Robert A. Heinlein and Philip K. Dick: Contrast and Compare

Robert A. Heinlein

Robert A. Heinlein

Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

 

This essay by Gary Westfahl first appeared on Locus Online March 1, 2005.

Here are some excerpts:

Of course, one can readily epitomize the ways in which these authors are significantly different . . .  the characters that most interest them stand at opposite ends of the social spectrum . . . As Karl Marx would sum things up, Heinlein identifies with the aristocracy, Simak with the bourgeoisie, and Dick with the proletariat. More prosaically, the Heinlein Hero owns the office building; the Simak Hero runs a nice little shop on its ground level; and the Dick Hero sweeps his floors every night.

and

. . . it is not surprising that the polarizing changes in America during the 1960s moved Heinlein and Dick to opposite ends of the political spectrum. Heinlein, horrified by the counterculture and everything it represented, hardened into a bitter reactionary, eventually endorsing (in To Sail Beyond the Sunset) a longed-for President Patton’s policy of shooting drug dealers on sight. Dick embraced the counterculture, freely experimented with drugs, and announced a fervent admiration for young Americans and their liberal, liberating philosophies. For that reason, when commentators discuss the time when Heinlein happily purchased a new typewriter for a temporarily down-and-out Dick, this is presented as evidence of Heinlein’s amazingly generous spirit, his willingness to help individuals in need even if they were people he otherwise had reason to abhor.

I respectfully disagree. I think that Heinlein gave Dick a typewriter because he could recognize a soul brother when he saw one. And I would argue that, when one considers the qualities that made those writers great, the qualities that distinguish the wondrous novels and stories written in the first two decades of their careers, one must conclude that they are, in fundamental ways, exactly the same sort of writer.

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The Aylett Project: Rachel Kendall Interviews Bill Ectric

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Rachel Kendall of Sein und Werden interviewed me about the new collection of essays on the work of Steve Aylett, edited by me and D. Harlan Wilson. Here’ an excerpt:

Rachel Kendall: A number of writers in the anthology refer to Aylett as a writers’ writer. What does that mean to you, and do you think it is significant?
Bill Ectric: Serious writers do a lot of reading. We pay attention to style, theme, and plot. We’ve seen just about every variation of theme and plot imaginable. We’ve seen detailed flowery prose and terse compact sentences; romanticism, realism, modernism, postmodernism, and all manner of genres and sub-genres. Steve Aylett, apparently bored with what’s gone before, moves past it all, often in a humorous way. Other writers get it. It’s not that he disdains what has come before him, he just doesn’t want to read what seems to him as the same books over and over again. Here’s one example: A few years ago I got interested in astronomer/alchemist John Dee and his working relationship with spirit medium/occultist Edward Kelley. I read books, articles, and essays on these men. Much later, in the Appendix to Aylett’s Shamanspace, I found a single sentence that cracked me up with laughter, because it summarized everything I’d read about Dee and Kelley with, “Elizabethan alchemist John Dee witnessed the scarab star of god blooming with a creak from the wooden table at Clerkenwell – a vision immediately waylaid by the arrival of unwitting holy man Edward Kelley who wasted years of Dee’s time with useless signs and wonders.” It was like, that’s all you need to know! You know?  If I call someone a “guitarist’s guitarist” it means that because I play the guitar, I can see just what they are doing, even though I can’t do it myself. Maybe I can learn to do it, but I would have never thought of it.

What Science Fiction Leaves Out

Gary Westfahl discusses four things that are seldom included in science fiction stories, either in print or on film.:

1. Journalism

2. People in the future speculating about their future

3. The pursuit of enjoyment

4. Normal pets, like dogs and cats

In looking for illustrations for the above collage, I came to realized just how right Westfahl is. It wasn’t easy to find examples of exceptions. One of my pictures shows a pet that is clearly not a cat or dog, and the picture of the kid reading a book is the closest thing I could find to someone in the future thinking about their future, and I admit that it’s a stretch.

Westfahl says, “For critics and commentators, it is generally easy to notice and discuss whatever there is to be found in a science fiction story or film. It can be harder, however, to notice and discuss what isnot there in science fiction—those features one might ordinarily expect to find in a story or film that are, for some reason, being left out. I discovered one of these strange omissions purely by accident while editing The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: because the assigned contributor never completed the entry, I was forced on short notice to write the entry on “Journalism.” And hurried research brought to light a curious situation: while journalists were reasonably common in science fiction stories set in the present—ranging from the novels of Clifford D. Simak to the adventures of Superman—they were extraordinarily rare in science fiction stories set in the future.”

