The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

2012 Book 135: The Martian Chronicles
Written by Ray Bradbury, Narrated by Peter Marinker
Reason for Reading:Fantasy and Science fiction Coursera Course


My Review 
This is a collection of Ray Bradbury’s Mars colonization stories which were originally published in pulp magazines over a period of a few years. They are independent of each other in plot, but it is fascinating how Bradbury managed to pull them all together in a cohesive whole which told a story in itself. This book is considered the bridge between classic pulp science fiction (which targeted lowest-common-denominator audiences) and the more thoughtful and sophisticated modern science fiction. The stories have the same raw imagination as pulp, but each one tackles one or more social issues as well. The stories are fast and fun, and yet intriguing.
My favorite story is about two missionaries bent on saving the Martians from sins that we humans haven’t even imagined yet. The philosophical discussion of sin and the ironic use of Christian symbolism meshed surprisingly well with the sf-pulpy imagery. Bradbury also touched on evils-of-colonization, race-relations and xenophobia, and politics…to name but a few issues. I was also impressed by Bradbury’s expectations of “the future” (1999 – 2020). Unavoidably, some of his themes were dated–we no longer worry about nuclear holocaust and (I hope!) lynch mobs are very rare in the US these days. He didn’t foresee the civil rights movement or the cooling of the arms race. Despite this lack of foresight, he showed that humans never change. We may think we’re living in an enlightened age, but xenophobia still exists and we’re still willing to destroy the history and of an old land in order to set up our new world. Yes, I did feel that the stories tended to be a bit on the dreary side, but for some reason it didn’t bother me so much because it was made palatable by Bradbury’s fantastic imagination.
This is a fantastic classic that any science fiction fan should read. 

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

2012 Book 134: Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman 9/14/2012

Reason for Reading: Fantasy and science fiction Coursera

My Review:

On an exploratory trip in “savage” lands, three young American men find a country composed entirely of women. As these men learn about the history and culture of Herland, they are at first dismayed but later impressed at the asexuality and absolute social perfection of these women. For the first time, they notice the flaws in their own society and feel ashamed. 


I’m having a really hard time deciding what to think about Herland. I tend to prefer plot-driven novels, or at the very least character-driven novels. Herland was neither plot- nor character-driven…it was concept driven. Gilman was trying to convey a set of principles using an allegorical dialog. Gilman felt that women are subjugated by their sexuality. Because their economic happiness depends on their ability to attract men, they resort to jealousies and obsessions with fripperies. In Herland, there are no men…therefore they do not depend upon their sexuality to land them a desirable place in life–they depend only upon hard work and virtue. Since there are no men, they have no reason to be jealous, catty, gossipy, or hysterical. Thus, they are perfect. 

My major shock was that I’d previously had the impression that Gilman believed in the healthiness of sexuality. I believed this partly because of a comment in the introduction to the Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader, ed. Ann J. Lane, which suggested that Gilman was deeply sexually attracted to her first husband, but that he had felt overwhelmed by her expressions of desire in their Victorian-valued home. However, the women in Herland are completely asexual. They have no sexual desires at all (not surprising, since they have no men). I find it disturbing that Gilman might have been suggesting that sexual desires (outside procreation) may be a male phenomenon? It’s also possible that Gilman felt the men had something to teach the Herlanders after all…they could teach them about healthy sexuality. At first, I interpreted the story this way. But after further thought, I decided that useful men are completely out of character in this book. I think she actually intended to convey the idea that sexuality-only-for-procreation was the most sensible and healthy alternative. But I could be wrong. The jury’s still out on that one. 🙂

In her comments on Herland, Fence objected to the focus of the women on maternity. This issue (like the sex-only-for-procreation issue) is in stark contrast with the views of today’s feminists. There’s nothing wrong with maternal feelings, but most feminists feel that women should have a choice about maternity…and they may not WANT to be mothers. I think there’s a little irony with Gilman’s focus on maternity in Herland. She, herself, suffered from the censure of society after she left her daughter under the care of her first husband. Of course, the fact that she divorced her husband for “no good reason” exacerbated the censure (for more on that, read my comments on “The Yellow Wallpaper”). Perhaps the focus on maternity in Herland was expressions of guilt for her inability to care for her daughter due her own illness. I know depressed people DO tend to be wracked by misplaced guilt. 

At some level, I approved of the socialist views displayed by Gilman’s allegory. I thought it was wonderful how everything was shared among the whole…there was no poverty and there were no insanely rich. This made the socialist education system work perfectly. Educating the children was considered fun by both the children AND the adults. Education was not a burden, but a joy which all members of society shared. However, I think the only way a socialist society like that would work is if everyone is equal in skill, and devoid of individuality and self-serving jealousies. These women WERE devoid of such horrific traits, but they were also really boring and annoyingly perfect.

