32 RTB Books in Dark Times 8: Paul Saint-Amour (JP 5/20)

Who better to talk about Dark Times than the author of an unforgettable scholarly book about the grimness of the interwar years, Tense Future? Paul Saint-Amour, Professor of English at University of Pennsylvania and author of various prizewinning books and brilliant articles, joins John to talk about realism, escapism and the glories of science fiction.

Paul wonders if immersive reading is even possible during this terrible imminence. Can we really gaze at the dental work of the pandemical lion as its jaws open upon us? He goes on to praise “recursive” plots as glimpsed in time-travel narratives, which produce not interactivity with a text, but interpassivity; the immersion into a form that has its ending always waiting for readers from their very beginning. Throughout he manages to be pessimistic but hopeful.

Mentioned in this episode:

Russel Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980)

Boccaccio, “The Decameron

Patrick White, “The Eye of the Storm” (1973)

Daniel Defoe, “Journal of the Plague Year

Laurence Wright, “End of October

Contagion (2011)

The Lady Eve (1941)

Henry James “Wings of the Dove” (1902)

Ted Chiang “Story of Your Life

Arrival (an octopus-friendly movie based on Chiang’s story)

Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse Five” (1969)

Martin Amis, “Time’s Arrow” (1991)

Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History” ( 1940; on the Jetzzeit, the strait-gate through which the Messiah can enter-The Messiah just hates empty homogeneous time.)

Interstellar (2014)

Charlotte Bronte Villette (1853)

Naomi Mitchison, “Memoirs of a Space Woman” (1962)

Doris Lessing, “Canopus in Argos

Doris Lessing, “Making of the Representatives for Planet 8” (1982)

Tempest (John’s only arcade game…)

Tempest: not the one by Shakespeare….

Ludonarrative dissonance (e.g. the problem of the “canon route”in such games as “Tales from the Borderlands“)

Thomas Hardy, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles” (1891)

Gillian Beer, “Darwin’s Plots” (1983; on “ghost plots”)

Thomas Hardy “Jude the Obscure” (1895)

Vera Brittain, “Testament of Youth” (although it is ostensibly about her youth in the Great War, it is very much a 1930’s book in its grimness, its pacifisim, its vision of an inevitable second Great War coming…)

It Happened One Night (auto-gyros bad, straight lines to use the shower, good…)

Philip Roth, Plot Against America (and this recent adaptation)

Philip K Dick “Man in the High Castle” (“a way of backlighting the 1930’s without actually looking very hard at them…”)

James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941, but far more successful when reissued in 1960)

Ursula Le Guin “The Earthsea Trilogy

Ursula K. Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk away from Omelas

Dodie Smith, “I Capture the Castle“(1949)

Stella Gibbons, “Cold Comfort Farm” (1932)

Andrew Miller, “Lives Unled in Realist Fiction” ( 2007; on the optative and choice-function with fiction)

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming episodes: Our next BDT guest is Ben Fountain, author of the amazing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, now a (not-quite-so-amazing) Ang Lee film. Followed by a return to regular Recall This Book programming: Harvard historian Vince Brown joins us to discuss Caribbean modernity and his recent book, Tacky’s Revolt.

Pandemic in the Pacific: Kurt Vonnegut’s COVID novel

Just about every adult human being back then had a brain weighing about three kilograms! There was no end to the evil schemes that a thought machine that oversized couldn’t imagine and execute. … This was a very innocent planet, except for those great big brains.

There is a volcanic archipelago in the Pacific that Polynesian settlers on their canoes never reached. In 1854, Herman Melville saw “The Encantadas” through a dark lens, darkly:

Take five-and-twenty heaps of cinders dumped here and there in an outside city lot, imagine some of them magnified into mountains, and the vacant lot the sea, and you will have a fit idea of the general aspect of the Encantadas, or Enchanted Isles. A group rather of extinct volcanoes than of isles, looking much as the world at large might after a penal conflagration. It is to be doubted whether any spot on earth can, in desolateness, furnish a parallel to this group.

Darwin, though,  saw the Galapagos islands quite differently when he arrived in September of 1835 He may not have wasted much time praising the landscape in the ways he praised the mind-bending sublimity of Patagonian steppes. But in The Voyage of the Beagle includes this teaser about those soon-to-be-famous Galapagos finches:

Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends.

Galapagos finches in Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle
finches in same order as Darwin’s illustrations: clockwise from upper left, large ground finch, medium ground finch, small tree-finch, green warbler-finch.

Much as I love Melville, I gotta give this  one to Darwin. Even if the  world is inclined to  forget everything else about these minuscule upwellings in the Pacific, we will remember the finches. And the flightless cormorants. And the  giant land tortoises. And the  marine iguanas.

into something rich and strange….Iguanas learned to swim on the Galapagos; what might humans become there, in time?

Little  wonder that quite  a few of the 30,000 inhabitants of the Galapagos are named Charles or Darwin. (I did not meet a single Herman or Melville during my  unforgettable week among those enchanted islands.)

COVID-19 has come to the Galapagos Islands. On the one hand they  lie rocks hundreds of miles out from South America, adrift in the Pacific. On the other hand for people fuel and food is the tropical port of Guyaquil, swampy, overcrowded and now a massive COVID hotspot. So it’s not shocking that there are now 107 reported cases and at least one death..

The news struck me hard, because  one of the best pandemic novels I know is about these amazing islands. Sort of.   Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) tells the story of a million years of hominid evolution on a remote Pacific island. It is narrated from a million years in the future, after homo sap. has managed to obliterate itself everywhere else by way of—you guessed it—a runaway pandemic (one that makes humanity sterile). Humanity’s only survivors turn out the be a bumbling set of castaways, trapped on a cruise ship they are to too ignorant to steer  properly,  crash  on a remote outer Galapagos island.

