All Tomorrows: The Demolished Man

Coilhäusers, I’ll be in D.C. much of this week and will hopefully have a little free time. I’d love to meet some of you dear readers in person. Contact me at ampersandpilcrow [at] hotmail [dot] com.

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Reich tore out of Personnel and over to Sales-city. The same unpleasant information was waiting for him. Monarch Utilities & Resources was losing the gut-fight with the D’Courtney Cartel. There was no escaping the certainty of defeat. Reich knew his back was to the wall.

He returned to his own office and paced in a fury for five minutes. “It’s no use,” he muttered. “I know I’ll have to kill him. He won’t accept merger. Why should he? He’s licked me and he knows it. I’ll have to kill him and I need help. Peeper help.

It’s a story old as a thousand distinguished corpses in a thousand drawing rooms: murder.

Alfred Bester’s futuristic murder tale The Demolished Man won the first Hugo award in 1953. At the time, that may have come as something of a surprise, seeing as the novel isn’t an operatic space epic. But then, it’s no typical whodunit, either. Bester has set his story in a World of Tomorrow (!) where rockets can get you anywhere and telepaths have so suffused society, there hasn’t been a murder in over 70 years.

That’s not going to stop Ben Reich, though. Oh, no. The business mogul happens to be a wee bit of a sociopath, to put it mildly. He’s decided his similarly insane rival must be done away with. The novel opens with Reich plotting his crime and focuses not on whodunit, but on the mind-reading investigator Lincoln Powell’s cat-and-mouse game with Reich, as well as the unraveling of more complex reasons behind the crime.

Many, many once highly-regarded tales from sci-fi’s earlier eras haven’t held up well over time. But with this book, Bester took a quantum leap ahead of his. Building from pulp foundations, he stirred in a heaping helping of noir, innovative style, vicious humor and, for kicks, topped it all off with help from the gravitational pull of Sigmund Freud’s looming, dinosauric cigar. The resulting book was written a decade before sci-fi’s Deviant Age came roaring to life, but it’s deviant in all the best ways, and has only gotten better with age.

All Tomorrows: The Birthgrave

“To wake, and not to know where, or who you are, not even to know what you are—whether a thing with legs and arms, or a brain in the hull of a great fish—that is a strange awakening. But after awhile, uncurling in the darkness, I began to uncover myself, and I was a woman.”

So begins Tanith Lee’s 1975 novel The Birthgrave, her first. I stumbled upon it some years ago, yellowing long out of print in a bargain bin.

I usually try to avoid revisiting authors too much on All Tomorrows, and regular readers will remember that I sang Lee’s praises for The Silver Metal Lover. But lately this column has been tracing the lesser known paths of fantasy and epic. No discussion of epic during sci-fi-fanta-whatever’s Deviant Age would be complete without delving into The Birthgrave.

It is a Sword and Sorcery epic, thunderously bloody and sensual in a way that would make Robert E. Howard pant. Yet it is also a deeper story of character and identity: a feminist work of a piece with the questions sweeping through its time.

For Lee’s (at first) nameless heroine awakes with nothing but questions, as the eruption of a volcano shakes her from a seemingly endless sleep with memories of hidden power, tragedy and a bottomless sense of guilt.

Driven to find answers, she runs into Übermensch types who try to turn her into the women featured on the covers of your average Sword and Sorcery tale— slave, figurehead goddess, concubine — clinging open-mouthed to the leg of some buffed-up conqueror.

But this is not their story: it is hers. As she survives (or buries) them all, as Lee sucks the reader into the elusive quest for power over one’s own life, she makes sure you’ll never see a dread sorceress the same way again.

All Tomorrows: The Dying Earth

A reader is not supposed to be aware that someone’s written the story. He’s supposed to be completely immersed, submerged in the environment.
-Jack Vance

In 1955, The Lord of the Rings was published, and promptly changed fantasy forever. In its juggernaut status, the particular breed of epic it spawned often pushed aside, in the popular mind, any type of fantasy that came before.

Just what was that? Its rough-hewn predecessors took the form of hybrid stories rooted in fairy-tale, lurid history and the raw juices of pulp adventure. Robert E. Howard’s sword and sorcery romps are a perfect example — as are H.P. Lovecraft’s nightmares, for that matter. While the characters here may be connected to grand events, this was a fantasy of short stories, not novels. Instead of a painstakingly described mythos, this thrived on brain-watering mysteries and jolt endings.

Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth hit the stands in 1950. A collection of six perfect, interlaced stories set in a time when Earth’s sun is sputtering out and no line remains between sorcery and science, it didn’t exactly produce the literary paradigm shift that Tolkien did, but it has had its pull. Gene Wolfe, Tanith Lee and numerous other authors were influenced by Vance. Gary Gygax also drew heavily from it when crafting the magic of the original Dungeons and Dragons.

I’d read about it often before finally tracking down a tattered paperback copy (it seems to come in no other form). The feeling I got when I finally immersed myself in its pages was that, growing up, these were the fairy tales I’d always wanted.

