Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Congratulations, Senator-Elect Franken! (D-MN)

Al_FrankenWell, I just won $10. I bet a friend at work that Al Franken would be seated in the U.S. Senate before Sonia Sotomayor would be sworn in at the Supreme Court of the U.S.  Today, MONTHS after November’s close election and the recount, Minnesota’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously that former comedian, writer, and political commentator (for Air America’s The Al Franken Show) won the election by 312 votes.  After vowing for months to take this to the Supreme Court of the U.S., former Sen. Norm Coleman conceded today and Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-MN) signed the certificate of  election.


Congratulations to Sen.-Elect Franken and to his wife, Franni.  Also, congratulations to the overworked staff of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) who  will finally stop having to do the job of two senate staffs.  Congratulations to the people of Minnesota who now have TWO senators working for them.

Now that Democrats will have 60 senators, a theoretically filibuster proof majority, if we don’t get universal healthcare and many other pieces of progressive legislation, Democrats deserve ALL the blame–because they don’t need any GOP votes to get it done.  So, Dems, you’re on notice.

And the inevitable Saturday Night Live reference:  Now, the Al Franken Decade can finally begin!

June 30, 2009 Posted by | U.S. politics | 6 Comments

End Torture and Free the Innocent NOW

Bob Herbert’s column MUST be read.  The U.S. government (and, thus, all of us who are citizens), “detained” a teenaged boy years ago, tortured him, and kept him in various semi-legal prison.  HOW LONG  before he is freed? How long before we free all the innocent and try those who should be tried? When do we STOP the torture and the indefinite imprisonment?  How long will we allow the 3,000 innocent deaths at 9/11 be used to keep justifying things are NEVER justifiable?  When will we realize that WE ARE BRINGING SHAME TO THE MEMORIES OF THE 9/11 VICTIMS??

STOP. NOW.  It has to end.

June 30, 2009 Posted by | human rights., torture | 4 Comments

Big Oil/Big Coal Snuck in Disastrous Provisions in Cap & Trade Bill

Well,  I had a weekend to be thrilled that the Waxman-Markey cap-&-trade bill had passed the House.  Now it seems that Big  Coal and Big Oil had snuck in horrible provisions at the last moment.  If the current version were to pass the Senate and then be signed into law, it would repeal a key provision of the Clean Air Act  and it would strip the Environmental Protection Agency of the ability to fight global warming by regulating greenhouse gas emissions!  So, now we have not only to fight for passage in the Senate (which would already be difficult), but must fix the bill, too. Otherwise we have to fight to kill the bill–because this form of cap & trade would be worse than nothing–it would end up with us burning more coal  a decade from now than now. (And there is no such thing as “clean coal.”) These nasty last-minute provisions turn an otherwise good bill into a disaster: we’d be better with no cap & trade and let the EPA regulate greenhouse gasses directly.

MoveOn.org and others are campaigning to fix the bill.  But it shows how truly evil the coal/oil lobbies are to sneakily turn a bill that would greatly reduce greenhouse gasses and turn it into permission to keep doing what they are doing and weaken both the Clean Air Act and the EPA.  If hell exists, it has a major place reserved for lobbyists.

June 30, 2009 Posted by | ecology, U.S. politics | Comments Off on Big Oil/Big Coal Snuck in Disastrous Provisions in Cap & Trade Bill

My Top 20 Science Fiction Novels

In an earlier post, I listed my (purely subjective) list of the top fantasy novels/series.   Here I will attempt a similar post with the related genre of science fiction. 