For the most part, I did not enjoy reading Herland. I found the dialog grating due to the sickening perfection of the women and the irksome sexism of the men. The men’s characters were very flat–their purpose was simply to present a contrast to the perfection of Herland. The three men came in three stereotypical varieties: gentlemanly to the point of sexism, brutishly sexist, and imperfect-but-somewhat-objective observer. Other than these characteristics, the men had no personality at all. The women also lacked character partly due to their obnoxious perfection, but also due to their nature as a social “we” instead of being unique individuals. In other words, the perfection and socialism merged them into one character with many names (with the slight exception of Alima who  brought Terry’s brutish behavior on herself by having a “far-descended atavistic trace of the more marked femaleness, never apparent till Terry called it out.”) In other words, the presence of men brought out the bad characteristics of women? Of COURSE they did. 😉 

See? Herland needed these men so that they could catalyze atavistic femaleness. This trait could then be bred out of the next generation. Men ARE useful after all! 

Seriously, though, the eugenics of Herland was a little disturbing. The officials of Herland apparently got to decide who was worthy of giving birth to none, one, or *gasp at the honor* TWO children. The officials also got to choose how much influence the mother had over the child’s rearing. I didn’t view this process as racist since I assumed they were all of the same race (at least, they were all white by the time the men arrived), but according to Wikipedia, “Gilman also believed old stock Americans of British colonial descent were giving up their country to immigrants who, she said, were diluting the nation’s reproductive purity.” So I can’t discount the possibility that she DID mean that the women of Herland bred out the “less desirable” races. 

I think Herland was an interesting thought experiment, but I personally didn’t enjoy reading it. If your’e interested in concept-driven allegories, especially feminist and socialist allegories, then this is the book for you. 😀

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

2012 Book 131: A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs (9/8/2012)

Reason for Reading: Coursera Science Fiction and Fantasy course. 🙂 

Review
In the post-Civil War era, John Carter enters an Arizona cave and is unexpectedly whisked away to Mars. There, he witnesses the depravity of a “highly developed” race of people who, because medicine helps them to live long lives, they perform population control by warring with each other. In some ways, though, they’re happier than people on Earth, because they have no lawyers. John Carter takes Mars (and a Princess’s heart) by storm. I’m not a huge fan of pulp fiction, so I expected very little out of this book. Because of that, I was impressed at how “not bad” it was. Actually, it was sort of interesting in a history-of-science-fiction sort of way. It did have some rather racist comments about Native Americans (an artifact of when it was written), and the Princess was a weak annoying little thing whose only virtues were rare beauty and a penchant for getting into trouble so that we could witness the excitement of her rescue (this is an artifact of being pulp). Overall, not too shabby. But not literature, either. I DID wonder whether John Carter was meant to be some sort of pulpy Christ figure. He was very good at saving people. And he had the right initials. 😉

The Country of the Blind, by H. G. Wells



SPOILERS OF THEMATIC RATHER THAN PLOT-SPECIFIC NATURE

As another Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction assignment, I’ve finished reading H. G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind,” first published in 1911. In this story, a mountaineer has an accident and falls into a valley inhabited by blind people who have been separated from humanity for fourteen generations. They do not believe that there is a sense called “sight.” Likewise, the mountaineer discovers that the blind people have strengthened hearing and smell which make them much less helpless than he’d imagined. 

This story is deeply meaningful on many levels, and I had difficulty grasping exactly what to say about it. I could see that it was an allegory in perception…but what was he REALLY trying to say? One student on the class forum suggested a novel with a similar theme of questionable perception: Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by Edwin A Abbott, first published in 1884. I haven’t had time to read it yet, but it, too, introduces the concept that what we perceive might only be shadows of reality–there may be more dimensions out there that we are blind to. 


A few other students noticed the similarity of Wells’ story to the “Allegory of the Cave” in Plato’s Republic.  I should have seen this myself, but apparently I am blind. 😉 This metaphor pops up often. The best-known reference in today’s popular culture is probably The Matrix–which I suppose can be considered cyberpunk Plato with a Christ figure. 🙂

The allegory is a conversation that Plato attributed to Socrates with Plato’s brother Glaucon. The idea is this: People are chained to chairs in a cave and cannot even turn their heads. Their whole lives, they’ve been watching shadows of the real world which are cast on the cave wall by the light of a fire behind them. To them, these shadows ARE the real world. But imagine the confusion of someone who is untied from his chair and introduced into the real “real world.” After suffering from shock of seeing direct light for the first time in his life, he grows accustomed to the light. Then he is amazed by all that he learns. He wants to share his new knowledge with those in the cave, but when he returns he is blinded by darkness. This blindness is true of the mind’s eye, as well. Both upon walking into and walking out of the light, a person is confused and blinded. I believe Plato meant for the light to be goodness of spirit or divine contemplation.  