All Tomorrows: The Book of the New Sun

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.
-From The Shadow of the Torturer

Severian is a hero, cast with objects of great power (including a badass sword, natch) upon a path that will take him to great heights and strange places. He may even save his world. Cue swelling music.

But wait; Severian is a torturer. His world is Urth to its inhabitants. The moon is green, the sun old and dying. There are rumors that the great citadels of his ancient city once moved between the stars. What, then, are the angels and holy relics that fill the land?

Such is the setup of Gene Wolfe’s masterpiece The Book of the New Sun, a genre-bending four book epic equal parts philosophical treatise, rich allegory and Romantic odyssey.

Wolfe was one of the leading lights of sci-fi’s Deviant Age; that blazing era from 1965 to 1985 when no concept seemed out of bounds. As with Tanith Lee, he did so much brilliant work throughout that time (and after) that any number would be excellent topics for their own column.

The Book of the New Sun comes at the end of that period, and in it Wolfe melds the shocking innovation of his earlier career with a deep undrerstanding the power of old tales well-told.

With multi-volume works, I usually prefer to pick out the strongest entry. Here, I’ll make an exception. The entirety of Wolfe’s opus is so damn good that I found myself unable to choose a single part. It is, like the best epics, one tale. More on the Gothic adventure to end all Gothic adventures, below.

Mike Brodie’s Glimpses of the Under-Underclass

Photography can serve many functions. One of the most powerful is open up parts of the world we never see, reminding us that they are as viscerally real as our own lives. Humanity’s a huge thing and there are teeming cultures all around us — universes really — that we rarely glimpse from inside. Day by day, it’s amazing how much of it we file away as alien, content to leave it there.

That’s what struck me when I first saw this image of a slit possum splayed out for dinner in a homeless camp. The photo was unidentified, but the reality was jarring. Turned out it was by Mike Brodie, a.k.a. the Polaroid Kidd (thanks to Jonathan Welch for the ID). Brodie left home at 18 to ride the rails, armed at first with only an old Polaroid SX-70. Over the next three years, he proved an amazing photographer, documenting the travels and lives of his fellow squatters and vagabonds.

Brodie’s work has been justly praised, with exhibitions around the world and ecstatic comparisons to Dorothea Lange. However, he seems to have virtually disappeared during the last year: no new exhibitions, website down, the works.

Erik Lyle, a past squatter and rail-rider himself, writes that Brodie’s work provides glimpses of “a sort-of hobo-topia where packs of grubby kids (and dogs!) play music, share food, and forage in the ruins of post-industrial America together, while traveling together from town to town on freight trains and homemade river rafts.”

Yeah, that’s there. But, I also found his pictures — especially the jarring first image I found — to be an effective antidote to romanticizing the homeless. Yes, there’s vitality, fun and even a sense of grandeur here.

Yet a look at the missing teeth, the Mad Dog and the ever-present grime shows us a different side as well. This is still a group that remains nigh-illegal thanks to many a gentry-friendly law, is extremely vulnerable and are often plagued by mental and physical illness. The knife cuts both ways.

More glimpses below. Have a look.

Blood in Tiananmen

We’ve all seen the photo. Some of us have put it up on our wall. There are few more primal symbols of the power of individual rebellion than Jeff Widener’s single shot of one unidentified Chinese man standing in front of a line of tanks.

There had seemed so much right with their movement, their ideals, the spontaneous coming together across political creeds and backgrounds to demand freedom, to build a towering “Goddess of Democracy,” which they then brought forth to challenge Mao’s old, looming portrait.

For a shining moment, it seemed like she was winning.

It is 20 years since June 5, 1989. Twenty years since a peaceful uprising of students, intellectuals, rebels and working people that seem poised to set free the world’s most populous nation finally ended in blood and tragedy in Tiananmen square.

Below the fold are some photos that you may not have seen. Some are, to give fair warning, quite gruesome, but they reflect reality: over a thousand people that lost their lives trying to push their part of the world in a better direction.

In a time when most interest in China involves how much money can be squeezed from it, Tiananmen has faded into memory for far too many. It is more important than ever to remember the atrocities its government committed — and still commits — to keep its stranglehold on power. News of the Chinese government ramping up censorship before the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacres serve as a stark reminder of the things that have not changed.

The truth cannot die. Nothing will erase the reality of what was done. It is a reminder too, that there is nothing inscrutable about the East, that hundreds of thousands were willing to risk and sacrifice for the same goals sought around the world.

Some things should never be forgiven — or forgotten.

Farewell David Carradine

Word comes this morning that, tragically, actor David Carradine was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room this morning, possibly a suicide. He was 72.

Carradine first rose to fame in the ’70s TV series Kung Fu as wandering monk/martial artist Kwai Chang Caine (a role originally sought by Bruce Lee). He’s as well or better known to later generations as the eponymous villain in Quentin Tarantino’s epic revenge saga Kill Bill. As Caine, a soft-spoken, hard-bodied Carradine helped form the culture’s idea of a martial artist, to the extent that many fixtures of the role have now become cliche.

