the outer world of words

Cordwainer Smith, Second Awakening of Man

If you like good old sci­ence-fic­tion* this is def­i­nite­ly a must read.

Cord­wain­er Smith is my dis­cov­ery of the year (although it’s May yet), I have no idea why I haven’t read any­thing of his before. It’s an anoth­er book from Arte­facts series of MAG Pub­lish­ing House and it was fan­tas­tic choice.

This is a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries, placed in the same word cre­ation and some­times loose­ly con­nect­ed. If you check the Inter­net you find some facts about author, like his real name, bib­li­og­ra­phy and quite unusu­al job he had. That’s it. Real­ly. Not much, right? Oh, if you search deep­er you can find an arti­cle or two about his work. I am rather sur­prised I haven’t read about Cord­wain­er Smith some­where among all those antholo­gies and arti­cles I used to read long time ago. May­be he wasn’t so pop­u­lar in Poland while every child knows his name in USA? No idea.

Any­way I fell in love in this book. Most­ly because it is so… ten­der. That’s the most appro­pri­ate word I could find. It’s full of ten­der­ness. So human. And there is a plen­ty of humor, of course there are also shad­ows, but all in all this book is full of light and hope and pos­si­bil­i­ties. And allu­sions to his­to­ry and lit­er­a­ture. And var­i­ous forms of nar­ra­tion. And many great ideas and just full of imag­i­na­tion. Inspir­ing.

Prob­a­bly S. Lem wouldn’t call the­se sto­ries sci­ence-fic­tion because the ‘sci­ence part’ is ‘just’ the back­ground for human inter­ac­tions, rela­tions, tragedies and come­dies. But I don’t care real­ly, because that back­ground is fresh and cre­ative and just fan­tas­tic.

And now few words about some of the sto­ries.

* By good old I mean great lan­guage, alien words and worlds and ideas so unex­pect­ed that you just sit in awe and think: wow, I want more of that!

* By good old I don’t mean series of trilo­gies (real­ly…) writ­ten by 12 years old with a ‘nov­el tem­plate’ down­load­ed from inter­net.

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last

ImageThis is fresh book by Mar­garet Atwood. And frankly it mess’ up with me because I’m rather dis­ap­point­ed by it and at the same time it stir that thoughts and emo­tions it prob­a­bly should. So is it a good or bad book?

I’ve read some oth­er dystopi­an books of Atwood before — Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake for not look­ing far. 

I under­stand them (I think) and I even believe that kind of future is not entire­ly impos­si­ble and because of that it is quite scary. I was inter­est­ed enough to fin­ish it and to rate it quite high because in it I saw a fresh look on ‘human con­di­tion’. But on the oth­er hand I missed some­thing which Handmaid’s Tale or Alias Grace def­i­nite­ly have — char­ac­ters. 

The Heart Goes Last is in the same dystopi­an cli­mate, but sub­jects of love, sex and human desires are more impor­tant here. The Heart Goes Last explores them deep­er (more vis­cer­al, one could said) and they look even more… well, ugly. 

Stream of con­scious­ness allows read­er to explore fan­tasies, fears and desires of men and wom­en per­son­al­ized as Stan and Char­maine. They are also rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a mid­dle class and its dreams. I was lis­ten­ing to Char­maine thoughts and think­ing again and again: how can you be so stu­pid, so shal­low, so ridicu­lous, so naive, so… Damned irri­tat­ing! Telling truth, Stan is more lik­able. May­be because I’m a wom­an and I feel addi­tion­a­ly irri­tat­ed by so flawed exam­ple of my species. But Stan also is unde­ci­sive, unse­cured, full of guilt and anger and frus­tra­tions. And he is hyp­ocrite. As all of them by the way.