Click here four the entire four-part essay

Slipstream: Feeling Very Strange

Coming soon: More of my notes on Thomas Pynchon, Steve Aylett, and Charles Wadsworth Camp, but check this out! From Science Fiction Studies, a fantastic Special Issue on Slipstream, edited by Rob Latham, who begins by saying:

In July 1989, in his “Catscan” column in the fanzine SF Eye, Bruce Sterling published an essay entitled “Slipstream.” This brief piece combined a polemic against the moribund state of the sf genre with an analysis of an emerging literary mode that engaged the contemporary world with the ideational boldness sf had allegedly abandoned. This mode Sterling dubbed “slipstream,” rather nebulously defined as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility” . . .

. . . James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology showed the range and diversity of this new mode of writing, which at times seems like sf, at times like magic realism, at times like postmodern metafiction, but mostly a compound form all its own. Meanwhile, claims have been advanced for crossbreedings between the literary mainstream and other popular genres, but also for interminglings among the genres themselves, with terms such as New Wave Fabulism, the New Weird, and Interstitial Fiction generating their own sets of debates and semi-canonical anthologies . . .

 There’s a Slipstream Symposium, an update by Bruce Sterling, and lots of other goodies.

Voltaire and Aylett: Two Peas in an Alien Pod

It’s a good thing Steve Aylett writes “little books,” as The Complete Review  calls them. Aylett’s books are so dense with information and ideas, if they were any bigger they would sink like slabs of gold into our gray tributaries. This is one of the reasons I enjoy them. In fact, I deliberately chose gold over lead as the metaphor here, because lead implies sluggishness, and these books are anything but. They move briskly and shine off the page. Rudy Rucker defines cyberpunk as “fast and dense… a lot of information . . . will try to reach a high level of information-theoretic complexity.” Rucker says that the visual representations of “punk” (spiked hair, safety-pinned britches, etc) will gradually fade with fashion, but the essence of punk, and by extension, the essence of cyberpunk, will remain.

It took a few pages to acclimate my senses to the Aylett style, but it’s no different than the transition from, say, J. K. Rowling to Mary Shelley, or from Hunter S. Thompson to Thomas De Quincey. After a few pages you’re fine.

I definitely recommend reading the four Accomplice books in the order they were written. I unwittingly started with Karloff’s Circus and it was like arriving in the middle of the night. It was a wild and memorable visit, but you will appreciate Accomplice more if you read Only An Alligator, The Velocity Gospel, and Dummyland first. Your best bet is to get the Complete Accomplice, four books in one.

I even used the trading cards! You don’t have to, but it’s fun. I laid the cards out beside me while reading and referred to them often until I could see the characters clearly in my mind. For those who don’t normally associate these kinds of illustrations with quality literature, I should point out that some award-winning graphic novels have emerged in recent times to assist in the reproduction and transmission of literary DNA into the universal text of tomorrow.  

Speaking of the future, it has just come to my attention that Voltaire probably wrote the first science fiction story. I became interested in Voltaire when Steve Aylett named him as a major influence. Known mainly as the author of Candide, Voltaire also wrote a philosophical close encounter story called Micromegas. Thanks to The Wondersmith, a.k.a. Blake Linton Wilfong, we can read Micromegas and other selecteions free online here!

A Sublime Cinema Dreamscape: DVD Savant on Invaders From Mars

From DVD Talk, a reviewer known as DVD Savant (apparently a modest and unassuming guy named Glenn Erickson , as he rarely seems to write under his own name), has written a very enjoyable two-part review on Invaders From Mars (1953). Part One describes how the film is often derided as a low-budget kid’s movie. In Part Two (my favorite), Mr. Erikson explains why he calls the film “a Sci Fi classic that should be showing in the Louvre.”

Erickson says,

“…of all 50s sci fi I think it is the most visually sophisticated, perhaps the most cinematic and a work worthy of the term ‘great art.’ If you hate writers who jam sub-Freudian meanings into movies, have no fear. My argument is based on the movie we all can see, and doesn’t try to conform the film to some graduate-student agenda. On the other hand, this article probably is more for confirmed Sci Fi aficionados than the general DVD Savant reader. I thank both for their patience.”

Read entire article

Elsewhere on DVD Talk, the Savant reviews the DVD released by Image Entertainment of the 50th Anniversary Special Edition of Invaders From Mars (2002).

