a measure of its success as a species. But in the century since this vision was proposed, things we have learned about the universe and ourselves combine to suggest that moving out into the galaxy may not be humanity’s destiny after all.

The problem that tends to underlie all the other problems with the idea is the sheer size of the universe, which was not known when people first imagined we would go to the stars. Tau Ceti, one of the closest stars to us at around 12 light-years away, is 100 billion times farther from Earth than our moon. A quantitative difference that large turns into a qualitative difference; we can’t simply send people over such immense distances in a spaceship, because a spaceship is too impoverished an environment to support humans for the time it would take, which is on the order of centuries. Instead of a spaceship, we would have to create some kind of space-traveling ark, big enough to support a community of humans and other plants and animals in a fully recycling ecological system.

On the other hand it would have to be small enough to accelerate to a fairly high speed, to shorten the voyagers’ time of exposure to cosmic radiation, and to breakdowns in the ark. Regarded from some angles bigger is better, but the bigger the ark is, the proportionally more fuel it would have to carry along to slow itself down on reaching its destination; this is a vicious circle that can’t be squared. For that reason and others, smaller is better, but smallness creates problems for resource metabolic flow and ecologic balance. Island biogeography suggests the kinds of problems that would result from this miniaturization, but a space ark’s isolation would be far more complete than that of any island on Earth. The design imperatives for bigness and smallness may cross each other, leaving any viable craft in a non-existent middle.

The biological problems that could result from the radical miniaturization, simplification and isolation of an ark, no matter what size it is, now must include possible impacts on our microbiomes. We are not autonomous units; about eighty percent of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA, but the DNA of a vast array of smaller creatures. That array of living beings has to function in a dynamic balance for us to be healthy, and the entire complex system co-evolved on this planet’s surface in a particular set of physical influences, including Earth’s gravity, magnetic field, chemical make-up, atmosphere, insolation, and bacterial load. Traveling to the stars means leaving all these influences, and trying to replace them artificially. What the viable parameters are on the replacements would be impossible to be sure of in advance, as the situation is too complex to model. Any starfaring ark would therefore be an experiment, its inhabitants lab animals. The first generation of the humans aboard might have volunteered to be experimental subjects, but their descendants would not have. These generations of descendants would be born into a set of rooms a trillion times smaller than Earth, with no chance of escape.

In this radically diminished enviroment, rules would have to be enforced to keep all aspects of the experiment functioning. Reproduction would not be a matter of free choice, as the population in the ark would have to maintain minimum and maximum numbers. Many jobs would be mandatory to keep the ark functioning, so work too would not be a matter of choices freely made. In the end, sharp constraints would force the social structure in the ark to enforce various norms and behaviors. The situation itself would require the establishment of something like a totalitarian state.

Read the entire article here.

Image: The Milky Way panorama. Courtesy: ESO/S. Brunier – Licensed under Creative Commons.

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The Damned Embuggerance

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Sadly, genre-busting author Sir Terry Pratchett succumbed to DEATH on March 12, 2015. Luckily, for those of us still fending off the clutches of Reaper Man we have seventy-plus works of his to keep us company in the darkness.

So now that our world contains a little less magic it’s important to remind ourselves of a few choice words of his:

A man is not truly dead while his name is still spoken.

Stories of imagination tend to upset those without one.

It’s not worth doing something unless someone, somewhere, would much rather you weren’t doing it.

The truth may be out there, but the lies are inside your head.

Goodness is about what you do. Not who you pray to.

From the Guardian:

Neil Gaiman led tributes from the literary, entertainment and fantasy worlds to Terry Pratchett after the author’s death on Thursday, aged 66.

The author of the Discworld novels, which sold in the tens of millions worldwide, had been afflicted with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

Gaiman, who collaborated with Pratchett on the huge hit Good Omens, tweeted: “I will miss you, Terry, so much,” pointing to “the last thing I wrote about you”, on the Guardian.

“Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all,” wrote Gaiman last September. “Not even close. He’s so much more than that. As Terry walks into the darkness much too soon, I find myself raging too: at the injustice that deprives us of – what? Another 20 or 30 books? Another shelf-full of ideas and glorious phrases and old friends and new, of stories in which people do what they really do best, which is use their heads to get themselves out of the trouble they got into by not thinking? … I rage at the imminent loss of my friend. And I think, ‘What would Terry do with this anger?’ Then I pick up my pen, and I start to write.”

Appealing to readers to donate to Alzheimer’s research, Gaiman added on his blog: “Thirty years and a month ago, a beginning author met a young journalist in a Chinese Restaurant, and the two men became friends, and they wrote a book, and they managed to stay friends despite everything. Last night, the author died.

“There was nobody like him. I was fortunate to have written a book with him, when we were younger, which taught me so much.

“I knew his death was coming and it made it no easier.”

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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The Rise of McLiterature

Will-Self-2007A sad symptom of our expanding media binge culture and the fragmentation of our shortening attention spans is the demise of literary fiction. Author Will Self believes the novel, and narrative prose in general, is on a slow, but accelerating, death-spiral. His eloquent views presented in a May 6, 2014 lecture are excerpted below.

From the Guardian:

If you happen to be a writer, one of the great benisons of having children is that your personal culture-mine is equipped with its own canaries. As you tunnel on relentlessly into the future, these little harbingers either choke on the noxious gases released by the extraction of decadence, or they thrive in the clean air of what we might call progress. A few months ago, one of my canaries, who’s in his mid-teens and harbours a laudable ambition to be the world’s greatest ever rock musician, was messing about on his electric guitar. Breaking off from a particularly jagged and angry riff, he launched into an equally jagged diatribe, the gist of which was already familiar to me: everything in popular music had been done before, and usually those who’d done it first had done it best. Besides, the instant availability of almost everything that had ever been done stifled his creativity, and made him feel it was all hopeless.

A miner, if he has any sense, treats his canary well, so I began gently remonstrating with him. Yes, I said, it’s true that the web and the internet have created a permanent Now, eliminating our sense of musical eras; it’s also the case that the queered demographics of our longer-living, lower-birthing population means that the middle-aged squat on top of the pyramid of endeavour, crushing the young with our nostalgic tastes. What’s more, the decimation of the revenue streams once generated by analogues of recorded music have put paid to many a musician’s income. But my canary had to appreciate this: if you took the long view, the advent of the 78rpm shellac disc had also been a disaster for musicians who in the teens and 20s of the last century made their daily bread by live performance. I repeated one of my favourite anecdotes: when the first wax cylinder recording of Feodor Chaliapin singing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen was played, its listeners, despite a lowness of fidelity that would seem laughable to us (imagine a man holding forth from a giant bowl of snapping, crackling and popping Rice Krispies), were nonetheless convinced the portly Russian must be in the room, and searched behind drapes and underneath chaise longues for him.

So recorded sound blew away the nimbus of authenticity surrounding live performers – but it did worse things. My canaries have often heard me tell how back in the 1970s heyday of the pop charts, all you needed was a writing credit on some loathsome chirpy-chirpy-cheep-cheeping ditty in order to spend the rest of your born days lying by a guitar-shaped pool in the Hollywood Hills hoovering up cocaine. Surely if there’s one thing we have to be grateful for it’s that the web has put paid to such an egregious financial multiplier being applied to raw talentlessness. Put paid to it, and also returned musicians to the domain of live performance and, arguably, reinvigorated musicianship in the process. Anyway, I was saying all of this to my canary when I was suddenly overtaken by a great wave of noxiousness only I could smell. I faltered, I fell silent, then I said: sod you and your creative anxieties, what about me? How do you think it feels to have dedicated your entire adult life to an art form only to see the bloody thing dying before your eyes?