  1. Isaac Asimov,  I, Robot (1950).  Not really a novel, but a collection of connected short stories that introduced Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics.”  It should be read as the necessary prequel to the three (3) “Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw” novels:  The Caves of Steel ; The Naked Sun; The Robots of Dawn.  The film starring Will Smith was only loosely based on Asimov’s work–combining some of the “Susan Calvin” stories in I, Robot with The Caves of Steel.
  2. Robert A.  Heinlein, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966).  Many of Heinlein’s novels (e.g., Starship Troopers) are vehicles for him to preach his libertarian economics and militaristic view of the world. But he is a superb storyteller and his engineering background (like Asimov’s background in physics) enables him to write very convincing “hard science” fiction.  The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is Heinlein’s ode to the American revolution, projecting a future in which Earth’s moon has become an international penal colony (a hat-tip to Australia) and, with the aid of a self-aware supercomputer named Mike, revolts from Earth and becomes Luna Free State.
  3. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (1984).  A feminist novel of a dystopic future in which an increase in infertility combines with the takeover of the U.S. (now become the Republic of Gilead) by a militaristic and patriarchal religious  fundamentalism to create a nightmare society for women–especially those few who are still fertile and  are forced to become “handmaids.”
  4. Octavia E. Butler, The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents.  The late Octavia Butler was one of the few African-American women to write comercially successful science fiction.  Here she projects a dystopic near future where gang crime leads to the breakdown of U.S. society and of the ability of a young woman to forge a new society out of this disaster that can reach the stars–an achievement that partly depends on the spread of a new religion, “Earthseed.”  Butler also shows how the kind of driven personalities that can fundamentally change history are often poor at interpersonal relationships–since the second novel is told through the eyes of the estranged daughter of the heroine of the first.
  5. Frank Herbert, Dune (1965).  The sequels are not as good, but still worth reading.  This is a “space opera” and science fantasy of a far future where humanity has become a galactic empire that has become decadent and feudal. It also projects salvation through a messiah who is a result of a breeding program and genetic manipulation, played out on the desert planet of Arakis (Dune).  The film wasn’t so hot, despite roles by Patrick Stewart (later Capt. Picard and Prof. X), Dean Jones, and Sting.
  6. Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (1954).  Benign alien visitors who look strangely like the devils of earthly legend (giant, red, horns,  tail, wings) help earth people leave the species’ childhood and prepare for the next stage of evolution–a stage that  these aliens cannot themselves achieve.
  7. Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (1974).  If Heinlein’s Starship Troopers glorifies war, Haldeman’s novel is the rebuttal.  Published at the end of the Vietnam War (and with that clearly in mind), Haldeman projects a future war between earth and an alien species that, because of the time distortions near the speed of light, goes on for centuries–and is all based on miscommunication between the two species.  Haldeman’s Forever Peace is not connected.  Another great Haldeman classic is All My Sins Remembered which Haldeman wrote in reply to the super-spy novels and species which show such work taking no toll on the spies.  Haldeman’s spy is an Anglo-Buddhist recruited precisely FOR his strong moral code–which then haunts him more and more in his career as a super-spy.
  8. Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1954).  In a dystopic future, an oppressive government stays in power by suppressing books and reading.  Education is by rote memorization giant televisions combine with recreational drugs to keep everyone “happy” suburbanites.  All houses are fireproof (and believed to have always been so) and “firemen” do not put out fires, but find and burn hidden caches of books (while those who hide books are sent to reeducation camps).  “Fahrenheit 451” is the temperature at which book paper burns.  A resistance gathers in small groups away from populated areas with the task of each person so memorizing one book completely that s/he becomes that book, preserving learning and literature until the current dark age is over.  This is Bradbury’s warning against the dangers of McCarthyism—but it works equally well for similar movements since the mid-50s.
  9. Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars; Blue Mars; Green Mars.  A trilogy concerning the colonization and terraforming of Mars.  Very realistic science combines with a strong story concerning the likely problems of colonists, personal and cultural clashes, and major ecological concerns to form 3 really strong books.  I promised myself that I would only include one entry about Mars, though I have been fascinated by it since my childhood. 
  10. Anne McAffrey, “Dragonriders of Pern” series.  Science fiction with fantasy trappings:  A colonized planet is cut off from contact with Earth civilization and because of a unique threat (spores from a nearby planet called “Thread”) devolves into a low-tech, feudal civilization.  An indigenous lifeform (“fire lizards”) so resemble the dragons of earth mythology (except for size), that they are genetically engineered to be larger and to breath fire–and to use telepathic and teleportational abilities to help ESP-gifted humans fight this threat as “dragonriders.”  McAffrey wrote numerous works of science fiction, but it is the Pern books for which the “dragonlady” will always be known best.
  11. Carl Sagan, Contact (1985).  Astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan wrote the definitive novel of first contact between earth and an alien species.
  12. Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park (1990).  Highly entertaining cautionary tale about the headlong rush of genetic engineering (going on at breakneck speed in the food industry).
  13. Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Liebowitz (1959).  A brilliant novel about a cyclic view of history (scientific advance followed by destruction, a new dark ages, a slow climb out and the whole cycle repeats), clashes of religion and government, and the dangers of global nuclear war.
  14. David Brin, Earth (1990).  An ecological cautionary tale of the near future.  This is a murder mystery set in 2038 in which the attempted victim is Gaia, the earth itself.  Technology is both blessing (it allows truly global village networking that helps find clues and mobilize responses) and bane (it is responsible for the ecological abuse of the planet).
  15. Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Tale of an encounter between an emissary of a “normal” society and a society of gender-benders. 
  16. David Brin, Glory Season (1993).  Excellent tale of a world settled by radical feminist separatists who have the genetic know-how to create a rural utopia where women dominate and men are only needed tangentially and mostly live apart from women.  This is a kind of counter-Handmaid’s Tale in which Brin argues for sexual equality and for societies in which men and women need each other. He demonstrates that it is not only male-dominated societies which can go deeply wrong.
  17. Pat Frank, Alas Babylon (1959).  An early cautionary tale of nuclear war.  One of the first to question the 1950s propaganda that nuclear war would be easily survivable and winnable.
  18. Octavia E. Butler, Kindred is a time-travel story that includes painfully realistic descriptions of slavery in antebellum 19th C. America.
  19. Nancy Kress, Beggars in Spain (1993). A novel of genetic manipulation to create children who don’t need to sleep.  In a recession, they are blamed for everything wrong and need to find a sanctuary colony.
  20. Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai novels.  They were eventually supposed to form a complete Childe Cycle, but I think Dickson died before the historical prequels could be written.  This is a saga of human evolution.  The advent of star travel and  colonization splits humanity into sub-species:  the pure scientists; the people of (fanatical) faith (the “Friendlies”); the mystics and philosophers; and the ultimate soldiers (the Dorsai who, like the ancient Swiss, live on a planet of such barren resources that they are forced to send their sons and daughters out as high-paid mercenaries in the  wars of other planets). Eventually, the scattered fragments of humanity must reunite with the fragments having been greatly enhanced.  Whether or not one like’s Dickson’s overall saga, his Dorsai novels  are really good reads–and he even includes one, Lost Dorsai, about a Dorsai who becomes a pacifist yet still embodies the fierce courage and strength of will of the Dorsai soldiers.  It is only now, after Dickson’s death, that we can view the (incomplete) series as a whole.  He did not write the novels and short stories in order and was supposed to write a series of historical novels beginning with the 14th C. to go with the science fiction ones.

What have I overlooked? What have I rated too high? What have I not valued enough?

