Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

. . . scribbled . . . scrawled . . . trimmed . . . typewritten . . . grubbed up . . . squeezed from circumstance . . .

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Thoughts on a December 31

This morning I donned black rubber gloves and performed a delicate operation. The manual typewriter I have been using daily has been producing quite light type upon the page; and I needed to address some envelopes. So I changed the nylon ribbon.

This operation would seem ordinary to more people had a formal philosophy arisen, in response to Modern and Age of the Masses excesses, dedicated to understanding concepts of sufficiency and adequacy.

I say this because while changing the typewriter ribbon my mind filled with thoughts relating to some reading I did yesterday evening about catastrophic climate change, and the possibility of its occurrence soon. Our Mass Age already ranks as a geologic moment of mass extinction. With methane eruptions from the sea floor on the increase, a percentage of scientists see no reason to think humankind can avoid attending this particular party.

That old exhortation hits home: "Party till you drop."

I regard the typewriter as a sufficient and adequate tool for part of my daily work. Likewise the pencil—in my hand as I write these words. Later I will use the computer to edit and then post this entry, assuming I deem it worthy. In other words, I am still contributing to the energy-use landslide that has led us, in the end, to methane eruptions. All the same, in this process I have clung to methods that have served me my entire life, as they did prior generations.

My thoughts this morning led me simply to this: that if more people had clung to old tools that are sufficient and adequate, we might have delayed this outcome—by minutes, hours, days, years ...

Corporations, of course, could not allow any such clinging. Small businesses could, back when sufficiency and adequacy registered more readily upon our ethical, moral and pragmatic senses, or outlooks.

At this point anything we can do may be too little. Those of us who have lived small lives—who have ranked among the poor, from the view of greater society—wonder sometimes what more we can do. We already have led lives guided, in part, by principles formed around the notion that society has taken a decided turn toward waste, toward the synthetic, toward the exploitive—toward corporate, not public, health at the expense of the individual, and at the expense of our world. We have felt ourselves surrounded at nearly all times by others who have bought into a way of life created and promoted by corporations.

What we can do to decrease carbon emissions, in terms of changing personal practices, seems trivial compared to what these others might do—if they, for instance, suddenly as a mass rejected feedlot beef. Would they do such a thing, though? No. For too many, the time when it is verifiably too late will arrive as an inconvenience they will feel sure someone will fix.

I write these thoughts (beginning thoughts, late thoughts—take your choice) at a time traditionally observed by the making of resolutions. Happy New Year! A calendar disappears from the wall.

Yet around this time, too, falls the ancient Saturnalia when the poor and powerless symbolically acquire all they lack.

In Van Wyck Brooks's writings I encountered the notion of Pelagian optimism. It sticks in my mind, lately.

Said Pelagius: "If I ought, I can."

I leave it at that.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Notes on Genetic and Poetic Languages

I read the recent news from University of Washington about the discovery that genetic structures use two languages. The previously known language involved "codons." The new one involves "duons," which are dual-use codons.

My first thought? That the corporate drones who have committed genetic manipulation will not bat an eyelash. So they fiddled like children with their building blocks, and never realized those blocks had an alphabet printed on them? What does it matter? They made money and will make yet more. Having done their bit for the dehumanization of agriculture they will sleep like babies.

Ortega y Gasset may have been correct that our scientists are "barbarians"——specialists who know a great deal about one thing. The scientists I have known have tended to be actual scientists in the older sense of being natural philosophers. If not directly engaged in a process of discovery, they at least felt innately drawn to that process, as part of their participation in a tradition of humanism; and they stood apart from the funnel-eyed engineers and technicians required by corporate industry.

Yet funnel-eyed uni-directionalist drones must be in good supply; and our education system seems set on producing even more, to judge from statements I read earlier this year, somewhere, about the end result of the "No Child Left Behind" directive ... disastrous results, to my mind: for this system teaches students that to succeed they must make points, rather than make sense.

Schools now are turning children into the equivalents of those websites that have keywords but no content, except advertisements.

I possess no deep understanding of codons and duons——nor even a shallow understanding, from the point of view of the biologist. Yet the literary ordering of words we call poetry offers me a way of thinking about these notions. For a gene is a thing as well as a type of a thing——and also an expression: for surely even a corporate drone cannot sever a gene from its expression ... not even with that Orwellian-sounding technique that I came across in during random reading recently: that of "silencing" genes. (Next they will be "disappearing" genes.)

Similarly poetry is a thing, and a type of thing——and an expression.

Northrop Frye aptly observes that poetry has two languages: so you might think in terms of two languages being spoken simultaneously by a poem that is "viable"——if you will allow me the botanical word. Frye noted that one reads, hears or understands not only the language of the poet's writing but also the language of poetry itself. You might say the poem gives voice to the poet's creative individuality while also giving voice to poetic tradition. We might take away a particular sense from the first expression, and a universal sense from the second——even though the poet is as much a participant in universal creative process as s/he is a separate individual——and even though our poetic tradition is not at all universal but rather a particular playing ground of interactions between writers and readers ... simply the current moment of ongoing process.

A Second Second, and Product vs. Process

The thought occurs to me that this second "language" of the duons may well itself prove to be a composite of two languages. I think of the language within ourselves that we use in setting our actions or behavior: for I do think we are all like William Dean Howells's character who discovered "that two strains of blood were striving in (him) for mastery ... paternal and maternal." (Brooks has a similar point to make about American character, in terms of conflicting maternal and paternal influences.) Blake knew as well as did Hegel that without conflict there is no growth; and this language of our actions and behaviors seems inextricably tied to our growth.

How can I help but think that this newly identified second genetic language is inextricably tied not to stasis and unchanging form but to action and behavior——and growth?

Of course, that this second duality would be literally maternal and paternal seems reasonably possible.