My canary is a perceptive songbird – he immediately ceased his own cheeping, except to chirrup: I see what you mean. The literary novel as an art work and a narrative art form central to our culture is indeed dying before our eyes. Let me refine my terms: I do not mean narrative prose fiction tout court is dying – the kidult boywizardsroman and the soft sadomasochistic porn fantasy are clearly in rude good health. And nor do I mean that serious novels will either cease to be written or read. But what is already no longer the case is the situation that obtained when I was a young man. In the early 1980s, and I would argue throughout the second half of the last century, the literary novel was perceived to be the prince of art forms, the cultural capstone and the apogee of creative endeavour. The capability words have when arranged sequentially to both mimic the free flow of human thought and investigate the physical expressions and interactions of thinking subjects; the way they may be shaped into a believable simulacrum of either the commonsensical world, or any number of invented ones; and the capability of the extended prose form itself, which, unlike any other art form, is able to enact self-analysis, to describe other aesthetic modes and even mimic them. All this led to a general acknowledgment: the novel was the true Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk.

This is not to say that everyone walked the streets with their head buried in Ulysses or To the Lighthouse, or that popular culture in all its forms didn’t hold sway over the psyches and imaginations of the great majority. Nor do I mean to suggest that in our culture perennial John Bull-headed philistinism wasn’t alive and snorting: “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” However, what didn’t obtain is the current dispensation, wherein those who reject the high arts feel not merely entitled to their opinion, but wholly justified in it. It goes further: the hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism. Indeed, it’s arguable that tilting at this papery windmill of artistic superiority actively prevents a great many people from confronting the very real economic inequality and political disenfranchisement they’re subject to, exactly as being compelled to chant the mantra “choice” drowns out the harsh background Muzak telling them they have none.

Just because you’re paranoid it doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Simply because you’ve remarked a number of times on the concealed fox gnawing its way into your vitals, it doesn’t mean it hasn’t at this moment swallowed your gall bladder. Ours is an age in which omnipresent threats of imminent extinction are also part of the background noise – nuclear annihilation, terrorism, climate change. So we can be blinkered when it comes to tectonic cultural shifts. The omnipresent and deadly threat to the novel has been imminent now for a long time – getting on, I would say, for a century – and so it’s become part of culture. During that century, more books of all kinds have been printed and read by far than in the entire preceding half millennium since the invention of movable-type printing. If this was death it had a weird, pullulating way of expressing itself. The saying is that there are no second acts in American lives; the novel, I think, has led a very American sort of life: swaggering, confident, brash even – and ever aware of its world-conquering manifest destiny. But unlike Ernest Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, the novel has also had a second life. The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

Literary critics – themselves a dying breed, a cause for considerable schadenfreude on the part of novelists – make all sorts of mistakes, but some of the most egregious ones result from an inability to think outside of the papery prison within which they conduct their lives’ work. They consider the codex. They are – in Marshall McLuhan’s memorable phrase – the possessors of Gutenberg minds.

There is now an almost ceaseless murmuring about the future of narrative prose. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic: yes, experts assert, there’s no disputing the impact of digitised text on the whole culture of the codex; fewer paper books are being sold, newspapers fold, bookshops continue to close, libraries as well. But … but, well, there’s still no substitute for the experience of close reading as we’ve come to understand and appreciate it – the capacity to imagine entire worlds from parsing a few lines of text; the ability to achieve deep and meditative levels of absorption in others’ psyches. This circling of the wagons comes with a number of public-spirited campaigns: children are given free books; book bags are distributed with slogans on them urging readers to put books in them; books are hymned for their physical attributes – their heft, their appearance, their smell – as if they were the bodily correlates of all those Gutenberg minds, which, of  course, they are.

The seeming realists among the Gutenbergers say such things as: well, clearly, books are going to become a minority technology, but the beau livre will survive. The populist Gutenbergers prate on about how digital texts linked to social media will allow readers to take part in a public conversation. What none of the Gutenbergers are able to countenance, because it is quite literally – for once the intensifier is justified – out of their minds, is that the advent of digital media is not simply destructive of the codex, but of the Gutenberg mind itself. There is one question alone that you must ask yourself in order to establish whether the serious novel will still retain cultural primacy and centrality in another 20 years. This is the question: if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.

Read the entire excerpt here.