June 29, 2009 Posted by | books, science-fiction | 19 Comments

Dr. Lillian Lim Dies

1_large_limDr. Lillian Lim, first woman to be president of the Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary,  died of Marzan’s disease. I am grieving since I knew Lillian from our Ph.D. days.

Here is the link to the APB story: http://www.facebook.com/ext/share.php?sid=93461321667&h=4QOLF&u=nL_Nb&ref=nf

June 27, 2009 Posted by | Obituaries | 2 Comments

Wanted: More Public Intellectuals

A traditional intellectual is a scholar, usually ensconced at an academic institution, who speaks and writes for other academics as well as teaching students in her or his particular discipline.

A public intellectual is different.  She or he engages not only (or even primarily) other scholars, but the general public–leading, provoking, arguing positions, helping a society engage the great moral and social issues of the day.  Now, a public intellectual  is not the first need of a society,  by any means, but all societies need them.  The prophets and sages of Israel were (among other things) public intellectuals.  So were Socrates, Plato,  and Aristotle. 

America has had, even in our short history, numerous excellent public intellectuals:  Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Angelina Grimke, Alice Paul, W. E. B. Dubois, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Jane Addams, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr. and many others.  But we don’t seem to have many at the present moment –a time of great transition and, potentially, of great good or bad.  We don’t need more blowhards on the radio or cable TV–pundits we have in plenty. But we do need those engaged thinkers who can help us form a great national conversation on where we need to be going and what we need to be doing.

To be sure, our current president–whether one loves him, hates him, or (as with me) is somewhere in between–is the first public intellectual elected President of the United States since Lincoln. (Jimmy Carter has become something of a public intellectual–and peace and human rights activist—since LEAVING the White House, but he didn’t govern that way.  Bill Clinton had the capacity for such–and loves high powered intellectual engagement with a variety of people–but he dabbles. Neither as President, nor since leaving office, has he really sought to help  shape public conversations–although he claimed once to want to start a national  dialogue on race. ) But he can only be one voice and, as president, he cannot devote  his whole attention to the role of public intellectual.

The lack of strong public intellectuals is most notable currently on the political right (although from 1980-2001, the right had far more public intellectuals than the left or center).  With the passing of William F. Buckley of The National Review, there isn’t really a strong intellectual defender of modern movement conservatism.  I thought George Will would fill that slot, but the election of Obama seems to have so frazzled Will that he is no longer able to clearly articulate a reasonable conservatism.  Peggy Noonan, the closest thing to an intellectual  center for the Reagan admin., bravely keeps on, with help from Mary Ann Glendon and Jean Bethke Elshtain, but they do not have a wide enough audience–and Elshtain’s credibility took a great hit from her endorsement of Bush II’s war policies. 

But the left and center aren’t much better off.  In previous generations, we had Howard Zinn, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, Daniel Patrick Moynihan (yes,  we sometimes elected such public intellectuals) and many more, but few of that caliber are here today.  I can think of a few:  Princeton’s Cornel West, Georgetown’s Michael Eric Dyson, PBS’ Tavis Smiley, Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, Kentucky’s Wendell Berry, Martha Nussbaum,  Naomi Klein and Kristina Van Den Heuvel of The Nation, but that’s about it.  Virtually no prominent clergy (other than R. Lerner) are both sufficient theologians and well enough known by the general public to count–though this has not always been true.

We need more public intellectuals–and we need more public fora for the kinds of discussions about “Where do we go from here?” on any number of issues.  We have plenty of pundits, plenty of politicians, plenty of activists–but remarkably few well known public intellectuals. 

Unless, of course, everyone just wants to watch America’s Got Talent or Ninja Warrior and forget everything else. 🙂

June 27, 2009 Posted by | citizenship, moral discernment, philosophy, politics | 27 Comments

Political Sex Scandals: Why Do They Hurt the Republicans More Than Democrats?

Like most people, I saw the train wreck of a press conference by SC Gov.  Sanford (R) yesterday.  It got me thinking about political sex scandals in the U.S.  Human sexuality has been around for as long as humans, and adultery almost as long.  Politicians are probably not tempted to cheat on their spouses at any greater rate than other humans.  However, the trappings of political power may lead to pride and a sense of entitlement and that may lead politicians to ACT on the temptations of adultery more than others. It is odd; no matter how many get caught in these scandals, others follow who are convinced THEY will never be caught.

It is strange that female politicians seldom seem to get caught in sex scandals.  I can’t think of any in recent history.  This either means (a) that female politicians are morally stronger and resist the temptations to cheat far better than their male counterparts or (b) they are MUCH more discreet and better at not getting caught or (c) both.  Maybe this is another good reason to elect more women–fewer sex scandals. It’s worth a thought.

Now, sex scandals are equal opportunity.  There is no evidence that politicians of one political party cheat on their spouses any more than those of another.  But the pattern in the U.S. is different.  With Democrats (except for Bill Clinton), when caught they resign and that is usually the end of their respective political careers.  With Republicans, they seldom resign and sometimes are not even forced from office (e.g., Sen. David Vitter of LA was found in ’06 to be a frequent customer of the D.C. Madam–and  his love for prostitutes also involved [ugh] wearing diapers.  But Diaper Dave is not only still in office, but seems to stand a good chance of being reelected next year.).  Yet, the sex scandals of Republican politicians seem to hurt their party as a whole more than similar actions by Democratic colleagues. Why?

It seems to me that the difference is the hypocrisy factor.  The Democratic Party in the U.S. has not tried to set itself up as the “morality police.”  Democrats sometimes campaign as “strong family people,” but this is seldom the center of the campaign.  They don’t claim to be morally superior.  They don’t try  to claim that voting for them is the only way to save the American family.  Republicans do make such claims–usually by implication, but sometimes in almost those very words.  Further, Republican politicians loudly call for Democratic politicians to resign if they get caught in sex scandals–and claim that voting for them is a way to restore the moral fabric of the nation.