Yet another way to think of the situation comes also from Frye. He draws a distinction between attitudes: the Aristotelian, which regards literature as product, versus the Longinian, which views literature as process. A product has static and fixed qualities among its attributes. We might think, metaphorically, of codons being related to product. A process, in contrast, must have unstable, changing aspects among its attributes. So we might think of the dual-language codons now called duons as being related to process.

The genetic modifiers (I mean those who modify genes ... although I can think of endless modifiers for these corporate drones——such as "rash," "dangerous," "unthinking," "human-culture-threatening," etc.) would fix the world into a particular set of regulated patterns, so that agriculture could be reduced even further from being a process and toward being production line.

Wilder Thoughts ...

In the absence of those "two strains of blood," expression would seem a one-way street; and in nature how many one-way streets are there?

Think about this carefully. (I insert here a small tribute to late professor of philosophy Scott Crom, who urged on me caution when nearing the specter of determinism.) For what is "expression"? The production of oils from seeds, I suppose is one answer——useful, but not part of the ongoing give-and-take dialog of a conscious being with its universe.

A microcosmic theory will arise eventually that will ascribe consciousness to the gene——and why not? At its scale the gene must exhibit something akin to the complexities of piscine, reptilian, avian or mammalian nervous centers.

And if such a theory should arise then the purveyors of genetically modified organisms, and their hired guns and ill-inspired drones, may well find themselves suddenly ranking alongside slave-dealers of a previous century.

A thought to consider...

Gene expression should be free. If gene expression cannot remain free then human expression cannot remain free.

I pose this without too many hesitations, except for my use of "expression." You may know why: that sense of the non-communicativeness of "expression." So how about this.

Gene communication must remain free. If gene communication cannot remain free, then human communication cannot remain free.

Cheers ...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Essay on Women's Speculative Poetry

In the continuing spirit of catching up on matters ...

My lengthy essay "The Transformations of Speculative Poetry: On Wiscon Panels in 2008 and 2013," appears in the September issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction.

The essay has three sections that follow a somewhat logical progression, but that also reflect a sequence of events and memories. It includes as well reflections and reflective discoveries of the sort that move a writer through an essay.

I begin by thinking back to a panel at the 2008 Wiscon. This portion includes thoughts on Minnesota poets and on panel participants Terry Garey and Amal El-Mohtar. Reflecting on Garey's contributions prompted thoughts on a generation divide that is marked by a change in small-press publishing.

I speak then of meeting Kathryn Rantala, and being reminded by her of an aspect of speculative poetry that spoke, and speaks, to both of us. This leads me to explore speculative poetry's place in a larger literary historical order. These thoughts will likely come across as overly condensed to most readers, for they certainly do to me. I do believe, however, I convey my understanding of the form's situation.

I conclude with an account of the panel "Women's Speculative Poetry Now," which took place in May this year. This section draws upon notes I took, based on comments by participants El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin, Sofia Samatar and Lesley Wheeler.

Please note that I make no mention of the strange conjunction of misunderstanding and personal politics that seems to have taken place at another poetry event at that same Wiscon, of which I was ignorant.

One sentence in the printed version appears in a way that leaves me, at least, thinking it makes no sense. In mid-first-column, page 24, the line should read, "Science fiction, a late Modern form, in the Age of the Masses rejected its Symbolist beginnings and became a literary game ..." Or it could read, "In the Age of the Masses, the late-Modern form of science fiction rejected ..." Or some such. If I punctuated it in my original manuscript the way it appears here, the reader's confusion may be laid at my door.

Weightless Books makes this issue, number 301 (26:1), available. My thanks especially to David G. Hartwell and Kevin J. Maroney.

Cheers ...

Thursday, December 12, 2013

New Essay in Cascadia Subduction Zone

In October an essay of mine appeared that I have been meaning to call to readers' attentions. For me, the topic has importance.

It had disappointed me that after its publication C.M. Kornbluth failed to spur some feminist critic to begin the process of rescuing Cyril Kornbluth from the ill usage he has at times suffered from feminists. In the book I present ample evidence showing that Cyril exhibited a sexually egalitarian attitude; and I show how his writing suffered alterations that reflected poorly on him.

I also presented evidence showing where to place blame for these alterations. Frederik Pohl admitted to them, by and large. To my eyes the changes reflected so chauvinistic an attitude that as a critic I saw no alternative: my observations belonged in my book. I was writing cultural criticism, which combines biography, history and criticism; and to leave out my literary evaluations would have amounted to undermining my own structure.

Thanks to encouragement from Hal Davis to break my silence, and the agreeability of the Wiscon programming committee, I gave a talk in Madison in the spring offering my perspective. (And thanks to Mary Rickert, among others, for taking it in.) I had labored——even at the convention itself, banging away at an old manual typewriter——at shaping my talk to work as an oral presentation: so when Timmi Duchamp expressed interest in publishing it in Cascadia Subduction Zone, she presented me with many questions and suggestions. I ended up re-envisioning it, not just rewriting it, for publication, and truthfully made some important adjustments, and introduced as well one new discovery. As a consequence this published version overshadows the spoken one.

This essay discusses, among other matters, "visibly invisible collaboration," Judith Merril, Mary Byers-Kornbluth, George Barr McCutcheon, and structural feminism in Graustarkian novels. It describes some among Pohl's changes to Kornbluth texts, although without repeating analyses made in CMK, such as the examination of "Trouble in Time." It also discusses a situation that I had somewhat suspected before and confirmed after publication of my book——that the reputation of a novel I consider second-rate, The Space Merchants, rose as high as it did because readers thought it was the same book as the longer and quite Kornbluthian Gravy Planet. (As you might imagine, I deeply rue the fact that the Library of America republished, and in a sense canonized, The Space Merchants.) The new discovery I mention above, by the way, related to Joanna Russ and that worse-than-lackluster Pohl and Kornbluth production, Search the Sky.