 

Satire, Cyberpunk, and Synesthesia

"This was preferable to Sweeney in a good mood as he had a spiral smile which operated like a Chinese finger trap, inescapable up to your shoulder." - from Book 1 of The Complete Accomplice: Only An Alligator, by Steve Aylett

Preliminary notes on my Steve Aylett thesis. 

I used to called Aylett’s work a combination of cyberpunk, satire, and psychedelia. But “psychedelia” is too limited, too narrow. 

Aylett’s work is characterized by three things: Cyberpunk settings, classic satire, and a visual image orientation. 

I. Cyberpunk

a. Rudy Rucker’s definition of cyberpunk: “Fast and dense. It has a lot of information . . . will try to reach a high level of information-theoretic complexity.”

Rucker says that the visual representations of “punk” (spiked hair, safety-pinned britches, etc) will gradually fade with fashion, but the essence of punk, and by extension, the essence of cyberpunk, will remain.

b. Michael Moorcock says, in his review of  The Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry, in the Guardian.co.uk:

Cyberpunks were what the likes of Bruce Sterling and William Gibson called themselves when first signaling their break with conventional SF. What identified cyberpunk was a sophisticated interest in current events, a guess that the Pacific Rim might soon become the centre of world politics, a keen curiosity about the possibilities of post-PC international culture and a love of noir detective fiction. Characteristically, cyberpunk revived the noir thriller and might as easily be considered a development of the mystery as of science fiction.  

II. Satire

A. From Well Read Bear:

Roy Christopher: From this angle, your work is very slippery. Actually from every angle. What is it that you are you trying to do?

Steve Aylett: Most of my writing is satire, and most of that satire talks about manipulations, lies, and evasions, mainly in regard to power manipulations. But I go on about other stuff as well . . . I do old-time satire in the Voltaire/Swift tradition. Real satire, by taking people’s arguments (or evasions or justifications) to their logical extremes, snaps people back to the reality of the situation — i.e., that their evasions and justifications are cowardly bullshit. Of course it only works if there’s a scrap of honesty in the reader to begin with, so it doesn’t always work, and the way things are going socially, it’ll work less and less. There’ll be no honesty to appeal to, and no concept of that. There’ll be no admission that there are facts and nobody will even remember the original motive for that evasion — that to deny that there’s such a thing as a fact, means you can do anything to anyone without feeling bad about it. If you tell yourself they didn’t feel what you did to them, they didn’t feel it. To deny you did it means you didn’t do it. Welcome to the swamp.

  III. Visual

a. Synesthesia – (also spelled synæsthesia or synaesthesia, plural synesthesiae or synaesthesiae)—from the Ancient Greek σύν (syn), “together,” and αἴσθησις (aisthēsis), “sensation“—is a neurologically-based condition in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway. People who report such experiences are known as synesthetes.

 b. From the Rick Klaw interview on Fantastic Metropolis:

Rick Klaw: Many of your projects feature your own artwork. Are you a frustrated artist who became a writer or are you a writer who dabbles in art? Do you enjoy producing the art that accompanies your writing?

Steve Aylett: I’m a writer but I like drawing, music and stuff like that. In art I like extreme color, as I’m synaesthetic and get really interesting stuff from colors. There are reversed-acidic colors you can get with Photoshop artwork that’s difficult to get by painting unless you’re using metal flake. I did a lot of fun stuff for the LINT project, and I’ve just done a cartoony cover and title page for the US edition of The Inflatable Volunteer (Wildside Press)—though they inevitably chose the less colorful of the cover options I sent them. I get music from color and color from music, so I also do music projects like the music/textures/shrieking bloody vortexes I do with The Wesley Kern Gun, of which there’s a CD coming out soon from Humbug in Norway, who specialise in weird music. I’m also doing a project with Stephen O’Malley of the subsonic guitar band SunnO))). And it’s fun doing mindlessly stupid comedy like Lord Pin too, which is just mumbled stand-up.

Rick Klaw: When did you first use your own art in conjunction with your writing?

Steve Aylett: I remember writing a version of Jason and the Argonauts when I was about five or something, with illustrations of the monsters. But the sailors would always run away when they saw the monsters or the seven skeletons—Jason would shout “Get back to the ship” and they would sail away from the island. They never had a fight. That’s me: lack of appropriate conflict, too much conflict in areas that aren’t meant to be disputed.

c. Alan Moore 

D. Harlan Wilson talks to Aylett about Alan Moore

This is only the beginning.