So, when Republican politicians (often, as in the case with Gov. Sanford, the very politicians who called for others to resign over adultery) get caught cheating, their hypocrisy shows up. And whether or not the politician, Vitter or Sanford or Ensign (R-NV), etc. survives, the Republican Party as a whole suffers.  If you set yourself up as the national morality police, your credibility erodes every time another of your group has to have the embarrassing “confessional press conference.”

June 25, 2009 Posted by | scandal, U.S. politics | 21 Comments

‘Nuff Said


June 22, 2009 Posted by | arts, human rights., humor, torture, U.S. politics | 15 Comments

A Brief History of Modern Fantasy Literature, p. II

III. Late Victorian Era.: The Flowering of Fantasy

At the end of the 19th C. and beginning of the 20th C., it was more acceptable for fantasy writers to write for children than for adults, so writers often deliberately wrote for children or adolescents in order to be marketable as fantasy writers.  One result was that some top-notch children’s fantasy was written by brilliant writers–producing works that that have remained popular long after their authors’ deaths.

J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), Scottish baron, author, and playwright, created the enduring children’s fantasy character, Peter Pan as part of a serialized novel (The Little White Bird) in 1901.  He then staged the play, Peter Pan or The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904.  This play also popularized the female name “Wendy,” which was rare in English prior to this. The numerous follow-up appearances of Peter Pan by Barrie and others continues to this day.

L. Frank Baum (1856-1919), an American writer was simultaneously creating the great “Oz” series of books.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was first published in 1900 and in 1901 became the first “global” mass-market children’s fantasy, the “Harry Potter” series of its day.  It also drew controversy similar to Rowling’s later “Harry Potter” books, with fundamentalist preachers denouncing the “witchcraft” and supposedly “terrible morals” of the story. Baum wrote 13 sequels, none of which became as popular as the original. He acknowledged the influence of The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson, and even Lewis Caroll‘s “Alice in Wonderland” books, but was deliberately setting out to create “American fairy tales.” The books had numerous semi-allegorical allusions to political turmoil in the U.S. of Baum’s day.  (Baum was a Populist and Progressive whose wife, Maude Gage Baum, was a leader in the suffragist movement of early, first wave, feminism.) The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland, continued the influence for successive generations.  Baum continues to be a major influence to this day.

Other children’s fantasies of this era include Lewis Caroll (Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898)’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland(1865) and Through the Looking Glass–And What Alice Found There(1872) (which mathematicians, philosophers, and logicians love because of the “inside jokes” that children and most adults miss) and Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)’s many “Peter Rabbit” and related stories.  Nor should one miss Kenneth Grahame (1859-1932)’s The Wind in the Willows (1908).

In this  Victorian period, adult fantasies were being written, too, especially in an adaptation of the old “traveler’s tale” format known as “Lost World” stories.  Often set in Africa (which was still mostly unknown to Western writers) or on unexplored islands, these were adventure stories outside the increasingly tamed industrial world.  Some were straight “realistic” adventure stories with no fantastic elements. Others, an early form of science fiction, depicted advanced civilizations or the hidden bases of rogue scientifice genuises (forming one of the roots of contemporary “steampunk” fiction).  But some included magic or other fantastic elements.  Among the most influential of the latter was H. Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and its sequel Ayesha (1905).  Haggard’s numerous adventure stories of English explorer, Allan Quartermain also sometimes contained fantasy elements–and that influence continues even to Steven Spielberg’s films about archeologist “Indiana Jones.”

The American author, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950) is most famous for his novels and short stories concerning “Tarzan,” a son of an English lord who is raised by apes, teaches himself languages, and grows up to be “king of the jungle.” Though wildly improbable, the main Tarzan novels contain little or no explicit fantasy elements.  But Burroughs also pioneered several science fantasy works of a “sword and sorcery on other planets” type as well as lost world novels.  The most famous of these were a series of novels concerning Captain John Carter of Virginia (a Civil War veteran) who is mysteriously transported to a “Mars” that was nothing like the Mars that even the astronomy of Burroughs’ day knew–a “Mars” the natives call “Barsoom,” containing beautiful Red Martian princesses who need rescuing from giant, 4-armed, green Martians in a desert world of canals with a strange combination of high technology and swords.  Burroughs also wrote of Carson of Venus (Amtor),  and Pellucidar (a lost world at the earth’s core).  This kind of Sword and Planet science fantasy would influence later writers like Lin Carter, the highly misogynist John Norman, and others. Writers as diverse as Ray Bradbury, Robert A. Heinlein, Kim Robinson, and Michael Moorcock have paid tribute to Burroughs’ Mars’s stories.

At the tail end of this era comes an author who is pivotal to the later development of fantasy due to his large influence on J.R.R. Tolkien, E.R. Eddison (1882-1945).  I, personally, find Eddison’s style dry and contrived, but he attempted to recreate the old Norse sagas in a world of total fiction–a self-contained, wholly invented mythology. It was that project which Tolkien eventually undertook in far more detail and with far more talent.  Eddison’s novel is The Worm Ouroboros (1922), in meticulously recreated Jacobean English (which I find tiring), creates a world of aristocratic heroes who war for honor and to escape boredom.  Michael Moorcock finds Eddison’s villains to be more authentic than Tolkien’s and even Ursula LeGuin pays tribute to Eddison.  But I find the casual disregard for human life and suffering of Eddison’s “heroes” to be off-putting.  It is worth noting that the Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, etc. are not separate species, as in Tolkien and many others, but various nationalities of human beings.  The novel also deals with the classic theme of time as an eternal wheel (the “worm” or dragon Ouroboros is the serpant which eats its own tale, a classic symbol of rebirth and cyclical history).  Even though Eddison is not my cup of tea, his importance to this history cannot be denied.