My title: "Seeing C.M. Kornbluth as Gender-Egalitarian (For Those Who Have Seen Him as Anything But)." The magazine: The Cascadia Subduction Zone (, October 2013, 3:4. My thanks to Hal, Susan Groppi, Mary, Timmi, and Lew Gilchrist.

Cheers ...

Thoughts Written after Frederik Pohl's Death

(I wrote the following on September 2, 2013. I chose not to post them in my blog at the time. Whatever my opinions of Pohl as a man or a writer, I feel respect and affection for certain members of his extended family——in one case deceased, and in another, living. A long moment of quiet——even if after two years of quiet already, on my part——seemed appropriate.)

The news of Frederik Pohl's death has felt strange, settling in: for I have known it would happen soon——whatever "soon" may be. I have been out of touch with news of Pohl's condition; but the thought kept reappearing in my mind, in recent months, that I should prepare myself with some short essay about him, against the eventuality. Not that I did——perhaps because that same notion had been intruding on my thoughts, now and then, for years.

At the point in writing C.M. Kornbluth when I was ready to speak to Fred, and to see whether or not he would turn me down a second time for an interview about Cyril, I called his house and learned that he was in the hospital, due not to illness but frailty. The family feared death might well come for him. I would have been acting rudely, had I kept calling to see if he had come home: for what frail man would want to answer tough questions about events of half a century past? I left that phone number unused, afterwards. My book focused on Cyril, after all; and I doubted Fred remembered anything that he had not put down in print already that he would feel willing to share with me. I knew in addition that his memory, even before this hospitalization, was unreliable.

The questions being left unasked will remain so, of course. Pohl's comments on matters concerning events in the 1930a, 1940s and 1950s, however, will continue to reverberate——for he has left us correspondence from these times——the archived correspondence that allowed me to write about matters that beforehand I had feared would find no place in my study. As the book's few readers know, it rests upon a sturdy backbone of documentation.

It stands because I based its structure upon fact.

At the time I was finishing CMK, knowing of Pohl's frailty, it did enter my mind that my book, which tells quite a different story from the ones he had told over the years, might affect him to the point of altering the balance between his health and his frailty. I felt it might be best if the book slipped quietly into the world, without my making the normal efforts at publicity that might help make it a success. Pohl, if indeed so frail, might never know the book existed. His protective family might shield him, should the news of publication came out sufficiently quietly.

Two other reasons urged me toward my avoiding publicity. The book's writing had put me into debt: so I had a purely practical reason, nearly a necessity, to avoid even convention appearances. Another reason, however, some might call irrational. To me it carried real weight, all the same. I had lived with it since the mid-1990s, when several senior writers advised me to tread with extreme care around Pohl. He exerted tremendous power within the field in which, at the time, I newly ranked as a professional. Many of my questions even at that time concerned Pohl's actions; and his looming presence made it seem impossible to ask those questions in public. In effect my wariness of Pohl silenced me——and the tensions surrounding those questions, and my being haunted by them, made it nearly impossible for me to continue pursuing the writing career that I had begun to establish. It amounted to madness, to allow such questions to overthrow my fiction career. Yet I did, and they did.

I have written of being at sea for many years——constantly achieving in minor ways, at this, at that——but at sea: and the derailment of my soul from its fiction-writing mode of expressing itself fell at the beginning of that long period. I was haunted. I was insane, even if in the quietest possible manner. One or the other, or both.

The warnings to me about Pohl had been meant genuinely; and in 2010 they proved of more relevance than my fears of causing apoplexy in a frail elder. Pohl, after a time, learned of my book——but grew incensed enough at it that, according to his blog, he never finished reading it. In an e-mail to me he raised the issue of a lawsuit. In his blog he began a campaign against me——effectively, so far as I could see. Quite a number of individuals leapt to his defense, with academics writing "reviews" for professional journals making odd assertions, such as the one that my book contains no literary criticism. Non-academics posted pathetically negative noises on Amazon, while fellow science fiction writers made comments at his blog site, including a surprisingly scatological one, in closing ranks with Pohl against me. Pohl himself used the words "forces of evil," linking this phrase to one of his postings about Mark Rich.

I took this in silence, by and large——even though I had faith that the integrity of my work stood effectively against Pohl's threat of lawsuit. A non-provocatory stance suited the situation, to my mind.

My silence did establish for me, however, a vivid picture of Pohl's power within the field. For no one, to my knowledge, stood up for me, in public, against him.

Some, however, stood up for the book.

Most importantly, the book itself continued standing.

Would I have given so willingly of myself, and so fully, to create it as an edifice, had I meant it to fall? I could remain silent; others would remain silent: yet what I built would continue as I built it.

After a time, Pohl, too, fell silent about the matter——at least in public.

Did his e-mailed threat of a lawsuit still ring in my mind?

Yes. It did.

For all these intervening months.

The night after his death's announcement, the memorial comments began. "Death of a giant." "Last of the greats." "I knew him when."

Many, many will have heartfelt, wonderful thoughts and memories to share, as is fitting and proper. Their Fred Pohl had passed away.

As for me, sometime that night I felt a lightening sensation——a shifting and lifting of a weight I had borne long enough to ignore and nearly forget about.

For a threat made against me was ceasing its constant pressure downwards upon my shoulders.

For my Fred Pohl, too, had passed away.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A Life Uncelebrated, a Death Unannounced: Mary Kornbluth, 1920-2007

Martha entered the study last night to relay news she knew I had yet to hear.

I had been working on revisions since early that morning on an essay for Cascadia Subduction Zone, since editor L. Timmel Duchamp had granted me a day's extension beyond my Sunday deadline. My essay offered reasons to think Cyril Kornbluth possessed a gender-egalitarian attitude; and it suggested why feminists have tended to see him as the last writer to turn to in seeking signs of this attitude.

At about 9:30 p.m., in an extremely weary state of mind, I was about to go on-line. I was sending in an essay that included observations about Cyril's wife Mary, and about a living writer who clearly had helped shape prevailing opinions about Cyril.