Are we all (men, wom­en) like that? Are we just a bags of meat con­trolled by prim­i­tive instincts? That’s an ugly thought. Or ‘not cute’, as Char­maine would say. That thread (let’s call it the Pyg­malion thread) was the most dif­fi­cult part of the book for me, prob­a­bly because I sim­ply can’t accept a world in which human body is all anoth­er human being needs. But… But under this sim­ple desire of the body flows under­ground cur­rent of crav­ing for being utter­ly, uncon­di­tion­al­ly loved and accept­ed by this oth­er human being. Even if it’s real­iza­tions are degen­er­at­ed and often unhu­man, it is still some­thing… Right? 

Irony and sar­casm, that’s how we fight real­i­ty. Polit­i­cal, social, eco­nom­i­cal back­ground are in fact unim­por­tant and are just a pre­text to set our pro­tag­o­nists in extreme sit­u­a­tion (although that back­ground isn’t improb­a­ble at all, and I know peo­ple who are prepar­ing them­selves for a col­lapse of a sys­tem and prac­tice urban sur­vival. Smart guys). 

I love that sim­ple pris­on solu­tion for the unem­ploy­ment: it is so effec­tive! And when you think that some real pris­ons have gyms and Playsta­tions for inmates… Well, it sounds good, isn’t it? Lit­tle sur­re­al may­be, but good! And who cares if you are in pris­on if it’s real­ly much bet­ter (roof over your head, meal in your bel­ly, peace­ful sleep undis­turbed by gangs and oth­er threads) that any­thing you expe­ri­enced on so called free­dom? 

It is easy to treat the sto­ry rather light­ly (espe­cial­ly on sub­ject of chick­ens and amaz­ing sta­tis­tics con­nect­ed to they growth. Yes, you can be proud of it, Stan!). And Char­maine inner voic­es over ‘med­ical pro­ce­dure’ are fun­ny (even if they are ter­ri­fy­ing when you think about all the peo­ple doing the same in that kind of sit­u­a­tion). And the blue knit­ted bear is just per­fect in its absur­di­ty. 

So what’s wrong with that book? May­be noth­ing, in a way. One of the things you learn study­ing lit­er­a­ture is that you nev­er know what any given author real­ly want­ed to achieve. The book stirs some set of emo­tions even if you don’t like the sto­ry (like me) and you are not going to read it again (like me) and you wouldn’t like to have the authors auto­graph on the copy of this book (like me). Emo­tions like dis­gust, feel­ing of absur­di­ty, frus­tra­tion, recog­ni­tion of real­i­ty in that skewed mir­ror. And if this emo­tions were the effect Mar­garet Atwood went for, she is suc­cess­ful. 

And the per­fect quote, some­thing P. K. Dick could have writ­ten (I had this impres­sion more than once dur­ing the read­ing):

They were so hap­py then. It was just like an ad.

John Brunner, The Sheep Look Up


Do you know that won­der­ful state of devour­ing a new book? For­get about food and sleep, the only thing there is a whole new world full of unknown. I used to read late in night, till morn­ing. I was curi­ous, excit­ed, aston­ished by new ideas, words, adven­tures! In time though there were less and less books worth sleep­less nights. So when I find such a book now, I’m a hap­py per­son.

In a way, The Sheep Look Up is such a book. It’s not a fast and easy read­ing, yet I fin­ished it in few hours. And I am def­i­nite­ly rec­om­mend it to any­one who likes dark visions of future. Because dark is the pic­ture Brun­ner had drawn. But let’s start from the begin­ning.

Not long ago there have appeared a new edi­tion series of — more or less clas­sic — sci­ence-fic­tion. And although I heard the title Stand on Zan­zibar I nev­er read it and I had no idea what to expect of John Brun­ner.

Some books we love because we recog­nize our­selves in them. And some books we love because they are so very dif­fer­ent from what we are used to think about world and peo­ple.

