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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)

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Beautiful & Pointless by David Orr

"I don't expect you to agree with everything that's said in each of [the chapters]; in fact... I hope you don't. If you do, you'll be preventing your own response, the most vital and disturbing faculty you possess, from fully developing its power. You want to become a reader of modern poetry, not a receiver of the verdicts of modern poetry critics."
--David Orr, "Introduction" 
In his introductory essay, David Orr makes a case that this book should be where a poetry reader / poet starts, as opposed to the usual topics of introductory poetry. The opening three essays probably would supplement a good poetry-writing or -appreciation course, but a few of the essays would push new readers out of their depth. I'll leap off the above quote to deviate along a parallel course.

Let's start with the final essay first: "Why Bother?" [with poetry, presumably]. It provides the main course for discussion in other chapters.

Orr presents the possibility often stated in poetry, that poetry is pointless but beautiful. He astutely shows that poetry is no greater a human endeavor than, say, gardening. We'll pass on the "beautiful." It may or may not be--each reader's aesthetics may vary (not that all are equivalent)--but let's examine the idea of pointlessness.

Historically, people have feared pointed-art as it might eschew art to become didactic. However, a simpler truth underlies art with a point: What does it mean to be human?

Orr describes how he tried to teach his father poetry as he lay dying. Why do this? Probably it was 1) to forge a bond, 2) to show his father why Gregory did what he did, 3) to justify himself, 4) to teach poetry or teach how words convey meaning between humans. Why did his father participate? 1) to forge a stronger bond with his son before leaving. I cannot guarantee this, but one could probably wager, visit the senior Orr in the after-life, inquire and probably win the bet.

For some, if art has a point, it must be as didactic as a classroom meter stick slapped across the palm. August Kleinzahler likely was speaking directly to this when he wrote as a blurb:
“David Orr reminds us that poetry is an ancient and living art, a robust American art, and not a commodity or vehicle for self-expression, social betterment, or career enhancement.” 
But sometimes art is just that frisson, that tiny burst of energy which addresses a small aspect of humanity we've just recognized or forgotten. It doesn't have to be world-shaking or political or personal or didactic--just human.

A-ha! someone asks, what about "The Red Wheelbarrow"? A moment in a human being's life, a moment noted and captured. That would explain "so much depends upon".

What about language poetry? Isn't that what humans use to communicate? Of course, it is human... if at a remove.

What about sounds and emotions and symbols, etc. in poetry? All of these are implied above. There is probably a human aspect to any human endeavor.

What about animals? Human create bonds between themselves and animals, often anthropomorphizing. SF has been dealing with aliens for a century and a half or more. Not only do we see our connection with the other, but also we often put ourselves in its place. However, some aliens are easier to connect with than others. More human? After all, not many weep over the death of thousands of cells every time you scratch your head or spray Lysol to kill germs in a hospital.

How well a poem addresses the question may explain how well and how many respond to the poem.

Plenty of caveats lurk in the sage brush, waiting to ambush us. On the one hand, this is not to advocate any single human perspective, since any single perspective would be limiting, privileging one group of humans over another. On the other, a single human perspective is all we have. We are individuals and as such we have individual voices, capable of utterances that are both human yet paradoxically unique.

*

Orr launches into the opening section called "The Personal" 1) to point out the popular misconception of poetry being so personal as not being able to critique it, and 2) to talk about confessional poetry. On the first point, he uses embarrassment as a key to discerning whether the personal is art or not, drawing up a make-believe scenario where a man plays a kazoo to lament the passing of his mother. But embarrassment is human and should be fodder for poets and artists to exploit. Woody Allen and other comedians rely on it. Whether the kazoo is beautiful or not, is a different matter.

The second aspect is confessional poetry. Some love it, some hate it. In some ways it addresses "What does it mean to be human?" better than most poetry. The problem with this sub-genre, for me, lies in its inability to step out of its frame. As Salman Rushdie said, "To see the picture, you have to step out of the frame."

When I was a child, my mother would ask--whenever I cried about someone else's behavior--"What did you do to them?" I had to experience this earth-shattering revelation multiple times before it sank in: I created some scenarios that I was suffering through. When I punched/sassed Johnny, Johnny punched/sassed back.

However, sometimes I had done nothing to deserve the attack. I still remember a kid flicking a paper football in my eye having done nothing to provoke him. He was just a bully. So it goes. Sometimes we provoke our bullies, sometimes not. I made these revelations between six and eight years old (even if I implemented them imperfectly); therefore, writers with more maturity than an eight-year-old can and should stand outside one's self for a broader perspective, to see the whole picture.