IV.  The Post-Victorian/Pre-Tolkien Era:, 1920s-World War II.

 In 1923, an American publisher launched Weird Tales, the first English-language (and maybe first in any language) magazine dedicated solely to fantasy and horror.  This was the era when pulp magazines were huge and many a novel began as a serialized story in pulp pages.  Weird Tales (and other sister publications soon to follow, like Fantastic Adventures and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) launched numerous publishing careers in fantasy fiction.  Among those careers, pride of place must go to two very different American writers, H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) and Robert E. Howard (1906-1936),  Fritz Lieber (1910-1992),  and C. L. [Catherine Lucille] Moore (1911-1987), all of whom continue to have numerous fans and imitators.

Lovecraft, a fan of Edgar Allan Poe and the Gothic novels of the Victorian era, wrote in the boundary between the fast-separating horror and fantasy genres–a boundary crossing tradition that today would  be called “dark fantasy.”  Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, a shared universe (other authors were allowed to use it and friends like August Derleth and Robert E. Howard did and others have continued) a series of stories and novels concerning demons and dark gods from ancient civilizations which, disguised, continue to threaten modern existence.  The stories usually take place in fictional New England towns and center on struggles against the Great Old Ones, a fearsome assortment of ancient and powerful gods who came to earth from outer space and once ruled the planet–and seek to do so again. The essence of these many stories is that the human world is an illusion–and the heroes of these stories, at risk of their sanity, catch glimpses of the true world behind that illusion and the cosmic struggle therein.  Lovecraft has been a major influence on later fantasy (Michael Moorcock and much dark fantasy) and on horror writers like Stephen King and Robert Bloch.  For an accessible secondary study, see Lin Carter, Lovecraft:  A Look Behind the Cthulu Mythos (Ballentine Books, 1972.) (It is worth noting that though Carter is a fan, he is far from uncritical, both of Lovecraft’s writing style and of some of his less savory beliefs, including his racism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism.)

Even more influential than Lovecraft was Robert E. Howard whose troubled life ended in suicide, but not before writing numerous  stories of horror and fantasy.  Howard created the sub-genre of fantasy called “Sword and Sorcery,” usually featuring barbarian heroes, damsels in distress (often scantily clad), and a series of obstacles reminiscent of those from ancient mythologies (sorcerors, monsters, etc.).  This kind of fantasy differs from “epic” or “high heroic” fantasy (exemplified by Tolkien and all his imitators) because the protagonists (heroes or antiheroes) are not often great moral characters and the adventures usually do not serve as epic battles between the forces of good and evil–they are played out on a smaller scale.  (Some writers and fans of each of these sub-genres have held the other form in contempt, but Tolkien is said to have enjoyed Howard’s Conan tales.) Howard’s fantasy heroes included Kull the barbarian king of Atlantis, Bran Mak Morn King of the Picts, and Solomon Kane a Puritan-Adventurer, but his most famous creation was Conan the Barbarian from lost Cimmeria in a pre-Ice Age “Hyborian Age.”  The Conan stories would eventually become a staple of Marvel Comics and a series of movies that launched the career of Arnold  Schwarzenegger–although I doubt the people of California can blame Robert E. Howard for the evil rule of “The Governator.”  L. Sprague deCamp and Lin Carter collected unpublished Howard stories into anthologies,  finished some fragments, and wrote their own Conan stories,  too. 

Fritz Leiber added realism (carefully controlling the fantasy elements and researching ancient weapons, technologies and cultures in a way Howard never bothered to do) and humor with his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser a fantasy partnership between a Northern barbarian (somewhat more realistically depicted than Conan) and suave, sophisticated, city-dwelling thief.  The stories were written over 50 years and most originally published in pulp magazines before later anthologization.

C. L. Moore was one of the earliest female writers of sword and sorcery.  Challenging the sexism of the Robert E. Howard approach, Moore wrote stories in the 1930s (usually published in Weird Tales about “Jirel of Joiry,” female ruler of an alternate Medieval realm somewhere in our France who was as tough as Conan, smarter,  just as scantily clad, and always fighting sorcery. 

The era closes with the publication in 1938 of T. H. White’s (1906-1964)comic re-telling of the Arthurian cycle, The Once and Future King.  (Actually, only the first section, The Sword in the Stone, was published in ’38.  The “finished” novel was not published until 1958 and a “conclusion,” The Book of Merlin, was published posthumously in 1977).  Comedy has long been a feature of fantasy which has an amazing ability to  spoof itself when it starts to become pretentious.

IV. Tolkien and the Post-Tolkien Explosion

It is simply impossible to overestimate the impact of one, rather ordinary, Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Language, named John Ronald Ruel Tolkien (1892-1973).  A pre-Vatican II Catholic of conservative views from his childhood in South Africa onward, Tolkien was uncomfortable with educated women and much else of the rapidly changing world.  He was an early environmentalist and critic of overindustrialization who preferred books and created his entire “Middle Earth” imaginary world in order to have characters to speak the invented languages he developed. (You can actually learn to speak Elvish and the actors in Peter Jackson’s film adaptations of Tolkien’s work, do so.) He wanted to create a mythology for Britain which, he believed, had lost its mythology.