Less remembered, unfortunately, are his turns as Woody Guthrie in Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory or a rabble-rousing train robber in Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha. Also, if you haven’t seen Death Race 2000, do so now.

Carradine struggled with alcoholism and personal issues his entire career. In that time, he got saddled with a lot of dreck. Fortunately, he persevered and survived to get a role, in Kill Bill, that allowed him to show off his considerable talents. Managing to bring both seething villainy and world-weary gravitas, Carradine’s performance was a key factor in turning the movies into something more than a simple bloody rampage. In the pitch-perfect scenes like his initial entrance (at 5:10) or the grand finale below, he manages to add a hollow note to the fulfillment of The Bride’s (Uma Thurman) long, brutal quest.

Post-Bill, Carradine’s career enjoyed a bit of a revival and I’d hoped that in the autumn of his life he’d end up with juicier roles. Sadly, we’ll never know what the years to come might have had in store.

Shotgun and Paintbrush: Acker interviews Burroughs

Here is one of the holy grails of interviews, with visionary writer Kathy Acker quizzing the legendary William Burroughs.

They talk about many things: Word as Virus, Scientology, Jesus and the legion of apocryphal stories that followed Burroughs around like carrion crows. This took place in the late ’80s, and both had less than a decade to live, passing away within a few months of each other in 1997. We will not see their like again.

A particularly telling moment, at least to my eyes, comes early on when Burroughs talks about the power of “shotgun” methods — the cut-up method in writing or a spray blast in painting — that introduce a random factor. Yet at the same time, they don’t take away the importance of “careful brushwork.”

It’s an important point: it illustrates how false the line between inspiration and discipline is. Acker and Burroughs grasped that instinctually and their works put the lie to that division. I think many people wrongly draw the lesson from both that simply spewing up one’s subconscious visions makes for good writing or art, while missing the considerable craft they put into honing those thoughts into glistening brain-gems.

Lessons aside, the prime pleasure in watching this interview comes from witnessing two keenly unique minds in a fascinating conversation. The rest is below the jump. Enjoy.

All Tomorrows: The Changed Man

“Dread is that tension, that waiting the comes when you know there is something to fear but you have not yet identified what it is. The fear that comes when you first realize that your spouse should have been home an hour ago; when you hear a strange sound in the baby’s bedroom; when you realize that a window you are sure you closed is now open, the curtains billowing, and you’re alone in the house.”
-Orson Scott Card, from the Introduction to The Changed Man.

People change.

Once upon a time there was a talented young writer who explored death, horror and the future with uncommon vision. He had a rare talent for the fast-moving plot, the unexpected twist and the exploration of deeper philosophical themes, all in the same space.

People change, and not always for the better. In recent years, Orson Scott Card, who made his fame with brilliant works like Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead, has turned his attention towards advocating for one loathsome cause after another. Dogma and fear have gotten the better of his creative talents. If you want evidence, read Empire. Hell, Warner Brothers has the rights, so it may soon be coming to a theater near you.

While Card may now deride much of the “New Morality and the Pill” era, his earlier work is very much of a piece with the glories of science fiction’s Deviant Age. In this edition of All Tomorrows, I’ll focus on The Changed Man, a slim volume released under that title in 1992 that happens to be contain the strongest single collection of Card’s early work that I’ve found (if you want the entirety of his short stories, including some other gems, get the massive Maps in a Mirror).

This column is less about the collection itself than some of the tales contained within. It’s about gems like “Eumenides in the Fourth floor lavatory,” “Fat Farm,” “Closing the Timelid” and “Prior Restraint.” Dread and the bubbling of the nasty subconscious are a theme, and these stories stand as a reminder of the writer Card was, and could have been.

All Tomorrows: Parable of the Sower

All creeds spring from catastrophe.

The late Octavia Butler, as keen an explorer of the human soul as ever trod a future-scape, understood that far better than most. In plain, well-turned prose she charted the bonds that hold (or fail to hold) us together through time, space and tragedy.

Perhaps the pinnacle of this search is her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower (also: read Kindred, trust me). The tale is framed as the journals of Lauren Olamino, a woman who might one day be revered as a prophet or messiah. For now though, she’s just a terrified teen in the middle of an apocalypse, praying for survival.

Dystopian fiction, along with its post-apocalyptic sister, is a popular genre these days, and with the fractious times we live in it’s not hard to see why. Since I’ve begun writing this column, I’ve had more than one reader comment how energizing rebelling against a dystopia would be or how freeing it would be to “see it all burn down.” The recently departed J.G. Ballard was right when he noted that “The suburbs dream of violence… they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”

In Parable Butler strips any bit of glamour away right out of the gate: dystopian times are mostly death, fear and desperation (ask anyone who’s ever lived through a warzone). But while she topples down one dream, she gives the reader a wondrous and utterly rare thing in novels of a dark tomorrow: hope.