Martha walked into my study to tell me that this writer no longer ranked among the living.

Today I reopened a manila file folder and looked at these words:

"Can you keep this secret? Don't tell anybody. She died on June 1, not this year. She died at the age of 86, June 1 in 2007, and she did not want Fred to know about it. She did not want him to know. Then he would come out with these condescending remarks. Quite frankly, the way the country is going I don't think most people are fit to comment on the weather."

The speaker, in January 2009, was John Kornbluth. Son of Cyril Kornbluth.

Son, too, of Mary Kornbluth, about whom he was speaking.

Son, in other words, of C.M. Kornbluth.

John had proved quite difficult for me to track down, in 2009——as he wanted it to be. He and David regarded themselves as in hiding. Even though he was quite willing to speak to me, and to tell me what he knew, he wanted me not to let anyone know that I had contact with him.

I was not to quote him. I was not to cite him. I was not to let the world know whether or not Mary was alive.

Today I checked via the usual on-line means, and discovered that Mary's death date has quietly appeared here and there——no doubt thanks to genealogists and their indefatigable search engines. The information itself had to be out there, after all. It just took diligent research and an automatic fact-webbing spider or two.

I suspect, however, that Mary's death has never received formal announcement.

Consider this formal. The information reached me from the lips of the older of the two sons.

At one point I noted to John that my book would cause the question to be raised about whether Mary still lived or not——in which case it might be better to preemptively announce her death, and have some control over the situation. He grudgingly gave me permission to do so.

In my silence after book publication——which I may write more about——I ended up remaining silent about Mary, too, however.

This morning, after last night's news, I realized John would no longer feel even faintly grudging about the matter.

So I say this: Mary died six years ago, deeply mourned. "I would rather have gone myself than her dying," John said.

She died nearly unknown, although she had helped shape——literally had helped shape——stories that take a central place in that highly artistic, highly specialized, and highly accomplished field that was magazine science fiction in the 1950s.

How strange ... that I should have been spending the entire day writing and rewriting words about Mary Kornbluth——and about Frederik Pohl——on the very day the latter died.

Although I have lost contact with John——I hope because of his continuing sense of being in hiding, and not because of anything that has happened to him or to his brother David——I feel he would approve these words. He wanted his mother to be known. Not dragged through the mud, but known.

I will have a few more things to write about Mary. She deserves more remembrance than she has received. My book started the process. The essay for CSZ continues it.

Now that I feel free to attribute my source——who is her son——I will feel free to release a few, small, rather beautiful butterflies of knowledge into the world.

Mary, though gone, will live a bit more ... and perhaps even gain a level of appreciation that was never hers, during her life.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Timely Prompt

Yesterday I finished work on an essay about speculative poetry, and what women writers might be bringing to the form. At one point in it I wondered if I might be granting women poets privileged status when I encountered their works——or if those women writers did write a poetry that could be distinguished from that written by men.

The essay never arrived at an answer to this question of mine——for it took its shape, in large part, from memories of and notes about two different panel discussions about women's speculative poetry, in 2008 and 2013; and those memories and notes led me in a different direction.

This morning I read a blog posting by Julie Crisp, editorial director at Tor UK, entitled "Sexism in Genre Publishing: A Publisher's Perspective." Her notes reminded me of a thought that has crept into my mind, now and then through the years: that, yes, in my years editing speculative poetry magazines in the 1970s, '80s and '90s I did give poetry submissions from women a different level of attention——because fewer such submissions came in, compared to the number from men.

You may well call this sexist: for women poets stood at an advantage even before I opened the submissions envelope.

Crisp, I should note, professionally judges submissions on the basis of intrinsic manuscript quality. The great value in her posting lies in the fact that her editorial team actually counted numbers of manuscripts from women and men writers, over a period of months. Their findings echo what other genre editors have noted anecdotally.

Essays by their nature seem to leave some matters unresolved: for sometimes we fail to see all the issues involved until we have written out our thoughts and revised them repeatedly to a state of finished completion.

Doors must shut before you can reopen them.

In any case, Crisp's notes brought back to mind old thoughts ... a timely prompt, from an unexpected direction.

Cheers ...

Friday, June 14, 2013

Bloomsday in Baraboo

At the Bloomsday observance last year in Baraboo, Wisconsin, I sat and listened to two of the relay-race readers who would hand off Ulysses to one another —— on the hour, hour after hour, on that middle-June Sunday when Martha and Sammy and I were set up at the Baraboo Sunday market ... a day that was part of our season-long challenge to ourselves to see if we could keep bringing our antiquated stuff to a flea market —— a relatively genteel and easy-going and agreeable one —— week after week, May to October.

I watched these readers mostly from afar: for we occupied a space on the Baraboo Square opposite Annie Randall's Village Booksmith, where the Joycean celebratory readings have taken place on Bloomsdays since 2004.

This, the routine: a reader would sit down and declaim (or aim to declaim) Joyce's text, while sitting at a wooden chair at a table on a busy street in front of that comfortable and inviting bookstore ... reading Joyce's words to the air.

A friend or listener might occupy another chair at that small table, or might not. The readers, with a dedication to performance that I understood and hope that they all did, too, kept at their readings whether a listener sat there or not —— perhaps not even aware if ears might be hovering nearby, since the tangling and jumping and riverrunning words these readers needed to translate into lip, tongue and throat motions must have required more of their attentions than they would have exercised on a typical lazy and summery June-weekend afternoon.

Last year, Wisconsin dragged its feet through a drought while vacationers reveled in unbroken vacation-friendly weather; and in Baraboo that Sunday for the background and sometimes foreground of these readings came car-engine commentaries, oblivious passerby idle-but-loud conversations, and even, while I was sitting in a listener's chair, the thrumming-down flatulences of massed motorcycles nearing the nearby intersection, going br-r-r-r-oom instead of Bl-l-l-l-loom. Drowned sounds of Joyce, and the waves of noise that industry has made an unpleasant permanence in our lives ... and passing chit-chat ... and the running-through, too, of the internal monolog even a dedicated listener must listen to, within herself or himself ...