Like the people in the cave, the blind people have lived their entire lives without the sense of sight…indeed, without knowing that sight existed. They can’t even imagine what sight is when the mountaineer describes it to them. The mountaineer sees them as blind (literally and figuratively) to the “real world.” Thus far, the allegory fits with Plato’s. However, because the blind people had heightened smell and hearing, I don’t feel that they were in “darkness” and the mountaineer in “light.” I think they were all equally in the dark because they assumed that their OWN world view was the correct one. 

That was the reason I thought this story might be an allegory about the evils of colonization. The mountaineer is like the white man who tries to “enlighten the savages” by forcing “civilized” customs and religions on them. Finally, the mountaineer realized that “you cannot even fight happily with creatures who stand upon a different mental basis to yourself. ” He couldn’t convince them of something that their own senses told them was impossible. In order to fight, you have to be in the same plane of reality.

The Star, by H. G. Wells

Image taken from a NASA Google+ post*

The Star” is an apocalyptic short story written by H. G. Wells in 1897. According to Wikipedia, it founded a science fiction sub-genre of post-apocalyptic fiction in which two celestial objects crash into each other. The description of apocalypse-on-Earth was probably rather original for its time–it was vivid and striking. It also had a very powerful message that was told in a rather unique way. I was reminded of a book I read recently, Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie…not in narrative style (not in the slightest!) but in underlying message.

Spoilers start here:
While I was reading “The Star” I was distracted by the detachment of it all. We seemed to be observing it from afar rather than experiencing it through the eyes of tortured souls. At the last sentence, I realized WHY he made the story so detached. He was writing with the detachment of a far-away observer. Of someone who’s just reading about the events in a newspaper. We see the murders, the famines, the plagues; but we don’t FEEL them. This reminded me of a touching novel about the Biafra / Nigeria civil war: Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In this gut-wrenching, but beautiful book Adichie asks the question “were you silent when we died?” 

Spoiler-free zone commences:
I think it’s horrible how we can watch news of horror and tragedy from afar and simply shake our heads and say “that’s too bad….” and not worry about it any more. The idea of such uncaring thoughts (literally) brings tears to my eyes. And then the biologist in me rears her ugly head and says: this detachment is necessary for our own individual sanity. We have to, at some level, separate personal tragedy from the tragedy of people who have no impact on ourselves. If we didn’t, we would be constantly overwhelmed by emotions that distract us from our own lives and do not provide any personal advantage. I suppose if I were constantly overwhelmed with emotion about distant tragedies, I’d be on the far-opposite end of the autism spectrum. 🙂 I think we should honestly consider the pain of other people and, if we can, do something about it. But where do we draw the line for emotional involvement? I suppose this is something that each individual must answer for him or herself.



The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells

2012 Book 128: The Invisible Man, by H. G. Wells (9/1/2012)

Reason for Reading: Coursera fantasy and science fiction course


My Review

In H. G. Wells’ classic novel, a scientist turns himself invisible and wreaks havoc in rural England. This book is a versatile classic because it could be read by someone who is young or who simply wants to read fluff, but it can also be appreciated by more careful readers who are looking for undercurrents of meaning. It’s a tragi-farcical romp in 19th century England, but it’s also a warning about what people might do simply because they can get away with it. This is a classic that anyone interested in science fiction should read.

Essay on The Invisible Man, by H.G. Wells for Coursera Fantasy and Science Fiction. May contain spoilers!!!

In his 1897 novel The Invisible Man, H. G. Wells portrayed a tragic anti-hero, a trend which had become popular among romantic writers following in the footsteps of Milton. Well’s character Griffin isolated himself from humanity at first because he wanted all the glory of his discoveries. Later, he was driven to isolation by a fear of discovery. Finally, he was driven mad by the effects of his self-imposed isolation. 

Wells used two narrative styles for this novel. One style was Griffin’s first person narrative. This style not only established Griffin as the protagonist of the story, but it also painted him in a tragic light: he was naked, hungry, and alone; facing the unforeseen difficulties of invisibility. He had striven diligently for success only to have it wrenched away as he recognized his own impotence in isolation. Only upon this dreadful realization did he seek out compatriots. However, he faced rejection not only from the general populace, but also from his chosen companions. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, Griffin had rebelled against the social order, and been mortified by his own failure. Like Satan, he failed to recognize his own fault in his fall, and instead sought revenge.