Image: Will Self, 2007. Courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.

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Asteroid 5099

Iain (M.) Banks is now where he rightfully belongs — hurtling through space. Though, we fear that he may well not be traveling as fast as he would have wished.

From the Minor Planet Center:

In early April of this year we learnt from Iain Banks himself that he was sick, very sick. Cancer that started in the gall bladder spread quickly and precluded any cure, though he still hoped to be around for a while and see his upcoming novel, The Quarry, hit store shelves in late June. He never did—Iain Banks died on June 9th.

I was introduced to Iain M. Banks’s Sci-Fi novels in graduate school by a good friend who also enjoyed Sci-Fi; he couldn’t believe I’d never even heard of him and remedied what he saw as a huge lapse in my Sci-Fi culture by lending me a couple of his novels. After that I read a few more novels of my own volition because Mr Banks truly was a gifted story teller.

When I heard of his sickness I immediately asked myself what I could do for Mr Banks, and the answer was obvious: Give him an asteroid!

The Minor Planet Center only has the authority to designate new asteroid discoveries (e.g., ’1971 TD1?) and assign numbers to those whose orbits are of a high enough accuracy (e.g., ’5099?), but names for numbered asteroids must be submitted to, and approved by, the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN) of the IAU (International Astronomical Union). With the help of Dr Gareth Williams, the MPC’s representative on the CSBN, we submitted a request to name an asteroid after Iain Banks with the hope that it would be approved soon enough for Mr Banks to enjoy it. Sadly, that has not been possible. Nevertheless, I am here to announce that on June 23rd, 2013, asteroid (5099) was officially named Iainbanks by the IAU, and will be referred to as such for as long as Earth Culture may endure.

The official citation for the asteroid reads:

Iain M. Banks (1954-2013) was a Scottish writer best known for the Culture series of science ?ction novels; he also wrote ?ction as Iain Banks. An evangelical atheist and lover of whisky, he scorned social media and enjoyed writing music. He was an extra in Monty Python & The Holy Grail.

Asteroid Iainbanks resides in the Main Asteroid Belt of the Sol system; with a size of 6.1 km (3.8 miles), it takes 3.94 years to complete a revolution around the Sun. It is most likely of a stony composition. Here is an interactive 3D orbit diagram.

The Culture is an advanced society in whose midst most of Mr Banks’s Sci-Fi novels take place. Thanks to their technology they are able to hollow out asteroids and use them as ships capable of faster-than-light travel while providing a living habitat with centrifugally-generated gravity for their thousands of denizens. I’d like to think Mr Banks would have been amused to have his own rock.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Orbit Diagram of asteroid (5099) Iainbanks. Cyan ellipses represent the orbits of the planets (from closer to further from the Sun) Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars and Jupiter. The black ellipse represents the orbit of asteroid Iainbanks. The shaded region lies below the ecliptic plane, the non shaded, above. Courtesy of Minor Planet Center.

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Iain (M.) Banks

Where is the technology of the Culture when it’s most needed? Nothing more to add.

From the Guardian:

In Iain M Banks’s finest creation, the universe of the Culture, death is largely optional. It’s an option most people take in the end: they take it after three or four centuries, after living on a suitably wide variety of planets and in a suitably wide variety of bodies, and after a life of hedonism appropriate to the anarcho-communist Age of Plenty galactic civilisation in which they live; they take it in partial, reversible forms. But they take it. It’s an option.

Sadly, and obviously, that’s not true for us. Banks himself has released a statement on his website, saying that he has terminal cancer. He tells us as much with his usual eye for technical detail and stark impact:

I have cancer. It started in my gall bladder, has infected both lobes of my liver and probably also my pancreas and some lymph nodes, plus one tumour is massed around a group of major blood vessels in the same volume, effectively ruling out any chance of surgery to remove the tumours… The bottom line, now, I’m afraid, is that as a late stage gall bladder cancer patient, I’m expected to live for ‘several months’ and it’s extremely unlikely I’ll live beyond a year.

So there you have it.