Really a rather nice experience of the Charles Ives sort.

Music. Environmentally enhanced.

Last year I would happily have volunteered for a reader's slot, had we lived nearer by. We live an hour and a half away from Baraboo, by state and county highways, however —— and in Baraboo I was an unknown quantity. Through the course of being there on the square, Sunday after Sunday, however, we gained some sense of that small city and its community —— artistic and antiquish, both —— and so when Annie two weeks ago stood in our booth describing the upcoming Bloomsday plans, I volunteered. The whole event will fall in our "working hours" in Baraboo: for the reading of the whole of Ulysses will begin at 2 p.m. Sunday and end at 3 p.m., the latter hour being the one when the Sunday Market ends. So Martha will oversee our booth for that last hour —— not quite alone, since Sammy will be there —— while I babble to the air.

... and all in one hour. In past years, Annie has overseen a thirty-six-hour marathon of readings. This year, she oversees thirty-six readers who will be reading simultaneously at locations around the downtown square. Annie told me she expects to cut up a copy of the book ... which made me think I may well be starting in the middle of a sentence ... appropriately enough ...

And will all thirty-six begin in the middle of sentences, at once?

Whatever the situation, I will be one of the thirty-six, with my station tentatively being on the square itself, by the cannon beneath the white pines near our usual Sunday Market space ... and come what may, be it rain or tourist apathy or hecklers enlivened into buffoonery by visits to the clown museum, I will read my allotted text and feel during it what I feel now —— honored to have the chance to take a small part.

I have read Ulysses —— albeit only once all the way through —— and had I lived in Baraboo I would have enjoyed undertaking a marathon as listener, following along, book in hand, through every hour of that reading that I could attend. What an experience that would be! Does anyone do this, at any of the Bloomsday events? In the hour or so that I listened, last year, I sat there wishing I knew what page to find, in the book there at the table, in order to follow along.

Being the reader at such an event offers a more intense experience than being the listener, however: for the reader performs and listens at the same time.

A symbolic hour of simultaneity! —- for an Irish Symbolist who still seems an enduring presence.

I will be there; and I feel sure that many others, whether they know it or not, will be there, this year or next, partaking in an ongoing festival of words that have the capacity to grow into life, even when spoken only to air.

Cheers ...

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Correction for NYRSF Chan Davis Essay-Review

Because of the political nature of much of Dan Davis's writing, I took pains over the wording of my essay-review about It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis, edited by Josh Lukin. My essay has just appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction (25:9, whole number 297, May 2013, pp. 1, 4-6) —– and unfortunately near the beginning it contains a sentence that makes me sound a touch out of touch.

While I favor there being a bit of nonsense in my writing I would rather put it there myself, accidentally or otherwise.

A well-meaning editorial change has created this sentence: "After the Red Scare, Davis cut short his career at University of Michigan, opting to leave the United States and reestablish himself in Canada."

What I wrote is this: "Davis, after the Red Scare cut short his career at University of Michigan, opted to leave the United States and reestablish himself in Canada."

I am politically unsavvy in many ways —— but not in such a way that I think Chan Davis enjoyed any choice about his Michigan career ending. Fortunately, later in the essay I mention that Davis received summons and jail time: so persevering readers may think I am not as much a cluckbrain as I appear to be, at first ... or perhaps more of one.

Perhaps I chose too positive a word in "opted." Resuming his academic career in the U.S. had closed, as an option. Unpleasant circumstances and the purging of the liberal element from U.S. higher education forced him to "opt."

Would Davis have remained bitter about the University of Michigan's failure to apologize for its actions, had it indeed been the case that "Davis cut short his (own) career" ... ?

Cheers ...

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wiscon, Sexism, SFWA ... and Speculative Fiction and Speculative Poetry

The new furor over at the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America creates sympathetic reverberations here, far away —— even though I am a man and the issue relates to depictions of women, and moreover not currently a member of SFWA. The furor reverberates here all the same. In recent years I have liked SFWA mainly for its membership directory. I had no money for membership in recent years, though, thanks to the C.M. Kornbluth biographical work; and so I thought I would just fade away. It remained in mind that if I could overcome the pennyweight writing doldrums then I might send in my overdue dues. SFWA kept sending me the relatively useless Bulletin —— probably, too, thinking that I might make good eventually, since I have done so in other lean years ... although its hopes must have been tinted with practical sense, since it never sent its directory.

It strikes me as perhaps strange, perhaps inevitable, that the current controversy should have near its center the forever-droning-on SFWA Bulletin palaver between one senior writer who has lived on the fat of Sciencefictionland and another who has gotten by on the lean —— a sort of Winnie-the-Pooh and Eeyore duo. Despite the sometimes useful discussions that arise in their pages the somnolent monotony prevails —— especially since the latter figure, with faraway dooms hidden behind his deep-lidded eyes, keeps genuflecting to the worldly success and knowledge of the former. That latter writer provides the more literary interest, while the former offers a vision of the beneficent behemoth that science fiction is, to the uppermost half-percent of its writers.

Perhaps strange, perhaps inevitable —— because one of their conversations had made me ask myself, "Do I care any more if I belong to this group?" How could I? Mike Resnick intoned about C.M. Kornbluth, and mentioned two books —— The Futurians and The Way the Future Was, and not mine, that I daresay has more to say about Kornbluth than any other book yet in existence. In response, Barry Malzberg said nothing.

This left me with bitterness flourishing like black rot on the tongue. Malzberg had read my book and praised it highly —- to me. Not to the world, apparently.