The other narrative style used in The Invisible Man was that of a semi-omniscient reporter/observer who told the story as seen through the eyes of individual characters. This style was distanced from the motivations of characters, resulting in the farcical effect of watching people rushing after flying objects and thrashing wildly at thin air. This narrative style made Griffin’s plight seem pathetically silly. It is reminiscent of the comic debasement of Satan at the end of Paradise Lost. It suggests that Griffin doesn’t deserve the tragic grandeur of a real hero–because he’s just a sad little man with poor morals and no friends.



The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore



I just finished reading “The Philosophy of Composition,” by Edgar Allan Poe, which is an essay published in 1846 in response to nasty critiques and parodies of his poem “The Raven.” Keep in mind, Poe was himself a rather feisty critic, so he probably needed to take a little of what he’d been dishing out. The purpose of the essay was to show the modus operandi by which he assembled his poem. 

It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition–that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem [1].

If I hadn’t been forewarned by G. R. Thompson that this essay may have been half tongue-in-cheek [2], I might have been quite confused. In his essay, Poe provides a step-by-step description of the birth and growth of “The Raven.” 
  1. Consider length: “there is a distinct limit, as regards to length, to all works of literary art–the limit of a single sitting…can never properly be overpassed in a poem” [1] (Here, he inserts an aside suggesting that Paradise Lost, by John Milton, is half-poetry/half-prose, since it is too long for one sitting.) However, “a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.” Thus, approximately 100 lines was chosen for his new poem.
  2. Consider effect to be conveyed: Poem should be universally appreciable. “Beauty is the sole legitimate province of a poem.” 
  3. Consider tone: “Beauty of whatever kind, in its supreme development, invariably excites the sensitive soul to tears. Melancholy is thus the most legitimate of all poetical tones.”
  4. Artistic piquancy: here, he realized that refrains as an artistic effect were vastly underused.
  5. Refrain choice: Limited to lyric verse. Depends on the force of repetition for its effect. Decides to diversify by changing the context, but leaving the answer the same. Refrain must be brief. Must form the end of each stanza. Must be “sonorous and susceptible of protracted emphasis.” The long “o” is the most sonorous vowel, and “r” is the most producible consonant. Hmmm, what word has a long “o” and an “r” in it, but keeps the tone of the poem? Oh, of course! “Nevermore!”
  6. Pretext for refrain: A human being wouldn’t say “nevermore” over and over again, but an unthinking being might. Like a talking parrot, or better, a raven (for they talk too, and ravens are fitting for the tone). 
  7. Subject: “I asked myself–‘Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?’ Death–was the obvious reply. ‘And when,’ I said, ‘is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?'” This was also obvious: “death…of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world–and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover.”
  8. He then wrote the denouement because “nothing is more clear than that every plot, worth the name, must be elaborated to its denouement before any thing be attempted with the pen.
And the poem continued to be written through the same process. Without Thompson’s forewarning, I would have been shocked and skeptical that Poe actually wrote his poems in this way. This mechanical process might pump out a poem-esque work, but would it have any soul? The whole process seems rather art-defying. According to enotes, critics have suggested that “The Philosophy of Composition” was anything from a deliberate hoax to “possibly half tongue-in-cheek [2].” However, I have also noticed quite a few people on the internet who find it inspirational and say that it really helps them to compose their own works. I’m sure these people really DO find the structure helpful. It is very sensible. But I imagine, if anything, that Poe came up with the idea of “The Raven” and THEN went through a rigorous process of refining it. 

That said, I think the essay is a fantastic look into the mind of Poe. It explains why the majority of his poems are about dead women–because he felt that melancholy is the most legitimate of poetic tones, and that the most melancholy of all themes is the death of a beautiful woman. My dad disagrees with Poe here and says that the death of a child is the most melancholy topic. Personally, I think that doubt in God’s existence or in his love for me would be the most melancholy. But I agree that the death of a child is more melancholy than the death of a beautiful woman. 

Out of curiosity, what do other people think the most melancholy theme is?


Find all of Gustave Dore’s illustrations for The Raven here: http://www.artsycraftsy.com/dore_raven.html



[1] The Philosophy of Composition, by Edgar Allan Poe. Reprinted in: The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp675-684. 


[2] The Selected Writings of Edgar Allan Poe (Norton Critical Edition). Ed. G.R. Thompson. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. pp57.