Anything I write about Banks and his work, both as Iain Banks and Iain M Banks (for the uninitiated, Iain Banks is the name he publishes his non-genre novels under; Iain M Banks is for his sci-fi stuff), will ultimately be about me, I realise. I can’t pretend to say What His Work Meant for Literature or for Sci-Fi, because I don’t know what it meant; I can’t speak about him as a human being, beyond what I thought I could detect of his personality through his work (humane and witty and fascinated by the new, for the record), because I haven’t met him.

With that in mind, I just wanted to talk a bit about why I love his books, why I think he is one – or two, really – of our finest living writers, and how his work has had probably more impact on me than any other fiction writer.

I first read The Wasp Factory in about 1996, when my mum, keen to get me reading pretty much anything that wasn’t Terry Pratchett, heard of this “enfant explosif” of Scottish literature. It’s a slightly tricky admission to make in a hagiographical piece like this one, but I wasn’t all that taken with it: it felt a little bleak and soulless, and the literary pyrotechnics and grand gothic sequences didn’t rescue it. But then I read Excession, one of his M Banks sci-fi novels, set in the Culture; and then I read The Crow Road, his hilarious and moving madcap family-history-murder-mystery set in the Scottish wilds; and I was hooked.

Since then I’ve read literally everything he’s published under M Banks, and most of the stuff under Banks. There are hits and misses, but the misses are never bad and the hits are spectacular. He creates vivid characters; he paints scenes in sparkling detail; he has plots that rollick along like Dan Brown’s are supposed to, but don’t.

And what’s most brilliant, at least for me as a lifelong fan of both sci-fi and “proper” literature, is that he takes the same simple but vital skills – well-drawn characters, clever writing, believable dialogue – from his non-genre novels and applies them to his sci-fi, allied to dizzying imagination and serious knowledge.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image: Iain Banks. Courtesy of the Guardian.

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The Pleasure from Writing Long Sentences

Author Pico Iver distances himself from the short bursts of broken language of the Twitterscape and the exclamatory sound-bites of our modern day lives, and revels in the lush beauty of the long and winding sentence.

From the LA Times:

“Your sentences are so long,” said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

When I began writing for a living, my feeling was that my job was to give the reader something vivid, quick and concrete that she couldn’t get in any other form; a writer was an information-gathering machine, I thought, and especially as a journalist, my job was to go out into the world and gather details, moments, impressions as visual and immediate as TV. Facts were what we needed most. And if you watched the world closely enough, I believed (and still do), you could begin to see what it would do next, just as you can with a sibling or a friend; Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie aren’t mystics, but they can tell us what the world is going to do tomorrow because they follow it so attentively.

Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

“There was a little stoop of humility,” Alan Hollinghurst writes in a sentence I’ve chosen almost at random from his recent novel “The Stranger’s Child,” “as she passed through the door, into the larger but darker library beyond, a hint of frailty, an affectation of bearing more than her fifty-nine years, a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted.” You may notice — though you don’t have to — that “humility” has rather quickly elided into “affectation,” and the point of view has shifted by the end of the sentence, and the physical movement through the rooms accompanies a gradual inner movement that progresses through four parallel clauses, each of which, though legato, suggests a slightly different take on things.

Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).

If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lighted realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?

Read the entire article after the jump.

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Ray Bradbury’s Real World Dystopia

Ray Bradbury’s death on June 5 reminds us of his uncanny gift for inventing a future that is much like our modern day reality.

Bradbury’s body of work beginning in the early 1940s introduced us to ATMs, wall mounted flat screen TVs, ear-piece radios, online social networks, self-driving cars, and electronic surveillance. Bravely and presciently he also warned us of technologically induced cultural amnesia, social isolation, indifference to violence, and dumbed-down 24/7 mass media.

An especially thoughtful opinion from author Tim Kreider on Bradbury’s life as a “misanthropic humanist”.

From the New York Times:

IF you’d wanted to know which way the world was headed in the mid-20th century, you wouldn’t have found much indication in any of the day’s literary prizewinners. You’d have been better advised to consult a book from a marginal genre with a cover illustration of a stricken figure made of newsprint catching fire.