Reading a famous confessional, I felt for the persona's plight when I noticed that a completely different set of explanations for people's behavior could exist than those the persona assumed. That she didn't challenge her assumptions made her an unreliable narrator, and the text didn't doubt itself. I put the book down. Maybe it justified itself later. I try again at a later date.

Is this an authorial embarrassment for the confessional? Maybe. Not necessarily a detrimental one. It can at least be appreciated for its aesthetics--its skill at craftsmanship, the way sound splashes across the page. But it does have dribble stains across its shirt front.

*
"Almost all poets, including myself, lean left. There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea." --Orr, "The Political"
The aforementioned "What does it mean to be human?" also affects "The Political" section. Art should not be immune to the political as it impacts humanity, but the political limits itself when it remains inside the frame.

Too much art is wasted being voluntarily walled in with Fortunato for a chance to sample a cask of Amontilado. Unless one is in the business of propaganda, it would behoove one's political poetry to take a wide-angle lens, to photograph native politicos in the wild as they behave, not as one's political party would have it. Be it liberal, conservative or something that lies outside the two-party system, political poetry should be more than a mouthpiece. Moreover, to state what is stated on a political platform is not asserting one's individual voice, "preventing your own response, the most vital and disturbing faculty you possess, from fully developing its power," as Orr put it.

Orr also suggests that poets and politicians both persuade although "[a]dmittedly... of very different things." Yet when one examines the important poetry, how much is persuasive? Further, poetry is a rather small community. Whom are they trying to persuade? the "maybe five conservative poets"? or the choir? One is reminded of Hamlet's soliloquy: "to take Arms against a Sea of troubles."

This isn't to say that politics or any subject matter is forbidden, but persuasive essays will likely serve best as it frees them from the shackles of having to reproduce humanity with accuracy. As one removes these shackles, however, one moves away from art, toward propaganda. If you aren't interested in art, then it shouldn't trouble you when you engage in propaganda.

On the other, other hand, today's battlefield of political words exists in pithy memes. One might make a case for poetry entering the fray there. However, the shorter the vision, the more reductive one's persuasion, the less faithful one is to the greater swath of humanity, the less accurate and less vital one's art. Art services humanity over partisanship. This does not preclude opinion but leavens it.

*

The other three essays cover their territory. The first essay, "Form", discusses form that is rigid, organic, apparent, and shapeless. Orr's take is original and thoughtful but leads to few surprises.

"Ambition" (called "The Great(ness) Game" from 2009), however, was surprising and thoughtful. It first appeared in The New York Times Book Review. He references Donald Hall's "Poetry and Ambition" reprinted online here. One must imagine some consternation at its publication. It posits that ambition as defined by writers like Robert Lowell, Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham, and Derek Walcott--as being an aggressive, extroverted poetry with words like pyre and fire. Whereas, the presently more popular Elizabeth Bishop resides at the opposite end of the continuum: the small, minute topics which she brushes away.

Did Orr hit the target? or is he being reductive? This will require some study.

The most provocative essay, "The Fishbowl", makes one question everything about poetry as an institution. Is it just a shell game? One hears of contests where the winners were predetermined. I've heard of famed magazines--from those who had worked behind the scenes--that did the same, soliciting works and ignoring submissions entirely. It puts a new spin on the book's title, However, we probably should not think the worst of a rather broad field. But this essay might open a few eyes.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

"Seventy-Two Letters" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Ellen Datlow's Vanishing Acts, reprinting by David G. Hartwell, Ann VanderMeer, and Jeff VanderMeer. It won the Sidewise award and was up for the Hugo, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Locus, and Seiun Awards.
Summary:
Even as a precocious child, Robert Stratton put various Hebrew words in the mouths of clay dolls to watch them animate and see what they would do. He learns his precocious buddy has isolated and grown "preformed" spermatozoa to child-size.

When Stratton gets older, he creates the first golems who can manipulate objects with his hands. The idea was to ease the burden off the poor. His boss is horrified, however. He sees it as a way to put sculptors out of a job, and he will block Stratton every step of the way.

Meanwhile, a Kabbalist stops by wanting to exchange information. He knows the word to golems to feed themselves their own words. It's a no-deal.

