Reading Science Fiction (and finishing the books)

Cover art by Dean Ellis

I’m diving into Science Fiction. And I’m loving it.

When I was a kid I liked sci-fi literature quite a lot. I didn’t read a ton of science fiction books, perhaps because I’m a slow reader and I also liked to read other kinds of books. But I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s short stories and loving them. I also had an original hardbound copy of Burroughs At the Earth’s Core, which I absolutely loved and eventually lost. I also read and loved Burroughs’ Tarzan and several of his John Carter of Mars series. I also loved sci-fi films and television (STAR WARS IV was life changing for me as an eleven year old). And I vaguely remember reading Herbert’s Dune and Asimov’s Foundation (remembering almost nothing btw) in college and loving those too. But time went by and my sensibilities began feel the weight of needing to read the classics of Western Civ. I can’t say how many times I started The Brothers Karamazov but it’s the same number as the number of time I didn’t finish it.

It’s been a long time since have read cover-to-cover a work of fiction let alone science fiction. Long gone have been the days when I let my imagination run over the covers of classic sci-fi books purchased at the supermarket or the used book store. These covers activated my young imagination and probably libido.

Cover art by Gino D’Achille

For nearly three decades now most of my reading has been non-fiction. I’ve really struggled to read fiction. But recently I decided two things: 1) I’m going to read fiction in the morning rather than when I get into bed and fall asleep five minutes later, and 2) I’m going to read science fiction rather than from the “western canon” of so-called great literature. Why science fiction specifically I can’t say, but it seems like the right choice. Maybe I’m more willing to give into my inner nerd and admit I love a lot of what sci-fi has to offer my imagination.

For as long as I can remember I’ve religiously spent between one and two hours every morning reading. I’m a man of routine. My coffee and my books and a quiet house before everyone wakes up are sacred to me. But I’ve lived for so long believing I should be reading “serious” stuff and not frivolous trivialities. Oh well, that’s changed.

“The Three-Body Problem” cover art by Stephan Martiniere

In a sense I feel like I’m trying to catching up. I’m looking at Hugo and Nebula awards lists, recommendations from others, and my own knowledge of sci-fi (and some guilt about books I should have read by now). My list of must-reads is growing, and it’s kinda exciting.

I just finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season (decent read, more fantasy than sci-fi), Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem (kinda amazing, need to read the next two), and H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds (so wonderfully victorian in tone and style). I’m also re-reading Asimov’s Foundation (book one and loving it), pecking away at Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (classic and interesting) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (a much better read than I expected, but I shouldn’t be surprised). I’ve also got a ton of books ready and waiting to be read next (I’m getting a lot of recommendations from online reviewers and “top” lists). I welcome any suggestions too.

In short, I’m loving reading these books. Switching to reading fiction in the morning is fun and I’m actually getting through these books. This surprises me – I can actually finish a book!

“Leviathan Wakes” cover art by Daniel Dociu

Finally, I have to say I love the cover art of quite a lot of sci-fi books. There must be something about the genre that inspires artists more than most other genres, for the art is often staggeringly good.

Wondering about that fellow Fidel in the mountains on the way to Gethsemani

When the ancient Russian plane landed at the Havana airport, it was raining. And I remembered one other time that I had been in this airport (an unforgettable day for me, and the happiest day of my life). It was raining that day, too, and getting late, and I had seen Havana from the air surrounded by a halo of opalescent mist, as if wrapped in a great sadness. Some Yankees, sunburned and smiling, got on the plane loaded with Bacardi rum, and I felt that they were coming from a depressing world. Airline attendants carried their bottles to the landing stairs. It was Batista’s Cuba. A cousin of mine who had been in Cuba had told me shortly before that a young man was fighting in the mountains and that his name was Fidel Castro. I was stopping off in Havana on a flight from Managua, Nicaragua, to Miami, but I was going to Miami only to enter the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani. This flight I later described as “a true flight to Heaven rather than a routine Pan American flight.” It was a flight to freedom. (And I remember that from the air I had seen far-off mountains and I had wondered where that fellow Fidel Castro might be fighting.)

From the book In Cuba by Ernesto Cardenal, 1974
Fidel Castro (left) converses with Ernesto “Che” Guevara, in the woods of the Sierra Maestra, Cuba, on Oct. 8, 1957. Files/AFP/Getty Images (Source)

I’ve been reading Latin American non-fiction lately. Mostly it’s been centered around Liberation Theology and the history of European and U.S. exploitation of the Americas. I have been surprised and fascinated by how often I read praise for Fidel Castro and Che Guevara from Christians. As you would correctly guess these are not U.S. Christians who have been rigorously propagandized against Fidel and Che. Rather, these are Christians who are far less bourgeois in their faith and far closer to the original Christians in spirit and experience. This can make one wonder. Do we U.S. Christians know the gospel? I continue to think we don’t.

The quote at the top is from the opening paragraph to the book In Cuba by Ernesto Cardenal and based on his diary from a stay in that country in the early 1970’s. The book is fascinating and gives a substantially different picture of life in Cuba and of Fidel than was generally been presented to the U.S. public. Cardenal does not pull any punches either. He both praises and criticizes. And he describes in detail life in revolutionary Cuba. In that sense I feel like it’s a very fair assessment, albeit from a Left-leaning, Liberation Theological, Latin American, Catholic priest.

But I still find myself a bit caught off guard (and not a little bit excited) to read Christians expressing fascination for, and even praising, the Cuban revolution and its leaders, and often doing so in ways that draw connections between that revolution and the gospel of Christ. This has been especially true reading The Gospel in Solentiname, also by Ernesto Cardenal.