In 1937, Tolkien published The Hobbit, a children’s fantasy based  on stories he used to tell his own children.  It enjoyed modest success and, if Tolkien had stopped there,  he might have been only mildly influential on later fantasy.  But he noticed that his characters had, at the edges of his tale, wandered into the high history of Middle Earth that he had been creating over decades.  He decided to connect the stories and worked on them by longhand, sending chapters out as letters to his son Christopher, serving in France during WWII.  The resulting saga, The Lord of the Rings (first published 1954-1955) was so large it had to be published in three volumes. It is NOT a trilogy, despite all those who claim otherwise.

There have been critics ever since, but Tolkien’s work was such a huge success that it created fantasy as a mass-marketing reality. (That is, someone could actually make a living just writing fantasy novels–something virtually  impossible pre-Tolkien.) He was never really comfortable with his fame and its attendant wealth.  After his death, his son, Christopher, began editing and publishing the many pieces of the longer mythology behind the Lord of the Rings, but these have been of interest usually only to diehard Tolkien fans.

Tolkien’s success had 3 immediate impacts on fantasy:  1. It spawned a host of imitators of The Lord of the Rings–most of them very bad.  (One, Terry Brooks, The Sword of Shannara and its sequels, I really dislike–but they became the first post-Tolkien “epic fantasies” to make the New York Times‘ bestseller lists.) 2. It spawned the republication of many of Lovecraft and Howard’s works (and other Weird Tales’ contributors) in fantasy anthologies.  3. It gave renewed attention to some of Tolkien’s friends and associates–a group of English writers known as “The Inklings.” (All of the Inklings were male, but Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), a popular Christian apologist, creator of both the mystery hero, Sir Peter Whimsey, and a translation of Dante, is often considered an honorary “female Inkling” because of her friendship with several of the members.)

Among the most important Inklings for this history are C. S. Lewis  and Charles Williams.  Clive Staples (“Jack”) Lewis (1898-1963)  was Fellow and Tutor in English Literature, Magdalen College, Oxford (1925-1954) and Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University (1954-1963).  Irish by birth, Lewis was an adult convert from atheism to Christianity and became a popular apologist for a rather traditional (though by no means fundamentalist) Anglicanism.  In addition to works on popular Christianity, two spiritual autobiographies, and various scholarly works, Lewis published several works  of fantasy, the most famous of which is the series  of children’s books known collectively as The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-1956).  The Narnia books may be the most famous children’s fantasy works between Baum’s Oz books and J.K. Rowling’s recent Harry Potter works, though its explicit Christian themes leads the series to have FEWER (but still some) critics among conservative evangelicals.  Lewis also wrote a trilogy of science fantasy novels where the Christian apologetics is somewhat more heavy-handed than in the Narnia books.  See Out of the Silent Planet (1938); Perelandra (also published as Voyage to Venus, 1943); That Hideous Strength (1945–which also brings back in the Arthurian cycle).  Lewis also wrote explicitly theological fiction in fantasy form, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933, a fictionalized autobiography); The Screwtape Letters (1942; hilarious series of letters from a senior devil to a novice tempter), and The Great Divorce (1945; A bus tour of the fringes of heaven from hell in the tradition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.  In Lewis’ work, his guide is not the Roman poet Virgil, but the Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George Macdonald [see previous post].)

A third Inkling with an influence on fantasy is Charles Williams (1886-1945), a staff editor at Oxford University Press who wrote a series of fantasy novels that have been characterized as “Christian Lovecraft.”  They aren’t my cup of tea, but many find them wonderful.  In chronological order, Williams novels (all later republished by the American evangelical publisher, William B. Eerdmans) are War in Heaven (1930; involves the Holy Grail); Many Dimensions (1931); The Place of the Lion (1931; very Platonic); The Greater Trumps (1932; involving Tarot Cards and the Great Dance); Shadows of Ecstasy (1934); Descent into Hell (1937), and All Hallows’ Eve (1943).

V. Pioneering Female Fantasy Writers:

The rediscovery of both Tolkien, Lovecraft, and Howard by the countercultural youth movements of the 1960s (ironic considering the deeply conservative trends of each in his own way) led to an explosion of fantasy in the 1960s and 1970s–most of it mediocre at best.  The genre had been dominated by men, but a generation of women began to push at these boundaries–and today the genre is full of strong female voices.

Alice Mary Norton, writing as Andre Norton (1912-2005), was an American writer of historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy.  In the fantasy genre, she became famous for her “Witch World” novels–a long series of books depicting a parallel earth in which magic works, but is, at least at the beginning, the exclusive possession of women.  The females who dominate the witch world believe that magic only works for virgin females and that loss of virginity will translate to loss of magic.  They are slowly forced to revise their beliefs because of the adventures of Simon Tregarth from our Earth who is able to handle some magic, marries the witch, Jaelithe  (who does not lose her magic), and whose children, both male and female, are stronger magic users than the traditional witches.

By contrast, Ursula LeGuin (1929-), influenced by Taoist and feminist themes, wrote a series of novels set in the world of Earthsea where magic is mostly male–controlled and female magic users have to unbend the conservative heirarchy of wizards.

Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930-1999) built on the legacies of Le Guin and Norton (and earlier, C. L. Moore) and on the post-Tolkien explosion.  She has written science fiction and fantasy.  She is most famous for her science fantasy “Darkover” novels, but also for the way she worked to get more women in the field by editing a series of short-story anthologies known as Sword and Sorceress, vols. 1-23 which helped to launch the careers of C. J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Diana Paxson, Elizabeth Waters, Elizabeth Moon, and others.  From 1979 onward (continuing with Diana Paxson), Bradley reworked the Arthurian cycle from a feminist (and neo-pagan) perspective beginning in The Mists of Avalon (1979) which spent 3 months on the New York Times bestseller lists. (Bradley herself experimented with Wicca and other forms of neo-pagan worship, but eventually became a confirmed Episcopalian.)