Prescience is not the measure of a science-fiction author’s success — we don’t value the work of H. G. Wells because he foresaw the atomic bomb or Arthur C. Clarke for inventing the communications satellite — but it is worth pausing, on the occasion of Ray Bradbury’s death, to notice how uncannily accurate was his vision of the numb, cruel future we now inhabit.

Mr. Bradbury’s most famous novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” features wall-size television screens that are the centerpieces of “parlors” where people spend their evenings watching interactive soaps and vicious slapstick, live police chases and true-crime dramatizations that invite viewers to help catch the criminals. People wear “seashell” transistor radios that fit into their ears. Note the perversion of quaint terms like “parlor” and “seashell,” harking back to bygone days and vanished places, where people might visit with their neighbors or listen for the sound of the sea in a chambered nautilus.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t just extrapolate the evolution of gadgetry; he foresaw how it would stunt and deform our psyches. “It’s easy to say the wrong thing on telephones; the telephone changes your meaning on you,” says the protagonist of the prophetic short story “The Murderer.” “First thing you know, you’ve made an enemy.”

Anyone who’s had his intended tone flattened out or irony deleted by e-mail and had to explain himself knows what he means. The character complains that he’s relentlessly pestered with calls from friends and employers, salesmen and pollsters, people calling simply because they can. Mr. Bradbury’s vision of “tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying, ‘Now I’m at Forty-third, now I’m at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first” has gone from science-fiction satire to dreary realism.

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says the fire captain in “Fahrenheit,” written in 1953. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Civilization drowned out and obliterated by electronic chatter. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, secretly trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes on a train, finally leaps up screaming, maddened by an incessant jingle for “Denham’s Dentrifice.” A man is arrested for walking on a residential street. Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet. Does any of this sound familiar?

The hero of “The Murderer” finally goes on a rampage and smashes all the yammering, blatting devices around him, expressing remorse only over the Insinkerator — “a practical device indeed,” he mourns, “which never said a word.” It’s often been remarked that for a science-fiction writer, Mr. Bradbury was something of a Luddite — anti-technology, anti-modern, even anti-intellectual. (“Put me in a room with a pad and a pencil and set me up against a hundred people with a hundred computers,” he challenged a Wired magazine interviewer, and swore he would “outcreate” every one.)

But it was more complicated than that; his objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty. He famously did not care to drive or fly, but he was a passionate proponent of space travel, not because of its practical benefits but because he saw it as the great spiritual endeavor of the age, our generation’s cathedral building, a bid for immortality among the stars.

Read the entire article after the jump.

Image courtesy of Technorati.

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Ray Bradbury – His Books Will Not Burn

“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.” [From Fahrenheit 451].

Ray Bradbury left our planet on June 5. He was 91 years old.

Yet, a part of him lives on Mars. A digital copy of Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, along with works by other science fiction authors, reached the Martian northern plains in 2008, courtesy of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft.

Ray Bradbury is likely to be best-remembered for his seminal science fiction work, Fahrenheit 451. The literary community will remember him as one of the world’s preeminent authors of short-stories and novellas. In fact, he also wrote plays, screenplays, children’s books and works of literary criticism. Many of his over 400 works, dating from the 1950’s to the present day, have greatly influenced contemporary writers and artists. He had a supreme gift for melding poetry with prose, dark vision with humor and social commentary with imagined worlds. Bradbury received the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 2004.

He will be missed; his books will not burn.

From the New York Times:

By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem. His books have been taught in schools and colleges, where many a reader has been introduced to them decades after they first appeared. Many have said his stories fired their own imaginations.

More than eight million copies of his books have been sold in 36 languages. They include the short-story collections “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man” and “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” and the novels “Fahrenheit 451” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

Though none won a Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Bradbury received a Pulitzer citation in 2007 “for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.”

His writing career stretched across 70 years, to the last weeks of his life. The New Yorker published an autobiographical essay by him in its June 4th double issue devoted to science fiction. There he recalled his “hungry imagination” as a boy in Illinois.

