Just for Fun: Into Plutonian Depths

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950).  Cover by Allen Anderson

Planet Stories Vol. 4, No. 6 (Spring 1950). Cover by Allen Anderson

A peculiarity of popular culture, which is also commercial culture, is that it dislikes competing with its own earlier iterations. Commercial culture therefore tends to be dismissive or even hostile in respect of its past, emphasizing its ever-renewed, up-to-date, and often cloyingly topical relevance, as its chief sales point. This state of affairs means that the consumers of popular culture, while they are aficionados of genre, often know little about the history of genre, what we might call the archive. Science fiction – which established its market in mass-circulation “pulp” magazines in the 1930s, and then prolonged its appeal in the form of the mass-circulation paperback in the 1950s – offers a case in point. One has only to compare Amazing Stories, Astounding, and Planet Stories, whose heyday was the 1930s and 40s, with the magazines that succeeded them during the Eisenhower presidency and into the 1960s: Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and the revamped Astounding that now called itself, perhaps a bit pretentiously, Analogue. The pulps were bulky in format, with three-color covers depicting space-dreadnaughts in combat, bug-eyed monsters assaulting human beings, and buxom women breasting the cosmos in metallic vacuum-proof bikinis. The “slicks” responded to a changing market, or to a changing and sometimes rather snooty notion of propriety, by shrinking themselves down to digest size and offering visually a more austere internal appearance. The magazine covers became solemn, satirical, or abstract, but as a rule they avoided sensationalism, and occasionally they bade fair, as in Ed Emshwiller’s many fine covers for Galaxy, to be artistic.

The pulps filled their pages with scientifically insouciant forays into interplanetary space, Suetonius-like pseudo-histories of galactic empires, and extraterrestrial hero-sagas that might well be described under the formula of Beowulf on Mars. The slicks, by contrast, bound their contributors to the rule of plausibility and preferred them to submit material that eschewed the motifs of grand invention and hero-quest in order to focus on sociological trends and dystopian speculation. When the mass-market science-fiction paperback appeared in the early 1950s, it mainly republished material that had originally appeared in the older periodical venues, but by the mid-1960s the character of the content had altered. Whereas the Ace paperback list corresponded largely to the pulps, the Ballantine, Avon, and Signet lists corresponded largely to the slicks. The slick disposition considered itself as representative of positive progress beyond the pulps in the direction of intellectual sophistication, political sagacity, and aesthetic refinement. Historians of the genre mainly endorse that self-evaluation. But is it so?

Even when they suffered from hasty writing, the pulp stories displayed a myth-like vitality and a powerful moral, if not exactly ethical, impulse that to some degree went missing from the genre about the time that the hyperbolically Romantic Planet Stories ceased publication in 1952, and when Galaxy and Analogue rose to the forefront of the genre. This longstanding suspicion – that the naïve phase of science fiction, superseded by the sophisticated phase right down to the present, often excelled its successor-phase in richness of imagery and narrative muscularity – has recently found happy confirmation in the entrepreneurial intuition of Gregory Luce, a well-known broadcaster on San Francisco area radio and television. Luce’s Oregon-based, web-mediated publishing enterprise, Armchair Fiction, in cooperation with online megastore Amazon’s publish-on-demand service, has undertaken since 2011 to return to print lost items of genre fiction, mainly science fiction, from the mid-Twentieth Century that have been out of print and hard to find for decades. The result is an enormous boon for fans and students of Pulp-Era stories of planetary adventure. That there is a market for such things is also, in its modest way, a sign that cultural amnesia, while prevalent, is not total.

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Movie Review: “San Andreas”

Atlantis

Not thirty minutes into the story of San Andreas, a colossal skyscraper falls on my old girlfriend’s apartment house in West L.A. and then a tsunami sweeps it all away.  So – pretty good stuff!  I am giving this movie four-and-a-half stars out of five.  I withhold half a star for the scenes in which the actors have lines.

Thinking these thoughts so that my friends don’t need to.  TFB.

The Stupefying Boredom of Latter Day Public Life in the West

So it’s election season again in the US, and the press is all abuzz over the recent declarations of candidacy. Last time around, I still cared a bit, mostly out of habit I suppose. I liked Romney, who I think is a fundamentally decent man, and I was disappointed to see such a talented, intelligent and enterprising fellow rejected in favor of an inept fool like Obama. So I was interested to that extent. 

But Christian reaction had by then so permeated my being that I knew the only difference the election might possibly make is that of a few percentage points in my federal tax rate. Not that those percentages are unimportant, for they are, and the welfare of millions hangs upon them; but thanks to the mind-boggling deficits of the first four Obama years, they are upward bound, for the foreseeable future, almost no matter what. Obama spent so much money that no future administration is going to be able to cut taxes. Obama has eliminated all room for such maneuvers. It’s a genius move, albeit not the move of a genius. 

Evil is fundamentally stupid. You can be ingeniously evil, but to be evil in the first place is stupid. E.g., you can devise a brilliant plan to rob a bank, but robbing a bank is an essentially stupid thing to do. 

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New Articles

Apropos of Kristor’s recent recommendation of an essay, available online, by the redoubtable René Girard (born ninety years ago), I call attention to my latest contribution at The Brussels Journal, “Globalism as Sacrificial Crisis,” a discussion in review of The Mark of the Sacred by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, who works from a declaredly “Girardian” perspective. The Mark of the Sacred is a courageous analysis of the existing crisis in terms of Girard’s concepts of mimesis and the sacred. The review is a follow-up to two earlier ones that also appeared at the Journal – those of Gregory Copley’s Un-Civilization and Eric Cline’s 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed. I am indebted, as always, to Luc van Braekel, for the handsome treatment of the text.