Madeleine L’Engle(1918-2007) was an American writer of novels aimed at adolescent audiences.  She wrote at the blurry boundaries between fantasy and science fiction (“science fantasy”).  I like her books, especially her best known (and award winning), A Wrinkle in Time (1962), but my wife, Kate, is an even bigger fan and has several of L’Engle’s works autographed by the author–which is so cool.  Influenced both in writing style and in religious views by the Victorian-era Scottish minister and fantasy writer, George MacDonald (see part I of these history postings), L’Engle, a lifelong and very active Episcopalian (American Anglican) was also a thoroughgoing believer in universal salvation.  For that reason, many conservative Christian bookstores would not stock her books, despite their prominent themes of faith.

Katherine Kurtz (1944-) has renewed the “alternative history” form of fantasy by creating an alternate Medieval Wales (Gwynnedd) that is the setting for her many Deryni novels–stories of a race of magic users persecuted by a Medieval Church–but more tolerated in lands where the Moors (Muslims) or the Eastern Church are dominant).  Kurtz was one of the first writers to go into detail about the mechanics of magic (often it seems like a form of Extra-sensory Perception or psionics) and her characters wrestle with the morality of their actions more than is common in the genre.  Although born in America, she has spent most of her adult life in a castle in Ireland, but recently moved back to the U.S. (Virginia) to be with her children and grandchildren in her senior years.  (She is known to be close friends with the science fiction writer, Anne McAffrey.) The Deryni novels first began being published in 1970.

Patricia A. McKillip (1948-) is an American writer who has lived abroad and writes both science fiction and fantasy. Her fantasy works usually take place in a Medieval like setting in which music plays a large part.  Though sometimes her writing reflects divisions of labor among the sexes, she portrays strong female characters who are the equals of their male counterparts.  The books usually involve elements of mystery as the main characters possess and/or are confronted by powers they don’t understand.  Her “Quest of the Riddlemaster” Trilogy from the early 1970s is particularly inventive.

Today, the numerous women who write in this field–with as many male fans and female–all stand on the shoulders of these determined pioneers.

VI. The Post-Tolkien Era.

As the counterculture kept the Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien books continually in print, fantasy began to splinter into numerous sub-genres: Sword and sorcery, epic/high fantasy, sword and planet and other science fantasy, historical fantasy, alternate histories, etc.  Most were only of mediocre quality.  But some stood out.  Michael Moorcock (1939-) is a British writer of science fiction and fantasy who did not like the way Tolkien dominated the field–and did not like the way barbarians like Conan dominated the field of Sword and Sorcery.  So, he created an anti-hero, “Elric of Melnibone,” who was a degenerate, a city-dweller, a hedonist and prince who disdained barbarians and from a long line of evil magic users.  Far from Conan’s rippling muscles or the clean living of Tolkien’s heroes, Elric was an albino (white hair and skin, pink eyes), weak and with disgusting habits.  Then, Moorcock cursed Elric with a magical sword, “Stormbringer,” which sucked out the souls of people to give Elric both physical and magical strength.  He cannot throw the sword away–and he is chosen to be the champion of Order vs. Chaos, a battle that is presented as more cosmic than the one between good and evil.  Eventually, Moorcock linked up his Elric stories with other heroes as incarnations of an “Eternal Warrior” in the battle between Order and Chaos.  Moorcock did for fantasy what Sergio Leone did for Western’s–gave a grittier, grimmer feel that fit well with the cynicism of the 1970s and early ’80s when they enjoyed their highest popularity.

I am not a fan of Terry Brooks (1944-) whose first successful novel, The Sword of Shanarra (1971), I considered to be a cheap retelling of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.  Though he modified this and became more creative in sequels, I never got over my initial disappointment. But Brooks showed that others could write Epic fantasy after Tolkien. He has now written 22 New York Times bestsellers during his career.

After Brooks (and, in my view, a much better writer) came Stephen R. Donaldson (1947-) who began working on his fantasy writing while growing up in India where his parents were medical missionaries. Donaldson’s 1977 book, Lord Foul’s Bane introduced “Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever” an anti-hero as powerful as Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone and placed him in an Epic tale and in a Land as beautiful as Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.

Where will fantasy go from here?  Who knows?  The possibilities are literally endless.   I hope to write future posts on science fiction, on the sub-genres of fantasy, and some major themes.

One note of criticism for this genre, I love.  Though the initial male-female imbalance is much less, today, the Anglo-American scene is still dominated by writers from the so-called “dominant” Caucasian culture.  (This IS changing. The late Octavia Butler [1947-2006] wrote science fiction and fantasy that was both popular and critically acclaimed.  Carol McDonnell, author of Wind Follower and Alaya Dawn Johnson, author of Racing the Dark are two contemporary African-American authors.  And more Asian writers of fantasy are being translated, thanks to the popularity of manga comics and Japanese anime.  But the field is still WAY too moncultural.)   We need far more fantasy writers of more diverse cultural backgrounds.  That would help keep from having the overly-Caucasian casts.  Look, folks, even our “real” Europe of the Middle Ages was not so very white as most Medieval flavored fantasy novels.  Huns and Mongols and the Russ had brought Asian peoples and influences.  There were Islamic influences from both the Middle East and Africa–even in Britain, but much more in France, Portugal, and Spain.  And why must every other fantasy novel depic a society with a king, some nobles, and peasants? Even the “real” Middle Ages had wider political patterns with “free towns” run my guilds and merchants, or the cantons of Switzerland under democratic rule, etc.  And actual “barbarians” are usually only barbaric to those who consider themselves above them, and they are almost never like Conan.  Some variety and research, please.