If, when in command of the SFWA membership's attention, the one writer who might have mentioned my book knowledgeably was failing to do so, for whatever reason, why should I want to stay in the organization?

At Wiscon two weekends ago, Mary Rickert asked me if anyone had spoken up for me, during that absurd episode when the author of The Way the Future Was identified me with "the forces of evil."

"No," I answered.

The other day I read several blog postings concerning the current furor, including one by Ann Aguirre, whose work I do not know. Aguirre's statements of cold-shouldering and public snubbing by established male science fiction writers astonished me. I had thought that the goons and gropers had been shooed away, by and large, and that the imbecile high priests to masculine writerly prowess had learned the tape-to-lips trick to look smarter. Not so, apparently. Yet on reflection how could I have known? The convention that I have attended the most, and to which I feel most allegiance, is Wiscon —— statedly feminist, and in practice egalitarian in attitude toward those who exhibit their own egalitarian spirit.

Many social problems of the sexist and racist sorts, I suspect, would begin disappearing if we would simply do this: erase "science fiction" from a convention's name and pencil in "speculative fiction." In doing so we would be harkening back to the split between the marketing category and the literary category, which I speak about in Kornbluth. Likely only a few science fiction conventions could make this shift, however. The one that I think could do it almost without effort is Wiscon. The serious, thoughtful fiction discussed in its panels and encouraged by its system of rewards and awards would fit more naturally beneath the literary banner than under the marketing one. If Judy Merril when she was guest of honor had revived her old campaign and had urged that the convention adopt the literary term "speculative fiction" and had tapped into the same energy and spunk with which Karen Fowler and Pat Murphy announced the Tiptree Award years ago, what might then have unfolded?

The great acceptance speculative poetry has enjoyed —— as a term, as a focus for panels —— at recent Wiscons offers evidence for a group mindset that might accept the change. The energy at this Wiscon 37 in this direction surprised me. Friday evening featured a lively panel, "Women's Speculative Poetry Now," with Lesley Wheeler, Amal El-Mohtar, Shira Lipkin and Sophia Samatar. The next afternoon brought "Open Secrets: A Speculative Poetry Reading," featuring "members of the Secret Poetry Cabal (a speculative poetry group)" —— a likewise lively affair with multiple poets and a large, appreciative audience. The last reading I attended at Wiscon, moreover, included Wheeler reading from her new Aqueduct Press book whose title poem (to bring matters back around to my original subject) deals with sexual harassment. (Timmi Duchamp of Aqueduct bemoans the fact that she took no notes during Friday's panel. I went prepared to do so, though —— and hope to describe that event in greater detail. Wheeler's book I came home with, and hope to dip into further.)

In the meantime, try the sound of this: "Wiscon: World's Leading Feminist Speculative Fiction Convention." Would such a name lose any attendees? Would it gain any? Would it further deter the "science fiction" sorts Aguirre encountered?

For me, I may hold out for a Speculative Writers organization to join, someday, and forget about that senile-fogey "Science Fiction" group. Blish and Knight should have known better, way back when —— no? And I should have stuck to my youthful guns, too, and persisted against the marketing tide and clutched "speculative fiction" even closer to my heart than I did.

(The subtitle of my Kornbluth biography, which was suggested by McFarland, by the way, remains fine: for "science fiction" remains the accurate term for the period 1939-58.)

Cheers ...

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Farewell to Jack Vance

I never knew him —— although after our one or two phone conversations I began to feel as though I did, at least a little: and at this moment I can hear his voice in my ear, genial and gentle and unassuming. As has happened for me with other souls who identify themselves as political conservatives we made our links to one another via the arts —— plural —— one being science fiction, another being music. Or maybe I should say we made a link to one another through memory: his memory, personal and direct; mine, impersonal and research-based and indirect. We cared enough about the same things that our exchanges came easily.

On January 6, 2009, Jack told me, "I'm blind. My eyes went out fifteen years ago. I've acclimated myself to the situation. It seems almost normal." His contact with literary culture continued —— for he had a "reader" —— I assume an automatic device: "I've got a reader that reads cassettes to me from the Library of Congress." At the time, poetry occupied a fair share of his time, for in his queue he had the Oxford Book of English Verse and Oxford Book of Children's Verse. Should my eyes dim while my ears remain a-quiver, I could ask for no better companions for quiet afternoon or evening hours.

I doubt he could have done in prose what he did, without the influence of traditional poetry.

At the time of our conversation I jotted down those titles without too much thought.

Where does Vance stand in science fiction? I wish I knew better. He was doing a great deal of writing and publishing in years when I read relatively little in the genre. His earlier books, insofar as I know them, include distinctive, idiosyncratic and complex works that I have enjoyed and respected and look forward to revisiting. What emerges most powerfully from them, in memory, is the Vanceian color —- the strangeness, the posed artificiality that inhabits and infects his characters and situations, tingeing them with an impalpable edginess that threatens to blur into discomfort but often leaves an aftertaste of pleasure.

Cheers ...

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dejah Thoris and Others

In recent years I have hoped some feminist student of science fiction would discover a fruitful area of study being opened within my Kornbluth biography's pages, and take off running. That not having occurred——to my knowledge——I have taken matters into my own hands. I will be taking a feminist revisionary look at Kornbluth in a talk this weekend at Wiscon, the feminist science fiction gathering in Madison.

Interestingly, one of the guests of honor, Jo Walton, wrote recently about The Space Merchants in a manner that indicates she remains unaware of the arguments in my book.

Ignorance of my book bothers me not at all. The failure of its information and ideas to penetrate the science fiction field, however, does.

I believe anyone who becomes familiar with the facts will come to regard The Space Merchants as an embarrassment. It reduces women to nothings, and distorts readers' understandings of Kornbluth's own egalitarian approach to his life and his work.