Finally, Stratton learns there's a whole secret society existing to perpetuate experiments the public may not approve of. Their scientists have learned that society is doomed within five generations.
Commentary with Spoilers:
The homunculus--the idea that humans exist in a microscopic form in either the egg or sperm--is not a new device in SF, but it must certainly be a new take. Here the "preformed" were made at the beginning of creation and the number of preformed generations is about to end. This, they say, explains the cataclysmic end of earlier Earth species.

Add to that the idea that biological beings can be animated like the golems, and you have Chiang's resolution to the idea that humanity's preformation crisis. Humanity will live on with the word's inside them that allows them to live. The ending satisfies although an iota of power leeches away due to the undramatic nature of what must occur.

This may be one of Chiang's best. The characters are more striking. The rich ideas play out their complexity in a fresh and surprising manner. In some ways the plot mirrors the earlier "Understand", where scenes seem to appear just for the purpose of developing ideas; however, the dilemma behind the ideas unite the scenes so that transitions feel integral.

Friday, March 10, 2017

"Understand" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Gardner Dozois's Asimov's, reprinted by Gardner Dozois, David G. Hartwell, and Kathryn Cramer. It won the Asimov's Readers' Poll and was up for the Hugo and Locus awards.
Summary:
Leon has fallen into a lake that's frozen over. He awakes from a coma after having been given an experimental drug, Hormone K, that revitalizes his lost neurons. The drug does far better than expected. In fact, he soon learns that his intelligence has surpassed what it was previously. The doctors are so amazed they put Leon through new experimental dosages to test Hormone K's effect. Even the CIA takes an interest in his case.
Commentary with Spoilers:
Like "Story of Your Life" which has an homage to Samuel Delaney's Babel-17, the opening sequences pays homage to Daniel Keyes's classic "Flowers for Algernon".

The strengths of the tale is its escalating sense of wonder and gestalt. While some of the plot tinkers with Leon outwitting the likes of the CIA, much relies on simple wish fulfillment. Who wouldn't want to be smarter?

While arrogance underlies Leon behavior toward his inferiors, he also fights for the freedom of his former girlfriend and spares the lives of his temporary enemies: CIA members and its director. As his intelligence grows, his thoughts grow ever more abstract for some length (which, while cool, could be reined in). Finally, he meets his new nemesis who appears to have a head start on Leon's ever-blooming genius.

A segment in the Peter Orullian interview with Ted Chiang struck me as relevant:
PO: [Y]ou could chose to write from the POV of a rather reprehensible person and attempt to make them sympathetic, should you? 
TC: [W]e as authors have to consider the moral dimension of what we write. If you think fiction can have a positive effect on how readers conduct their lives, then you have to acknowledge the possibility of a negative effect, too.... To me, where a writer draws the line is usually less important than the fact that the writer has thought about the issue. 
While most of Chiang's work seems thought out, this feels like it's composed on the fly. Each part is cool in itself, but some assembly is required. A sudden antagonist appears--who initially calls himself Greco (allusion to the painter?). Leon has grown too big for his britches and needs a slap-down. When you compartmentalize the sections--Birth, Battle for Independence, Gestalt, Showdown--the relationship or progression as a story is not clear. Why these parts and not others?

The story ends with the repetition of "dissolving". Dissolving involves the redistribution of parts throughout a solution, so through what substance is Leon redistributing in each case? In the end, he is losing his superman status to mere mortal--or perhaps a dead one? In the beginning, it was his descent into death as he lost consciousness and presumed death if someone had not saved him, kept him alive while he was in a coma and given him the Hormone K therapy to recover. Are we to suppose this is a loop? That he will end up in the hospital again and start the journey all over? Probably not. Presumably, his nemesis, Greco or Reynolds, would not allow a repeat performance, not to mention the CIA and doctors.

Perhaps dissolving bears a light throughout the text that illuminate another interpretative possibility.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

"Tower of Babylon" by Ted Chiang

First appeared in Ellen Datlow's Omni, reprinted by Gardner Dozois, James Morrow, Robert Silverberg, and Mike Ashley. It won the Nebula and was up for the Hugo, Locus, and Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Poll Awards.
Summary:
Hillalum begins his own construction on the Tower of Babylon as it nears the vault of heaven.
Commentary with Spoiler:
Hillalum ascends and a storm sweeps him away, carrying him into the vault. The vault pours him through its waters to the other side: back on the surface of Earth, not far from the Tower Babylon.