The article is here: http://www.brusselsjournal.com/node/5148

I am also indebted, as often I have been in the past, to Angel Millar, webmaster of The People of Shambhala, for posting my essay on “Ur-Civilization, Cosmology, and the Invention of History,” which couches a discussion of how much we know of the human past, and of how certain many people are of knowing everything about it, in the context of a quest for the merits inherent in what its detractors refer to as pseudo-archeology. Readers of The Orthosphere who are familiar with such names as Ignatius T. Donnelley or C. J. Cutcliffe Hyne, might find some modest pleasure in my paragraphs.  (As I hopefully predict…)

The article is here: http://peopleofshambhala.com/ur-civilization-and-the-invention-of-history/

Re-Post: Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going (1945)

When, several semesters ago, my department chair asked me to teach the local version of the nowadays-pervasive “popular culture” course, I consented with some mild misgivings and, as I like to do, took a mostly historical approach to course-content. I have no investment in contemporary popular culture, the wretchedness of it striking me as consummate. My students, for their part, being morbidly, continuously immersed in contemporary popular culture, require no one to acquaint them with it. At least they require no one to tutor them in it directly, since it regrettably is their ubiquitous, hortatory guide, and their authoritative cue-giver, for all facets of life. But one might apprise them about the insipidity of existing mass-entertainment indirectly by putting it in contrast with the popular entertainments of the past, including the classic films that most of them have never seen and, more importantly, would never seek out on their own. One film that I showed to students was the Errol Flynn vehicle The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), directed by Michael Curtiz. Another one, not so well known as Robin Hood, was the Roger Livesey/Wendy Hiller vehicle I Know Where I’m Going (1945), directed by Michael Powell (1905 – 1990).

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The Allure of Lemuria

I recently set my freshman composition students the task of writing an essay based on each writer’s choice of a topic from a list of two hundred topics. I urged especially that writer-respondents to the assignment should strive to find interest in whatever topics they might select and that they should seek to discover the meanings in their topics. To prove that it could be done, I wrote the following essay on one topic from my own list – “Lemuria.” I append my list at the end of the essay. (TFB)

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World without Men: A Novel of Totalitarian Lesbiocracy

When I teach my course on science fiction at SUNY Oswego, I concentrate on classic texts of the highest literary merit – those by Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, and Ray Bradbury.  When I pursue my lifelong hobby I am less selective.  When I discover an unknown paperback title in a second hand bookshop, I frankly judge the item by its cover while where content is concerned I hope for the best.  Most of the mouldering paperbacks fall short of memorability.  Occasionally, however, a jewel appears among the rubble, a short story or novel more or less forgotten that, for one reason or another, merits contemporary re-visitation.  One such, which I encountered again three or four years ago after a lapse of decades, is Charles Eric Maine’s World Without Men (1958), a novel about the long-term implications of birth control, abortion, and the so-called sexual revolution that treats these matters in a bold and prescient way.

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Eduard Tubin: Symphonist

Despite the advocacy of conductor and countryman Neeme Järvi and the determination of record-producer Robert von Bahr (founder of the BIS label) in the 1980s, the work of the Estonian-Swedish composer Eduard Tubin (1905 – 1982) remains largely unknown beyond a small coterie of aficionados who take an interest in Baltic and Scandinavian music.  Humphrey Searle and Robert Layton in their survey of Twentieth Century Composers: Britain, Scandinavia and the Netherlands (1970) omit to mention Tubin although they devote discussion to a number of his contemporaries in mid-century Sweden such as Hilding Rosenberg (1892 – 1985), Karl-Birger Blomdahl (1916 – 1968), and Allan Pettersson (1911 – 1980).  Tubin’s obscurity is a pity because he composed at a level at least as high as that achieved by Rosenberg, Blomdahl, and Pettersson.  Indeed, Tubin wrote in an idiom more accessible than any of theirs, being, as one supposes, much less worried than they about his “modern” bona fides.  What explains Tubin’s obscurity?  It might have something to do with his refugee-expatriate status: He fled Estonia for Sweden after the Soviet invasion in 1944; and while he remained an Estonian nationalist – by reflex, anti-Soviet and anti-Communist – his adoptive country became increasingly accommodationist.

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Reactionary Entertainment: Warm Bodies

On a friend’s recommendation, I rented Warm Bodies this weekend, expecting nothing more than a little mindless entertainment to provide an occasional distraction from homework. What I got, instead, was a break from the usual genre exercise with a symbolic structure that’s almost too overtly Christian to be unintentional. (Spoilers below the break).

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Two New Articles

I call the attention of Orthospherians to my article “I get a Kick out of Fugue II: Fugue in the Twentieth Century” at Kidist Paulos Asrat’s Reclaiming Beauty website; “Fugue II” is a follow-up to my article from early in summer, “I get a Kick out of Fugue,” also at Reclaiming Beauty.  Meanwhile, Angel Millar has given my essay on “Richard Wagner, Revolution, and the Re-Founding of Humanity” a generous presentation at his website, The People of Shambhala.  The two essays on fugue argue, with plentiful musical illustration, my anthropological theory of fugal practice as reflecting the patterns of social breakdown and reformation.  The essay on Richard Wagner and Musikdrama likewise has an anthropological slant: I take seriously Wagner’s writings, wherein, once one gets past the florid rhetoric, one finds a genuine and plausible theory of the origin alike of consciousness and culture.  I recommend both Reclaiming Beauty and People of Shambhala as interesting and valuable websites.