... And why do I call this entry "Dejah Thoris and Others"—–? I will also read at Wiscon a story upcoming in an Aqueduct Press anthology ... a story that reveals what Burroughs never said about his Princess of Mars.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Glimpses of a Fruitless Future

Even though spring wines have worked out for us more often than some late-season wines, I may forgo them this year——being busy with writing, with antiquing——and with fretting over the step I want to take with the spring dandelion blossoms and rhubarb stalks. I want to use them in wines sweetened only with grapes, either by the traditional method of using raisins or the contemporary method of buying the must——pairing dandelion with white grapes, and rhubarb with white or red.

I may yet talk myself into starting anew along this line of experimenting——yet still must face the questions: can I afford to take the time this year, when I am trying to make good on some greatly overdue project deadlines; and can I afford organic must——especially during spring auction season?

Yesterday morning, not too early but early enough that the air was cool and lacked the humidity it would take on later in the day, Martha and I were standing by our young Cortland apple, admiring its blooms——and seeing not a single ground bee at the blossoms. The sun shined; the night had been cool, not cold. Even the sand cherry, with its abundant smaller white blooms, attracted no notice except our own.

I feel it is one thing for agribusiness, monocropping and factory farming to take away our honey bees, and quite another for it to take away native bees. The first act represents an assault against civilization and tradition: for apiculture and Western culture have come down to us over the centuries and perhaps millennia hand-in-hand. The second represents an assault against the native North American ecosystem, which has been struggling against pressures created by the human communal lifestyle for fifteen thousand years or more but especially since the 18th century.

The vineyard where I worked for a time is as much a suspect in the local area's bee problems as are the much larger corn and soybean monocroppers.

The owner of that vineyard rarely praised an organic grower. I recall him doing so just once, one morning when he spoke admiringly of an organic corn field. What pleased him, in other words, was this farm's example of factory-style monocropping, which it practiced even if certified for its adherence to organic-farming methods.

On the other hand, the owner of that vineyard seized any opportunity that arose to ridicule or criticize organic growers, especially small ones——always, of course, in his affable, nicest-guy-around manner.

Monsanto herbicide made up part of the vineyard's arsenal. I could have examined the containers for the fungicides and pesticides being used, but never did, closely——not that I would have recognized the neonicotinoids on the ingredients lists.

The vineyard owner used other toxins and poisons in the vineyard, too. One day when our Scottiedog was there with Martha and I, Lorna began throwing up, repeatedly——an incident that may have helped cause or hasten the digestive-system problem that killed her before we had finished our time with the vineyard.

Neonicotinoids rank high among suspects in the collapse of bee populations——a problem that made itself more severely felt this last winter than in previous ones. Yesterday, in doing some reading on the issue, I learned that wine grapes number among the crops that typically, in agrifactory anti-culture practice, receive neonicotinoids.

I will drink the wine that I have remaining from the vineyard, which I made. One case of it, in fact, I made from organically raised grapes from a different farm. From this time forward, however, I will be feeling qualms about wine grapes lacking organic certification. I have known since the 1980s that table grapes are one food above all to eat only if grown organically: but the attractions of wine and wine-making made this knowledge about vineyard practices recede from my thoughts, for quite a while.

Later yesterday I went into the backyard again and did see native bees, although not in a profusion——and I even saw a probable honey bee. After our morning visit to the garden, which had scared us with its lack of bee action, at this warmer hour I felt a bit reassured——although not inclined to alter the thoughts that had growing in my mind during the morning.

Just now in the front yard I looked at the blooms on our youngest apple, a Wealthy. Sunshine, breeze, sixty-nine degrees, eleven a.m. Nary an insect about. Around the tree, in the lawn: beautiful bright dandelion blooms, perfect for picking.

And beeless.

Cheers ...

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Notes, Ravenna Press

I have read a handful of books from Ravenna Press, lately——a good-sized handful, even though they are small books, physically ... perhaps even a great handful: for individually they seem large enough: each seems a full entity. A book of a size or a set of dimensions that makes it loom before you ... like a weighty hardwood chair, inviting your sitting, successfully, so that you end up occupying it for a time, even as its presence occupies you: books of this sort ... real entities. I have walked into stores and have seen the new books being pushed over and falling off their stands from the pressure of the eye's touch on their covers and spines, however fat those spines. These books of Ravenna's might seem to turn and lean before the gaze, at first. I suspect that even in a store mall-squared and plasticoated these volumes would stand firm, being slenderly empty of the synthetic mental gas-globules that make all those fat cartons of literary styrofoam shift so easily on and off their shelves. I say this but perhaps should not say it of all of them: for I have read fat books that are much more full of sense than they are empty. Yet I still can feel glad to hold in hand small books that breezes will not bear away.

Are these little volumes detached from our Mass Age, then? I think they are well attached. Pertinent, maybe I should say. Poet and editor and publisher Kathryn Rantala in her own writing makes it clear she moves in a world that has been commercialized, that has been striped with black roads and boxed in with buyable goods. Yet the reader finds it hard to say whether the gaze actually sits on material manifestations of our nearly ruined social spirit, or on the spaces between the objects held up for examination by her words. She displays deep concern with the beauty to be found through arrangement: and in any arrangement the whole takes on some quality missing from whatever small items within it first catch the eye. She also follows an instinct——exploratory, historical, knowledge-dowsed: I can use such words, to point toward where the instinct hides and abides. She follows this instinct, or inoculates the reader with it so that its movement then guides the reader around or underneath whatever meanings the words offer.

Even through the pages most dense with words I feel a movement of air——even as the words themselves stand firm.

Cheers ...

