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Thursday, March 23, 2017

Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry by Robert Pinsky

Robert Pinsky tackles Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, which seems a rather daunting task, especially for the book's modest size. A subtitle might ask what poetry's current role is in America. During his tenure as U.S. Poet Laureate, one of his self-appointed tasks was to get average Americans to comment on favorite poems. An immigrant from Laos, Pov Chin, here comments on how much Langston Hughes's "Minstrel Man" means to her. A critic apparently took the approach to task, saying it illustrated American narcissism. Pinsky, on the other hand, seems to admire the poem's strength through its adaptability, to fit someone's circumstances in a wholly different cultural context. I tend to lean in Pinsky's favor.

Pinsky opens the brief book by distinguishing wrong-headed impetuses that can damage a democracy: 1) colon, that is the tendency to all the same within a culture, and 2) cult, the tendency to divide and fragment a culture. In opening with this, he lends special weight to the idea but never comes back to it--at least not explicitly. Maybe he means to suggest that these are twin ditches ("keeping it between the ditches") or Scylla and Charybdis that the wary poet has to sail his ship between. In referring to the above critic, maybe Pinsky means to suggest the critic fell prey to one ditch or the other.

Pinsky quotes Alexis DeTocqueville (from Chapter XVII OF "SOME SOURCES OF POETRY AMONG DEMOCRATIC NATIONS" of DEMOCRACY IN AMERICA) as saying
"I am persuaded that in the end democracy diverts the imagination from all that is external to man [such as Nature] and fixes it on man alone."
Pinsky makes no direct connections, but maybe he means to suggest a specific meaning to this. He refers to a handful of poems without ever explicitly what his point in analysis is. These are "Home Burial" by Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock", Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room", and Edward Arlington Robinson's "Eros Turannos". This last Pinsky contrasts with the Carl Sandberg's Chicago poems which appeared that same issue and won poetry's then biggest award*. Sandberg's is probably more ostentatiously American--broad, sweeping, encompassing--but Pinsky calls on the voice of an anonymous American wife for whom the Robinson poem took on special meaning because her husband was away on business all the time and got hooked on drugs and alcohol.

It may be that Pinsky agrees and disagrees with his critic. Yes, people do take in poems and make it their own--not for narcissistic reasons but personal ones. That a poem can be absorbed by average human beings must be part of the appeal of doing a project that has "Americans [say] poems they love." Truly, that must be the democratic appeal of such an unofficial survey.

* Pinsky doesn't quite dismiss the Sandberg poems, but he does suggest that Robinson's poem is superior from this vantage in the future. His argument mirrors David Orr's in favor of Bishop over the ambitious Robert Lowell. This seems to represent a shift in predominant thought about poetry in the twentieth century. In Sandberg's poems, the voices of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg echo although in general I am probably in agreement with Pinsky and Orr.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Hell Is the Absence of God" by Ted Chiang

First appearing in Patrick Nielsen Hayden's Starlight 3, this swept the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Seiun Awards; was shortlisted for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, reprinted by Robert Silverberg, Karen Haber, David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Vonda N. McIntyre, Charles N. Brown, Jonathan Strahan, James Patrick Kelly, John Kessel, and Rachel Swirsky.


Summary:
Angels are appearing on earth, and their appearances bring as much death and destruction as healing. The following three lives come together due to these chance healings and destruction occurring in this wake.

Neil Fisk had never been religious although ultimately he becomes so. He was born with a congenital defect "that caused lost his left thigh to be externally rotated and several inches shorter than his right." Neil didn't come to love or hate God because of this. His wife, however, was a quiet believer, which encouraged him to be more disposed to liking religion. She is killed, though, when an angel appears. Much as he's angry with God, he knows he cannot be with Sarah again unless he gets to Heaven which requires loving God.

Janice Reilly lost both of her legs at birth. Janice became a famous evangelist until one day her legs are restored. She wonders what her new purpose should be now that she cannot be an evangelist to the handicapped since she is no longer handicapped.

Finally, we have Ethan, a man who encounters an angel but is neither healed nor killed. He cannot understand why, so he seeks out Janice, believing she has the answer to this mystery.
Commentary:
From all the awards and reprints, this should be a story to expect great things from. The set up is cool. Again, we have characters that represent different ideas: Neil seeks God but should hate Him. Janice should love God but is confused by his gift, and Ethan has been neglected by God. The scenario is ripe with potential.

The imagery is spare except for the last scene, which is eye-popping. The disappointment is Janice. She doesn't feel like a genuine believer. It's like you can open up her and soul casing and find it barren.

In an interview Chiang said he read the books of handicapped believer Joni Eareckson Tada as research, and Joni is supposed to be devout. That doesn't mean that believers don't doubt, but that she would have an arsenal of theological thought to wrestle with and against.No wrestling with actual theology goes on.

What may have happened was that Chiang swept away religion-specific markers to protect the story from being a critique of one religion (and Tada), but leaving out specificity made her feel artificial or a shiny new believer fresh out of the wrapper, which isn't the kind of believer you'd want to discuss complex religious issues with.

