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Posts Tagged ‘science fiction’

Same Time, Another Planet

May 18, 2015 | by

This Thursday, Gunnhild Øyehaug appears in conversation with James Wood and three more of Norway’s most promising young writers: Kjersti Annesdatter Skomsvold, Lars Petter Sveen, and Carl Frode Tiller. The story below was translated by Lydia Davis, who will interview Dag Solstad on Wednesday at Westway.

Both events are part of the Norwegian-American Literary Festival, a three-night series of readings, conversations, and musical performances in New York this week.

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Image: Santos Gonzales, via Flickr

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(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

May 11, 2015 | by

How the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction went from utopian to dystopian.

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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Near the beginning of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, a 1970 novel by the Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the innkeeper, Alek Snevar, proposes to his guest, police inspector Peter Glebsky, that mystery is always preferable to explanation. “Haven’t you ever noticed how much more interesting the unknown is than the known?” Snevar asks. “The unknown makes us think—it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.”

It’s a strange idea to appear at the beginning of what seems to be a locked-room mystery novel—a genre in which all puzzles are meant to be solved. Soon after Glebsky’s arrival, a blizzard blocks the road to the inn. Right on cue, another of the guests, a Scandinavian named Olaf Andvarafors, is found dead in his room with his neck twisted, the window open, and the door locked from the inside. Everyone at the inn is a suspect: Simone Simone, a nervous, billiard-playing physicist; Hinkus, a “youth counselor” on sick leave; a celebrity magician named Du Barnstoker and his androgynous ward, Brun (“the sole progeny of [his] dear departed brother”); an imperious alcoholic named Albert Moses, and his knockout wife, Mrs. Moses. Then there is Snevar and his maid, Kaisa; a St. Bernard named Lel; and Luarvik L. Luarvik, a mysterious one-armed man who shows up half dead after being caught in the storm. With this bizarre cast you expect to find plenty of red herrings before a hiding-in-plain-sight solution is revealed.

Instead, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery. Read More »

Terry Pratchett, 1948–2015

March 12, 2015 | by

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The T-shirt Pratchett wore to conventions. Image via Fashionably Geek

The BBC has just reported that Terry Pratchett has died at sixty-six. Pratchett wrote more than seventy books, most of them part of his Discworld series: satirical, philosophical fantasy novels that earned him a wide readership, sometimes at the expense of the critical attention his work merits. “Terry Pratchett is not one to go gentle into any night, good or otherwise,” his friend Neil Gaiman wrote of him last June, as he was beginning to slip away to Alzheimer’s. “He will rage, as he leaves, against so many things: stupidity, injustice, human foolishness and shortsightedness, not just the dying of the light … Terry Pratchett is not a jolly old elf at all. Not even close.”

Here’s a bit from Pratchett’s 2007 essay, “Notes from a Successful Fantasy Author: Keep it Real.” It speaks to genre fiction’s unique position as a vehicle for social commentary, and to the set of logic puzzles a fantasy novelist faces in trying to build a new world. You can find it in A Slip of the Keyboard, a collection of his nonfiction published last year. Read More »

Readers Demand More Grandparents, and Other News

February 11, 2015 | by

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Fiction: A grandparent-free zone?

  • Museums around the world are motioning to ban selfie sticks, those, sleek, obtrusive icons of narcissism. “While its elongated form might have some structural merits and it inspires a devoted gaze just from standing below it, it simply detracts from other pieces in the collection in a rather pedestrian fashion. So, like groundbreaking art forms before it, the selfie stick will just have to patiently wait for times to change before it receives its artistic due.”
  • On Tom McCarthy’s new novel, Satin Island, as a rewiring of avant-garde fiction: “Convergences, nodes and relays, interstices: This is precisely the lexicon of the midcentury avant-garde McCarthy once found so useful and influential. But where this abstract-concrete thinking … once seemed urgent and perhaps even politically salient, now it just seems like cliché. Actually, worse than cliché: commercial and pernicious. The avant-garde’s work has been inherited by the corporation.”
  • This is not your beautiful house. This is not your beautiful wife. This is not your beautiful art: “A retired odd job man and electrician and his wife stand trial on Tuesday, accused of illegally possessing 271 works by Pablo Picasso … Mr. Le Guennec claims that he was given the collection by the artist and his second wife Jacqueline when he carried out odd jobs for them more than forty years ago.”
  • Contemporary fiction is cool and all, but why aren’t there more grandparents in it? Grandparents are cool, too, you know. “Look around current adult fiction and there’s little writing about grandparents as grandparents. You can find forever-young baby boomer grandmas falling in love at sixty and novels about spirited older women finding self-fulfillment, but novels about grandparents’ relationships with their grandchildren seem in short supply.”
  • Philip K. Dick’s work reveals its prescience yet again: in his 1969 novel Ubik, “characters have to negotiate the way they move and how they communicate with inanimate objects that monitor them, lock them out, and force payments.” Meanwhile, in the reality of 2015, Samsung invents a television that captures “personal or other sensitive” information for transmission to a third party …