The Sheep Look Up is nei­ther because although I def­in­itely recog­nize myself (and the rest of human man­kind) I can­not pos­sibly love the pic­ture. It is harsh to read about our mis­takes and lack of respons­ib­il­ity con­cern­ing envir­on­ment which in long term means we — peo­ple — don’t real­ly care about our­selves. More­over, we don’t care about future gen­er­a­tions. The­se few who try to ”do some­thing” (be it a bomb mak­ing or tree plant­ing) are too few and unor­gan­ized. When I read about Pur­itan — a net of mar­kets with eco-food — and how they sell apples with dis­tinct signs of worms activ­ity in them, I saw one of my friends from the eco side of the road show­ing me an apple with holes and say­ing: ”see? no insect­icides.” And I thought: so they already know it in 1972.

When I read about buy­ing earth­worms and bees because they don’t live in nat­ural state, when I read about oxy­gen auto­mats for cross­ing from side to side, about acci­dental leak­age of pois­on­ous wastes that were ear­lier dig in a man­ner ”what eye can­not see…”, when I keep read­ing about dis­eases, muta­tions, dehu­man­isa­tion… well, I felt ter­ri­fied, because I knew two things: one, that this is all hap­pen­ing right here, right now, and two: that when I fin­ish read­ing, I do exact­ly noth­ing to change this.

And the solu­tion?

We can just about restore the bal­ance of the eco­logy, the bio­sphere, and so on — in oth­er words we can live with­in our means instead of on an unre­pay­able over­draft, as we’ve been doing for the past half cen­tury — if we exterm­in­ate the two hun­dred mil­lion most extra­vag­ant and waste­ful of our spe­cies.

The struc­ture of sto­ry­line reminds me about one of the books I had to read as a stu­dent: Czarny Potok. It was an exam­ple of ”always present nar­ra­tion” — only here and now, but what’s more import­ant here, it was an exam­ple of a messy, frag­ment­ary nar­ra­tion that wasn’t poor writ­ing, and that has it’s own pur­pose: to make a read­er as lost as were her­oes of a sto­ry. And I remem­ber pret­ty well, we stu­dents were lost, alright.

If I’d gone into a publisher’s office in 1981 and pitched a nov­el set in a world with a lethal, sexu­ally trans­mit­ted virus that was going to take down huge num­bers of human beings, and in that same world, it was determ­ined that we’d com­pletely thrown the cli­mate of the plan­et out of whack — not only would they not have both­ered but they prob­ably would have called secur­ity. No one except pos­sibly the late John Brun­ner, in his bril­liant nov­el “The Sheep Look Up,” has ever described any­thing in sci­ence fic­tion that is remote­ly like the real­ity of 2007 as we know it.

ImageWell, Sheep look up is like a stack of news­pa­pers frag­ments, cut and may­be stick on some wall, all the pieces togeth­er, now, dear read­er, find con­nec­tions, make a sto­ry from them, do you see coin­cid­enses? Do you see the sto­ry­line, the strings between peo­ple, situ­ations, unim­port­ant pieces and this huge ones, with mas­sive impact? And shall you see the string between you your­self dear read­er and all this total­ly fic­tional sto­ry?

This is not an eco­lo­gical thriller, as some are. In a one forth of the book I checked the first pub­lished date: 1972. That is damn long time ago! And it is so ter­ri­fy­ingly actu­al! I can’t believe they (or They) knew it, feel it, pro­gnose it and… Did noth­ing. Soci­ety is a con­veni­ent thing.

By IT i mean: envir­on­ment pol­lu­tion, mon­ey over human, mob, not peo­ple. Eco­lo­gical food — for a price and may­be not so eco­lo­gical at all. Dis­eases, muta­tions, dehu­man­isa­tion. And all this with lit­tle steps, ”it’s not that bad yet”, ”I heard they have worse” and so on. One of the sad­dest sce­nes is when this young man and his wife who real­ly want to have a child is told that this pre­cious child died in a womb because of dys­func­tional microwave which lit­er­ally cooked the baby. Can you blame him if he star build­ing bombs? But for whom?

Who is respons­ible for this state of things?

And I com­ing back to Milton’s Lyci­das from which comes the title:

The hun­gry sheep look up, and are not fed,
But swol­len with wind and the rank mist they draw,
Rot inward­ly, and foul con­ta­gion spread…

And the oth­er poet:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whim­per.

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