Assuming we are on a facsimile of Earth and its humans, the width of Chiang's Tower is approximately sixty to seventy-five miles, the height between 120 to 180 miles (calculated via Naismith's rule). There are other things to consider, such as rarefied air--"Earth's atmosphere is about 300 miles (480 kilometers) thick, but most of it is within 10 miles (16 km) the surface. Air pressure decreases with altitude"--but clearly these are not at stake in this universe. Hillalum would not be able to breathe so high. In fact, it probably would not be if we buy Hillalum's interpretation of what his universe is: a cylinder.

I'm not sure I'm visualizing this universe correctly, but half-way to the vault, the walkers should have a hard time not bobbing off the tower's surface. In fact, at the half-way point--sixty to ninety miles, where the air is most rarefied and difficult to breathe--the builders should be able to leap to heaven. Granted, they probably wouldn't survive the fall.

In one of his interviews, Chiang discusses that he didn't deem this one dealing with religion. The first time I read it, I assumed it was: The universe isn't what they thought. Religion is all built on lies, etc. This may have been part of what drew Thomas Disch, atheist, to champion the tale to Ellen Datlow, or so the traditional story of the story sale goes.

My latest reading, after sizing up Chiang's literary MO, is that while that interpretation is possible, so is Hillalum's interpretation as equally likely:
"[T]hrough their endeavor, men would glimpse how ingeniously the world had been constructed. By this construction, Yahweh's work was indicated, and Yahweh's work was concealed."
Of course, the Bible's tower of Babel was destroyed. It states:
"If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."
In other words, God wanted some things to be impossible for humanity. Incidentally, I didn't realize at my first reading that Babel and Babylon were interchangeable. I assumed Chiang was conflating stories to another end. Perhaps he was. It's hard to tell what that may be though: confusion + paganism? As far as I can tell, this only confuses the story's interpretation.

When I first read this, I was disappointed. Hype set me up for a literary SF story, lauded by many. My idea of literary must differ from others, which is why I quoted Damien Walter and Chiang on his own philosophical work here. In picking apart "Division by Zero", I uncovered a lucid perspective for reading his work.

This is why I carefully set up the best parameters for what Ted Chiang is up to. He writes old-school philosophical SF. It's good, but if you read for depth of character, dynamic plot, or linguistic pyrotechnics, you'll be miserable, reading for all the wrong reasons. I wish I could tell my younger self:
"You like Borges, yes? He's an Asimovian Borges. He writes how ideas impact humanity with a penchant for interesting narrative structures."
I'd have said, "Oh, okay. That sounds cool," and reread, clear-eyed. Rereading this story while understanding Chiang's MO--at least for this reader--makes the tale far more pleasurable.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Damien Walter on Ted Chiang

"[Ted] Chiang is sometimes described as a literary science fiction writer, but that’s a lazy label in which 'literary' means 'good' – a fairer one would be to say that Chiang is the Platonic ideal of a science fiction writer: his writing displays no particular interest in style, and yet it shines with a brutal, minimalist elegance. Every sentence is the perfect incision in the dissection of the idea at hand."
--Damien Walter at The Guardian

Monday, March 6, 2017

Ted Chiang on Literary Influences

"When I first began writing, I was influenced by Asimov and Clarke, and I would try to imitate their work very closely."
"[M]y writing matured... after I started reading writers like John Crowley and Gene Wolfe....  by then I knew better than to try imitating their work.... 
"[B]ut of all the writers I’ve mentioned..., [Edward Bryant's] work shows the clearest influence on my own...." 
--Ted Chiang interviewed by Gavin J. Grant for Indiebound

--and in Electric Literature (interviewed by Meghan McCarron)

Note: I did minimal splicing to serve up the interesting bits, economically.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ted Chiang on his Work, Translation, Philosophy, and Culture

"To the extent that my work is philosophical fiction, it's not reliant on American culture, and that might make it a good candidate for translation."
--Ted Chiang in The Metahack Interview (interviewed by Avi Solomon). The book is "free" through subscription to Amazon's Kindle Unlimited program.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Ted Chiang on Philosophy in Fiction

"[I]f abstract philosophical questions were the only thing I was interested in, I’d probably write... speculative essays. [P]hilosophical questions are most interesting when they have significant consequences for a person’s life.... 
"[O]ne of the things that interests me as a writer is finding ways to make philosophical questions storyable [that is, the ability to make certain notions or ideas into stories]."
--Ted Chiang in Electric Literature (interviewed by Meghan McCarron)

"I do want there to be a depth of human feeling in my work, but that’s not my primary goal as a writer.... My primary goal has to do with engaging in philosophical questions and thought experiments, trying to work out the consequences of certain ideas."
-- and in The New Yorker (interviewed by Joshua Rothman)

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Review: Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

Aimless Love
New and Selected Poems
 
by Billy Collins 
Random House 
Poetry
This book of poetry was a New York Times bestseller.