Here's an example. In the "Story Notes" Chiang writes:
"one  of the  unsatisfying things about the Book of Job is that, in the end, God rewards Job. Leave aside the question of whether new children can compensate for the loss of his original ones. Why does God restore Job''s fortunes at all?... One of the basic messages of thebook is that virtue isn't always rewarded; bad things happen to good people. Job ultimately accepts this, demonstrating virtue, and is subsequently rewarded. Doesn't this undercut the message?
...If the author were really committed to the idea that virtue isn't always rewarded, shouldn't the book have ended with Job still bereft of everything?
Chiang typically uses a lot of qualifiers, which is nice. His qualifiers answer his own question: "isn't always" implies there are times when behavior is and is not rewarded. Sometimes people go through limited trials, and sometimes the testings extend to the end of one's life. Sometimes virtue is rewarded. Of course, the believer doesn't see this world as the final reward although that is sometimes difficult to recall when going through troubles.

This is what I mean, in part, about having an arsenal of theological thought. Someone's already thought of something similar that may apply. A believer may doubt, but they'll have something to ponder. They will pit their circumstances to those they've read in their scriptures. Put it another way: Imagine a kid has an astrophysicist father, and the kid's given a difficult homework problem concerning astrophysics. Does the kid give up after he cannot answer it? Or does he consult his dad or his dad's books?

Since Joni and the text are Judeo-Christian, the ending doesn't make sense within that framework (although it may apply to other religious contexts). Why would a Judeo-Christian god do that? There's no record of such within the text. More likely, if God revealed himself it would be to some end.

Chiang must have felt The Book of Job connected (see again the quote above) and that this is the more fitting end. Eternal suffering then must be more pious and loving than temporary.

Suffering in Job, however, is not an end but a means. It was a proof that he could remain faithful in the face of adversity, not just success. It was also a way to stop those who connected every event, positive or negative, to God's like or dislike of the believer. Finally, God corrects Job on second-guessing God. Because God knows all, who is Job to judge and tell Him what He should do? [See also the Lord's Prayer, and Jesus' final petition to God not to be crucified: "Take this cup."] It's been awhile since I read Job, so there may be further purposes I'm leaving out. Here's the text, but be warned that it is difficult to interpret without a solid understanding of the rest of the Book. The link provided does have "Tools" on the left, which can help guide the reader and give the original Hebrew.

Clearly, others were taken by the tale, so I may have missed something, or some lack a full understanding of the context. Or maybe this is a critique of an entirely different religion. Definitely, food for thought.

Monday, March 20, 2017

"What's Expected of Us" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Henry Gee's Nature, reprinted by David G. Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Lincoln Michel, and Nadxieli Nieto. Read online here.


Summary:
A minor time-machine called the Predictor goes back in time one second to beep that you are about to press it. This, people believe, proves definitively that there is no free will. Despite previous proofs, people actually believe this one.
Commentary with Spoiler
Some become despondent. This story was sent back from one year in the future as a warning. However, the future was going to happen anyway, and people will still become despondent. So what's the point? Why bother?
"Because I had no choice."
Interesting thought experiment. Nonetheless, just because you can learn what you will choose doesn't mean you did not choose it.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"The Evolution of Human Science" or "Catching Crumbs from the Table" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Nature edited by Henry Gee. It was up for the Locus award.

Summary:
When part of humanity is upgraded to metahumans, whose cognitive thinking we mere humans cannot grasp, what science is left for humanity to study?
Commentary:
At first, they do little but try to interpret metahumans (hermeneutics, that is, interpretation of text). Science falls away. They reverse engineer metahumans technology to better understand. Finally, they decide they need a go-between: They decide to upgrade humans that can bridge the gap.

The second title--the one that the story originally appeared as--is apparently the editor's choice. The editor's is concrete; however, the irony of "evolution"--at least what we assume evolution should be (e.g. progress)--gets lost.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Ted Chiang on Explanation in Fiction and Non-Fiction

"[T]here’s something beautiful about a good explanation; reading one isn’t just useful, it can be pleasurable, too."
--Ted Chiang in Electric Literature (interviewed by Meghan McCarron)

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ted Chiang on Genre and the Difference between SF and Fantasy--Specifically Magic Vs. Science

"[M]y work remains close to traditional notions of science fiction. I like performing thought experiments, working through the implications of a speculative idea, and I think that’s something science fiction is particularly well suited for. [G]enre is a kind of conversation that takes place between books and authors over a period of years. [Y]our work is in dialogue with earlier work in that genre.... It’s a conversation I am happy to be a part of."
 --Ted Chiang in Unbound Worlds (interviewed by Peter Orullian)
"[T]here does exist a useful distinction... between magic and science. If... just a handful of special people... turn lead into gold, that implies different things than giant factories churning out gold from lead. The difference... is between the universe responding to you in a personal way, and the universe being entirely impersonal."
--Ted Chiang in The Metahack Interview (interviewed by Avi Solomon). The book is "free" through subscription to Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program.

"Science fiction offers... a story where the world starts out as recognizable... but is ... changed by some new discovery or technology. At the end... the world is changed permanently. The original condition is never restored.... this story pattern is progressive because its underlying message is ... that change is inevitable. The consequences ... are here to stay and we’ll have to deal with them."
--Ted Chiang in The Asian-American Literary Review (interviewed by Betsy Huang)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Ted Chiang's Advice to Slow Writers

"On the occasions that I have hurried to finish a story in order to have something to bring to a workshop, the need to meet the deadline caused me to make bad decisions with regards to the story, and I wound up spending more time fixing those mistakes.... 
"As for advice to slow writers, I’d say that writing is not a race. This isn’t a situation where only the most prolific writers get an audience; publish your story when you’re ready, and it will find readers."
--Ted Chiang in Electric Literature (interviewed by Meghan McCarron)