June 21, 2009 Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction | 10 Comments

A Brief History of Modern Fantasy Literature, p. I

I. Forerunners:

If  we define “the Modern Age” as beginning with the Renaissance and Reformation movements of the 16th C., then the earliest “Modern” writer of fantasy literature may be Edmund Spenser (1552-1599). Spencer’s
The Faerie Queene, is not only fantasy, but an allegory praising the Tudor dynasty and, especially, Queen Elizabeth I. (He was trying to suck up to the  Queen for a place at court, but it didn’t work.)

Nor should we overlook the great Bard of Avon, himself, William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  Shakespeare’s poems and plays covered many genres, but at least the following are fantasies:  A Midsummer Night’s Dream; The Tempest; and there are, at least, elements of fantasy in the tragedies, Macbeth (the 3 witches), and Hamlet (the ghost of Hamet’s father).

Little fantasy writing was done during the Enlightenment of the 17th C. because this “Age of Reason” valued science and history  and empiricism.  It gave birth to realistic fiction with the adventure stories of writers like Willem Dafoe.  This desert was necessary, however, because it allowed fantasy to develop as a distinct and separate genre from realistic fiction.

The Romantic movement in the 18th C.  reacted to the Enlightenment focus on reason, by celebrating emotions and imagination including reviving “romances” that continued the development of fantasy literature.  One major contribution of the Romantic period was the  birth of the Gothic novel (which is also a forerunner of horror fiction).  The first Gothic novel is usually said to be Horace Walpole’s 1794 work, The Castle of Otranto which introduces such Gothic features as a doomed castle or house, a cursed family, an author claiming to be only a translator or discoverer of an ancient manuscript, a haunted castle, a rightful heir, etc. 

II. Pioneers of Fantasy:

In the Victorian Age (late 19th and early 20th C.), fantasy really becomes a distinct genre–and this era also saw the beginning of true science fiction (a story for a later post).  The earliest Victorian fantasy is probably Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843) which uses the devices of a realistic novel to make a ghost story seem plausible.  (Scrooge’s initial doubt about the reality of the ghosts includes a skeptical explanation that his senses are fooled–and that explanation is never really refuted, leaving the reader to decide for herself or himself whether or not Scrooge really was visited by the ghost of his old business partner and 3 other spirits one Christmas Eve.)

Jacob Grimm (1785-1863) and Wilhelm Grimm (1786-1859) were two German brothers who were academic linguists–studying the way that words change in sound and meaning over time.  However, history will forever know them for their hobby:  collecting folk stories and fairy tales.  Grimms’ Fairy Tales was first published in 1812, with later editions expanding the collection.  Many of the best loved fairy stories and folk tales of Europe were anthologized  by the Brothers’ Grimm:  Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Cinderella.  A good contemporary edition is The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers’ Grimm trans. Jack Zipes (3rd ed., Bantam Books, 2003).

Whereas the Brothers’ Grimm anthologized traditional fairy tales, the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805-1875)  took the next step in the development of fantasy:  writing original fairy tales with the same “spirit” as found in traditional folklore.  Then the Scottish minister, poet, and author, George MacDonald (1824-1905), a direct and deep influence on both J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and also an influence on others as diverse as Mark Twain, W. H. Auden, and Madeleine L’Engle, took the next step:  writing novel-length “fairy stories” such as The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and Phantastes (1858).  The latter is usually considered to be the first fantasy novel written specifically for adults, rather than children or adolescents.

A major fantasy writer of this period whom I knew nothing about before doing this research was William Morris (1834-1896).  Morris was an English architect, furniture and textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  Morris wrote widely, but 7 of his novels toward the end of the 19th C. are fantasies.  A Medievalist, Morris deliberately wrote in a style modeled on the Medieval Romances.  His work represents a major development in fantasy because whereas previous authors set their stories in foreign lands or forgotten times, Morris was the first to create an entirely separate fantasy world for his books.  Apparently, his most famous fantasy novel is called, The Well at the World’s End (1896) and I look forward to reading it.

Although today fantasy and horror are distinct genres, they were not during the Victorian era. (Even today, writers who want to, can blur the lines.) Some of the best known horror writers of the Victorian era, Mary Shelly (1797-1851), Bram Stoker (1847-1912), Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) and the playwright, Oscar Wilde(1854-1900) were also influential in the development of fantasy.  Shelly’s Frankenstein (1818) is both early science fiction (arguably the first “robot” story), horror, and fantasy.  Stoker’s Dracula(1897) draws from both the legends surrounding Vlad Tepes (a.k.a., Vlad the Impaler), whose actual history was bloody enough, and selects from the many ancient vampire traditions and uses them to tell a Gothic novel.  Most of Edgar Allan Poe’s works are Gothic (a style he chose because of its current popularity), but he also invented the detective story (“Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Purloined Letter,”) and contributed to science fiction.  But his only completed novel, The Narrative of Arthur Golden Pym of Nantucket (1838) (which I admit, I have not read), is a Gothic fantasy–but was also influential on Jules Verne’s science fiction.  Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) is the last great horror story in the Gothic tradition, but it’s fantastic elements also influenced many a later “dark fantasy” writer, such as  H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937).

End part I.  Part II will describe the flowering of fantasy literature in the twentieth century and then outline the many roads taken since the pivotal work of Tolkien.

June 20, 2009 Posted by | arts, books, fantasy fiction | 7 Comments