This book of poetry was a New York Times bestseller. I had to repeat that as I had no idea poetry could sell. I knew Billy Collins was popular, just not that popular. But maybe it shouldn't surprise.

When I was a lad, I enjoyed alternative music--a category that held in esteem those artists most of the public had never heard of. It was like a secret handshake with the band name being the password to get into the speakeasy. As soon as a band grew popular, they sold out and were disdained. Not by me, but that was the way we were supposed to treat villainous alternative sell-outs.

Perhaps because selling poetry books is rare, poets look on popularity with similar suspicion. For some, it may be jealousy; for others it may be like giving away the secret handshake, or bringing a tuba, drum box, and electric accordion to a heavy metal concert.

Does Collins and his aimless oboe truly belong in our exclusive poetry club?

Whenever Collins shows up at a gig, he hauls out the following: low-key Catholic Buddhism, clarity, awe for humanity, awe for nature, awe for the quotidian, a penchant to make nothing out of something, and an ear for the audience. This would be enough to qualify him as a minor poet. Maybe he might have shown up in a retrospective anthology or two, but he has two other qualities. One is humor. In one interview online he paused to let his one listener laugh. She did not. So he soldiered on, like any good stand-up comic. But if he had an audience, she would have laughed. The poems do feel more meditative on the page than when he reads it.

The other quality is the strange way he turns his images to present new perspectives. This isn't an uncommon trait for poets, but given the other ingredients in Collins's stew, this is the seasoning that stands out.

Let's take the opening poem, "Reader", where the poet addresses the supposed reader. He lists the possibile reader types, and says he's eager to meet you: "that is me rushing to the window / to see if it's you passing under the shade trees." It closes imagining a very human moment: "wondering where you are--/alone on a bench in a train station/or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor?" He not only welcomes his readers but allows for our inattention, even our nodding off.

"The Country" addresses Collins' special seasoning. He opens with a story about his friend telling him about mice and strike-anywhere matches possibly starting a fire, so Collins takes off with that to imagine the scene:
lit up in the blazing insulation,
the tiny looks of wonderment on the faces
of his fellow mice,[...]
That's not quite all. Some poets might have ended there, but he finishes with a jab at his friend: "one-time inhabitants / of what once was your house in the country?"

In "Velocity", Collins zooms in on how mundane thing (a line) that transforms other quotidian objects blooming into action, even things we wouldn't normally associate as active: 


"I also drew many lines to indicate speed... 
the man reading by a fire, 
speed lines coming off his shoulders and his book....
even the child asleep on a summer night,
speed lines flying from the poster of her bed,
from the white tips of the pillow cases,
and from the edges of her perfectly motionless body."
 Just in case he starts to build a case for transcendent truth, he steps away ["More Than a Woman"].
"I could be listening to music of the spheres the sound no one ever hears... 

only the spheres are colored pool balls, 
and the music oozing from a jukebox  
whose lights I can just make out through the clouds."

The moment has a dual-layer where we inhabit both the celestial concept space and, apparently, a bar. But the last three words lift us to another landscape--not unlike the friend who, upon seeing we are about to dive into our favorite candy bar, points at something fascinating across the street and swipes our dessert. There's some cruelty, yes, but also humor.

This, I suspect, is that nothing the poet refers to when he states he is writing about nothing. But it is less nothing than the kind of misdirection one gets from the zen koans one gets fishing from the bottom of a cereal box. This isn't a slam, but a description. After all, I am still eager to excavate the prize from the bottom of a cereal box.

The poem that offers the book its title--"Aimless Love"--details the persona's many loves, from birds to mice and other varmints he may bump into. There's a gear-switching moment after he carries a mouse to its grave with solemnity: He washes his hands and falls for the soap. 

This moment could be played for irony or the idea that he's washing his hands free of the mouse's death, but from the rest of the book's tenor, we can safely assume he means what he says but wants us to laugh at it as well. The title might refer to pointlessness or futility of loving everything, but one suspects it merely means love that doesn't just one single direction, not aimed at any one thing. It's hard not to love a man who loves so much.

This is an excellent starting point for Collins. You might as well begin here as elsewhere though his collections do share a similar perspective.