>Gary Snyder

>If you have red Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums then you know a little something about Gary Snyder. Here Snyder reads and discusses his poetry at a lunch time gathering. He is introduced by Robert Hass

Here’s an image of Snyder in his younger days when he traveled to India with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

I post this because this is National Poetry Month.

>Allen Ginsberg reads

>Here is a clip of Allen Ginsberg reading one of his poems, Kraj Majales (King of May). Sitting next to him is Neal Cassady, inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road.

I believe they were at the famous City Lights bookstore in San Fransisco. Years ago, when I was on a business trip to the bay area, I drove into San Fran just to find City Lights. I was surprised by how small and quaint it is. But the walls practically ooze beat coolness.

I post this because this is National Poetry Month.

“Art-Cinema” Narration: Part Two

This is part of a three-part posting taken from a brief lecture I gave during a film class.

“Art-Cinema” Narration

Part Two: The Background
In order to understand art-cinema narration, and the underlying post-Enlightenment project, one needs to grasp the historical and philosophical pressures that gave it birth.

The coming of the 20th Century, bringing with it so many new technological changes, and dragging along with it the those 19th Century harbingers of new ideas: the industrial revolution, Darwin, Marx, and Freud, seemed, in many people’s minds, to have changed everything.

The path of the 20th Century, with the devastation of the First World War, the horror of the Holocaust, both the reality and threat of nuclear weapons, and the waning of Christianity in the West, gave impetus to new challenges. Human beings now struggled with the loss of God, of place, of self, of truth, even of time thanks to Einstein. This has been called, amongst many other things, the “crisis” of modern man. It is also, as some have said, the burden of freedom.

Dostoyevsky pointed this out, when he wrote in the Bothers Karamazov, that if there is no God then everything is permitted. Some saw this as their salvation, some saw it as their undoing.

People began to question everything once taken for granted and to see life as much a struggle to find oneself, to understand the nature of love and sexuality, to discover meaning, and to mourn the evaporation of Truth, as it is a struggle over the more common difficulties of living – like saving the world or saving the farm. In fact, it all gets turned on it head so that saving the farm (and even saving the world) seems so trivial compared to the inner turmoil now plaguing modern man. Why bother with saving the farm if you can’t even save yourself?

The questions, as really they have always been, are:
“Who are you?”
“Why do you exist?”
“Where is you hope?”

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom, at least in terms of how people live their lives. There are still a lot of life affirming choices people make, but underlying it all, especially from a Christian perspective, is a great sense of loss and uncertainty.

And of course, from a Christian perspective, the problems of human beings are not ultimately the result of mere historical forces, but arise from the deeply profound tensions between being made in the image of God (and all the glory that that means) and being burdened and affected by the corrupting nature of our inherent sinfulness (and all the difficulties that that means).

Cinema, then, confronted these changes and perspectives by challenging conventional wisdoms of narrative structure and subject matter. Art-cinema narration can then be understood as a response to a post-industrial, post-Christian, post-Enlightenment world.

“Art-Cinema” Narration: Part One

This is part of a three part posting taken from a brief lecture I gave during a film class.

“Art-Cinema” Narration

Part One: Introduction

As I have been doing, I want to talk in very broad categories, recognizing the reality of many exceptions to the “rule.”

Classical Hollywood Narration presents rather clearly defined individuals struggling toward rather clear-cut goals. These characters move and have their being within clearly presented worlds according to clearly understood time and space norms. And when all is said and done, when the story has finally concluded, these characters have unambiguously either reached their goals or not reached their goals. Typically causality, that thing that keeps the story moving forward and gives a reason to do so, is also unambiguous – such as the solving of a crime, saving the world or saving a private, falling in love, wining a race, escaping death, killing a giant shark, blowing up a deathstar, running from dinosaurs, throwing a ring into a volcano, disarming a bomb, bending it like Beckham, and finding a Nemo, etc.

Life, that great big thing that we are all doing, is typically presented as coherent and free of ambiguities – at least true ambiguities. Characters do have decisions to make – and even decisions are between right and wrong itself. But the characters are understood, the decisions are understood, the world is understood, and we are along for a story that rests upon, and works within this clarity. Of course there might be moments of confusion, but that is part of encouraging tension in the viewer for the purpose of moving the narrative to its climax. In the Classical Hollywood Narrative those moments of confusion are never too long and ideally are not left unresolved at the end of the film.

And an incredibly large number of films have been exceedingly successful within these parameters.

But is life always neatly arranged, clearly understood, free of ambiguities, plainly motivated, distilled into lucid and obvious choices?

If the Classical Hollywood narrative film has it roots in 19th Century drama and short stories (with Edgar Allan Poe being a prime example), then what is often called Art-Cinema Narration has it roots clearly in the 20th Century (with writers such as Anton Chekhov being a prime example). Art-Cinema is firmly a 20th Century phenomena.

These two kinds of narrative structures can be simplistically summed up this way:

  • 19th Century drama is about characters, who in the midst of life, are confronted with some external situation (maybe rather ordinary or rather extraordinary) which they must resolve or come to terms with. An internal, spiritual, mental struggle might play into the larger goal of the external struggle, but is ultimately subservient to it.
  • 20th Century drama is about characters, who in the midst of life, are confronted with some internal, spiritual, mental struggle with which they must resolve or come to terms with. An external situation may play a significant part in the larger, internal struggle, but is ultimately subservient to it.

Remember, there are many exceptions to this division. The 19th Century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky being just one.

Other influential writers – along with Chekhov:
James Joyce (Ulysses, etc.)
Ernest Hemingway (The Snows of Kilimanjaro)
Virginia Wolf (The Voyage Out, etc.)
Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, etc.)