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Dreams from a Glass House: An Interview with Josiah McElheny

February 9, 2015 | by

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Phillip Kester’s portrait of Paul Scheerbart, 1910. Münchner Stadtmuseum, Sammlung Fotografie, Archiv Kester

Paul Scheerbart doesn’t figure very prominently in modern German belles lettres—nor, more regrettably, on the drafting tables of venerated Berliner architects and urban planners. Scheerbart, an eccentric, Danzig-born poet and architectural theorist, is best remembered through obscure citations from Walter Benjamin, Walter Gropius, and Bruno Taut. But in the spirited era of Berlin’s café culture, he was a popular serialist, publisher, and proto-surrealist. From the late 1880s to his premature death in 1915, he wrote prolifically on science, urban planning and design, space travel, and gender politics, often in the course of a single text. His most celebrated treatise, Glass Architecture (Glasarchitektur, 1914) foretold of a sublime, technocratic civilization whose peaceful world-order was borne from the proliferation of crystal cities and floating continents of chromatic glass, a vision summed up in his aphorism: “Colored glass destroys all hatred at last.”

Taut, an architect and devoted disciple, dedicated his 1914 Werkbund Exhibition building, the Glass House, to Scheerbart—his so-called “Glass Papa.” Like his French contemporaries Camille Flammarion, Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Raymond Roussel, and Alfred Jarry, Scheerbart’s prophetic oeuvre oscillated between themes of technology and aesthetics in a genre known in the Francophone world as fantastique.

Translations of Scheerbart texts have trickled into the English-speaking realm; Glass! Love!! Perpetual Motion!!!: A Paul Scheerbart Reader, edited by Josiah McElheny and Christine Burgin, is the first attempt at an English-language collection. Assembled from his fiction and critical works, drawings and photographs, and secondary texts from friends and acolytes, the book’s publication hopes to inspire what McElheny calls a new generation of “Scheerbartians.”

I recently spoke to McElheny by phone from his studio in Brooklyn, where we discussed Scheerbart’s belated American reception, the cultural amnesia of World War I, and our mutual fascination with Utopian literature.

How did you first come across Scheerbart’s writing?

The first major publication of his work in translation was Glass Architecture in 1972. I read that sometime around 1988, and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I came to it as though it were an architecture book, but it read to me like a piece of literature. I found it to be captivating and somewhat Borges-like—not in structure but in its spirit. Then around 2001, there was the publication of The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies’ Novel. I was struck by its very unusual literary style—very sparse, thematic, and highly evocative—and fascinated by the entire novel, which is about people struggling over the political and spiritual meaning of aesthetics. I had never encountered anything like it in historical literature—the way it speaks in a proto-feminist voice but also with the deep undertone of misogyny that one associates with that era. It was a very disturbing book and it really bothered me—the way in which he demonstrates how aesthetics can have this implication about sexuality. I had so many questions about the translation itself. Later I learned that much of the strangeness of the language lay in the original German. Read More »

The Book Cover That Judges You Back, and Other News

February 3, 2015 | by

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Anyone who regards this cover with an iota of judgment on his face will be forbidden to access it. Photo via the Guardian

  • Two “virile” bronze figures—a pair of totally ripped guys riding ferocious panthers—may be the work of Michelangelo, experts say. If their research is accurate, these would be Michelangelo’s only surviving bronzes. “In addition to welcoming new input from outside researchers between now and summer, those currently involved in the project will undertake further research of their own. Mr. Abrahams, for example, plans to meet with a bodybuilder to compare his physiognomy to that of the sinuous statues.”
  • Today in power reclamation: a book that judges you by your cover, thus standing up for books everywhere. “Thijs Biersteker of digital entrepreneurs Moore has created a book jacket that will open only when a reader shows no judgment. An integrated camera and facial recognition system scans the reader’s face, only unlocking the book ... when their expression is neutral.”
  • This weekend in Moscow, one of the Russia’s largest libraries, the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences, caught fire—but firefighters were able to save a quasi-miraculous 85 percent of the books. “The books did not suffer,” the director told the press.
  • A new biography on T. S. Eliot’s earlier years reassesses his marriage to Vivien Haigh-Wood “as a union between two profoundly damaged people, each of whom believed they could be a healer for the other: a dire recipe for a happy marriage. Eliot wrote a good deal later that ‘all I really wanted of Vivienne [both of them sometimes used this spelling] was a flirtation or a mild affair.’ ”
  • Living in the Future is a magazine that “calls for rapprochement between the art world and the subculture of the science fiction magazine … The magazine embraces the strange and deranged aspects of science fiction which stand apart from the reasoned, cognitive tradition associated with the writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke, with their engineer stories and defiantly flat characterization.”

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