“It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another,” he wrote, noting, “You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.”

Mr. Bradbury sold his first story to a magazine called Super Science Stories in his early 20s. By 30 he had made his reputation with “The Martian Chronicles,” a collection of thematically linked stories published in 1950.

The book celebrated the romance of space travel while condemning the social abuses that modern technology had made possible, and its impact was immediate and lasting. Critics who had dismissed science fiction as adolescent prattle praised “Chronicles” as stylishly written morality tales set in a future that seemed just around the corner.

Mr. Bradbury was hardly the first writer to represent science and technology as a mixed bag of blessings and abominations. The advent of the atomic bomb in 1945 left many Americans deeply ambivalent toward science. The same “super science” that had ended World War II now appeared to threaten the very existence of civilization. Science-fiction writers, who were accustomed to thinking about the role of science in society, had trenchant things to say about the nuclear threat.

But the audience for science fiction, published mostly in pulp magazines, was small and insignificant. Mr. Bradbury looked to a larger audience: the readers of mass-circulation magazines like Mademoiselle and The Saturday Evening Post. These readers had no patience for the technical jargon of the science fiction pulps. So he eliminated the jargon; he packaged his troubling speculations about the future in an appealing blend of cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors.

Though his books, particularly “The Martian Chronicles,” became a staple of high school and college English courses, Mr. Bradbury himself disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college.

Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” (Late in life he took an active role in fund-raising efforts for public libraries in Southern California.)

Mr. Bradbury referred to himself as an “idea writer,” by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly. “I have fun with ideas; I play with them,” he said. “ I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring.”

He added, “My goal is to entertain myself and others.”

He described his method of composition as “word association,” often triggered by a favorite line of poetry.

Mr. Bradbury’s passion for books found expression in his dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953. But he drew his primary inspiration from his childhood. He boasted that he had total recall of his earliest years, including the moment of his birth. Readers had no reason to doubt him.As for the protagonists of his stories, no matter how far they journeyed from home, they learned that they could never escape the past.

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Image: Ray Bradbury, 1975. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Famous for the wrong book

From the Guardian:

Why is it that the book for which an author is best known is rarely their best? If history is the final judge of literary achievement, why has a title like Louis de Bernières’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin risen to the top, overshadowing his much better earlier novels such as Señor Vivo and the Coca Lord? It’s not, I hope, the simple snobbery of insisting that the most popular can’t be the finest. (After all, who would dispute that Middlemarch is George Eliot’s peak? … You would? Great, there’s a space for you in the comments below.)

If someone reads Kurt Vonnegut‘s most famous book, Slaughterhouse-Five, and doesn’t like it, I’ll want to shout to them, “But it’s rubbish! Cat’s Cradle is much better! That’s the one you want to read!” It’s not just me, I’m sure. Geoff Dyer takes the view that it is John Cheever’s journals, not his stories, which represent his “greatest achievement, his principal claim to literary survival”. Gabriel Josipovici says that it is not Kafka’s The Trial or “Metamorphosis” – not any of his novels or stories – which “form [his] most sustained meditation on life and death, good and evil, and the role of art”, but his aphorisms.

So here I am going to list a few instances of a writer being famous for the wrong book, and my suggestions for where their greatest achievement really lies. Below, you can make your own suggestions (someone, please tell me I’ve just been reading the wrong Peter Carey or Emily Brontë), or let me know just how misguided I am.

Joseph Heller
Catch-22 is too long, messy and takes 100 pages to get going. Heller’s second novel, Something Happened, took even longer to write and justified the time. From its opening line (“I get the willies when I see closed doors”), it is a supremely controlled and meticulous masterpiece, grounded in the horror of daily living. The first time I read it I was overwhelmed. The second time I thought it was hilarious. The third time – getting closer to the age of the horribly honest narrator Bob Slocum – it was terrifying. It’s the book that keeps on giving.

More from theSource here.

Image of Joseph Heller courtesy of Todd Plitt/AP.

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