Vonnegut has a dim view of American ingenuity that brought us the atom bomb, napalm, and the Vietnam War (see epigraph above).He wants us to own our casual decisions and their unintended but foreseeable consequences: drill for oil, mine coal, split atoms—what could go wrong?

Still, he’s wiling to cut humanity a deal, if we manage to downsize our most deadly organ–the one between our ears. Just as Darwin saw finches and iguanas and mockingbirds radiating out and adapting in various isolated ecological niches, so too does Vonnegut trace how a tiny bumbling group of castaways gradually breed descendants with a thick layer of blubber and fur: human seals, not that different from the blubber-coated walrus-men of Neptune in Olaf Stapledon’s super-trippy Last and First Men (1930).

By Vonnegut’s telling it is an evolutionary jackpot when the castaways’ fingers turn into little nubs whose nails glow brightly during mating season. Good news, he means, considering what those fingers had been up to during the 20th century. As Vonnegut tells it, humanity’s troubles will only end when  “the only true villain in my story: the oversized human brain” stops building “useful” tools such as bazookas, flamethrowers and atom bombs.

Is it sad that Vonnegut’s take on the glories and pitfalls of opposable thumbs is giving me a lot of post-human comfort these days? Sad maybe, but also funny. Vonnegut—like his sf compadres Stanislaw Lem and Douglas Adams—owes a considerable debt to the saturnine cynicism of Mark Twain’s 1885 Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court­.

I love Vonnegut’s pandemic novel, with its ultimately jaunty vision of fat-swaddled humans-turned-seals, teeth their only remaining tools and fingernails their single remaining adornment. Ultimately, he may remind me most of that brilliant Czech modernist Karel Capek.  

Karel Capek’s 1920 “Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti

Even in Capek’s robots-kill-all-humans fantasy, RUR, he imagines robots falling in love. In The Absolute at Large  all  the world’s armies exterminate one another except nine soldiers who fall asleep  under a fruit tree, and awaken to begin the world again. And if you are looking for another (heartwarming) Pacific Ocean end-of-mankind story, try War with the Newts.

Vonnegut too offers a bargain with poetic justice. If like the flightless cormorant and the marine iguana, humans in Galapagos are willing to shed our former habits and adapt ourselves to an island niche, we may be good (good because harmless) for another million years. A tough pandemic lesson but a fair one. So I am rooting for Galapagosians to beat COVID. Even if the rest of us are doomed.

Upcoming: Next week, Paul Saint-Amour, Modernist to the stars (and the lucky students of U Penn) rhapsodizes about science fiction’s time travel metaphysics.

29 RTB Books in Dark Times 6: Kim Stanley Robinson (JP)

Kim Stanley Robinson, SF novelist of renown, has three marvelous trilogies: The Three Californias, Science in the Capital and, most celebrated of all, Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars. His honors include many Locus, Hugo and Nebulae awards. Small fact connecting him to RTB-land: he completed a literature PhD directed by Frederic Jameson with a dissertation-turned-book on the  novels of Phillip K. Dick.

Stan and John start out with Stan’s emerging from the Grand Canyon in late March. Then they discuss Stan’s sense that SF is the realism of the day and his take on “cognitive estrangement.” Finally, they happen upon a shared admiration for the great epic SF poet, Frederick Turner.

George Stewart, “Earth Abides

Mary Shelley, “The Last Man

M. P. Shiel, “The Purple Cloud

John Clute, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (on “fantastika”)

Frederick Turner, “Genesis” and “Apocalypse

Ursula Le Guin, “The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia” (1974; KSR praises such works as this for “power of poetry alone”)

Darko Suvin, “Metamorphoses of Science Fiction: On the Poetics and History of a Literary Genre ” (1979; on cognitive estrangement)

The door dilated” a quote from Robert A. Heinlein in “Beyond This Horizon”

Listen to the episode here:

Read the transcript here:

Upcoming: We pivot briefly away from Books in Dark Times to discuss the ethics of deliberately exposing people to the novel corona virus. John discusses the moral quandaries around accelerated vaccine testing with Nir Eyal, a Rutgers bioethicist.

Episode 14x: Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)

In May, John and Pu interviewed SF superstar Cixin Liu (you will want to listen to that episode before this one). In August they entered the studio again to work on the final edits for that interview in both its Chinese and English versions. While they were there, they took some time to reflect on the most significant things that Liu had said, and to ponder the political situation for contemporary Chinese writers who come to the West to discuss their work.

In the original interview, Pu leans forward to fine-tune a translation….
Continue reading “Episode 14x: Afterthoughts about the Cixin Liu interview (Pu Wang and John)”

Episode 7: Samuel Delany in conversation with John Plotz (Nevèrÿon, Triton, Gertrude Stein and more….)


On August 6, 2019, an article based on this podcast interview appeared in our partner publication, Public Books. 

Fresh on the heels of our conversation with Madeline Miller, author of Circe,  John Plotz has a talk with Samuel Delany, living legend of science fiction and fantasy. You probably know him best for breakthrough novels like Dhalgren and Trouble on Triton, which went beyond “New Wave” SF to introduce an intense and utterly idiosyncratic form of theory-rich and avant-garde stylistics to the genre.  Reading him means leaving Earth, but also returning to the heady days when Greenwich Village was as caught up in the arrival of Levi-Strauss and Derrida to America as it was in a gender and sexuality revolution. Continue reading “Episode 7: Samuel Delany in conversation with John Plotz (Nevèrÿon, Triton, Gertrude Stein and more….)”