Thursday, May 9, 2013

In Short

I have been given to longer postings here, lately ... due to having longer thoughts? I will think shorter ones, then——be short with you, in other words. Shortly. That is to say my head, normally visible above the table, will shrink from sight. "Ah, his lessened stature," you will say. "Long ago he was not longing to be short. He would not be long, not for the world——and is not long for the world." Should I dress in shorts, or in briefs? My utterances will achieve purity when they disappear from my lips before you hear them.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

An SFRA Review of Kornbluth

I have only now stumbled upon a review of C.M. Kornbluth that appeared in the Summer 2012 SFRA Review, No. 301, written by Patrick Casey. This and another academic review by Joe Sanders both spend quite a bit of space objecting to my depiction of Frederik Pohl——perhaps understandably, since Pohl and academia have what seems a friendly relationship. These objections seem more important for these reviewers to discuss, in their brief comments, than the many other aspects and narrative strands that make up my book, to the point that I do find myself wondering how carefully they read what I wrote——a thirty-four chapter, 240,000-word study, with 439 pages to the end of the index.

As my first major effort at writing cultural criticism, my book does have flaws, inevitably. The book is, however, so unlike other works focusing upon science fiction that I imagine some reviewers might find that it lies too far outside their own academic specialties to fully appreciate: for cultural criticism is the blending, as Barzun noted, of history, biography and criticism.

Is Casey being a bit condescending in his opening? "Picture if you can the caricature of the science fiction fan. Not the science fiction reader browsing the science fiction aisle, but the “fan”: the person as passionate about the writers’ lives as he or she is about the works themselves. If you can picture that caricature’s tone in a debate about his favorite author, you’ll have a good idea of what makes Mark Rich’s biography of Cyril Kornbluth ... so frustrating. ... Rich writes as a true fan." If Bob Madle said these words of me, I would regard it as a compliment: for Madle was, indeed, a fan, and remains one; and he possesses a memory for names and facts, and a desire for precision, that any of us might envy. Casey, it strikes me, means something less than complimentary, however. So be it. If he means to demean someone like Madle, then I feel honored to be likewise looked down upon. I hope never to be regarded as a science-fiction academic myself if it means I must then condescend to the fan.

A few notes about minor points——such as this line: "Rich's apparent dislike of Pohl constantly threatens to undermine what could have been a wonderful biography of one of the Golden Age's greatest talents." Either it "threatens to undermine a wonderful biography" or it "undermines what could have been a wonderful biography"——one or the other. Interestingly, the review misspells Pohl's first name two different ways.

Casey did like a few pages of the book: the ones about Mars Child. (Thank you, Judy!) His last paragraph begins, "In the end, too much of the story remains untold and Rich, despite his enthusiasm and years of research, doesn't reveal enough to satisfy those looking for an understanding of the man and his works." Casey apparently missed my note on the third page of text, about C.M. Kornbluth opening up new avenues for research. As I have said before, the book establishes a documented basis for additional work, presumably by others. I was, in fact, astonished that I ended up being able to tell as much of the story as I did. When I began writing it, as far as I knew, and as far as anyone would tell me, the documentation I needed simply did not exist.

Casey seems unastonished by this accomplishment, in addition to being unsatisfied. I will indulge myself, though, by remaining astonished at how the book did finally come together.

And I do think the literary biographer should be as passionately engaged with the life as with the works themselves. Do we place months and years of our lives on alters that means nothing to us?

I pity the unpassionate.

Cheers ...

Monday, May 6, 2013

Judith Merril: Web Observations

Yesterday I grew curious about what biographical accounts of Judith Merril might have surfaced on the Internet. When I looked I found the usual plenitude of sources. While some accurate accounts exist out there——for instance Rob Sawyer's personal recollections——after a time I gave up the search for general ones.

People feel remarkably at ease trotting out for public view their insufficient knowledge of any subject. Does instant transmission mean that all such entries are to be viewed as ephemeral, so that today's posting has no special importance? That might explain the attitude. Tomorrow's error will take the place of today's, after all: how could that not solve everything? I suppose all who post to live by the hope that someone else will tidy up the confusion left by a billion Johnnies-on-the-spot. Whatever careful work has been done by those who have built up the Web, what we seem to see most of, and first, are parroting finger-peckings and cut-and-paste posturings——the expressions of people or their virtual equivalents who might like to appear in command in an infodense realm but who too often wear the infodunce cap. These key-tappers take pleasure, it seems, in perpetuating the easily available errors of those who came before them whose preference, too, is to take to a worldwide stage when factually stumbling.

It surprised me to find a quite recent piece in Kirkus Reviews written by Andrew Liptak, whose name is new to me. The posting, despite the venue, makes its share of mistakes, unfortunately; and these and the surrounding expressions of misunderstanding have appeared not only here at Kirkus but also, apparently, at the "75 Years of Science Fiction" conference at University of Vermont on April 27, to judge from this sentence from Liptak's first paraqraph, in which he promotes his impending appearance there: "The paper will be on the evolutionary roots of the genre, and draws heavily upon this column!" The phrase "evolutionary roots" seems less than happy, to me; and the notion of a paper about "roots of the genre" offering Merril as an example seems to reflect a misunderstanding of the genre's early development and maturation, which occurred before Merril became involved. Liptak's use of the phrase "The Golden Age of Science Fiction," immediately afterwards, may reflect a similar misunderstanding, insofar as the "Golden Age," for most observers, antedated Merril's major contributions.

Much of the information Liptak mentions seems drawn from the Merril memoir Better To Have Loved. His ordering of events strikes some off notes, perhaps the result of reading source materials not quite carefully enough. The errors in names reflect particularly poorly on scholarship, proofreading, or both. I puzzled over who "John Michael" was, for a moment; but I felt startled to find the column getting wrong not only the publication date but also the title for Merril's first novel. It also gets wrong the title of the first Cyril Judd serial. Fuzzy thinking and lazy writing flow on to the end.

No doubt Liptak's well-meant posting will become a source for future ones by others. Quite likely it will inspire "corrections" to existing infodense accounts, and provide fodder for all those infodunces——most of them probably virtual——who wait in the wings.

Liptak's list of sources led me to the New York Times obituary by Gerald Jonas, which is quite short but not error-free. Jonas makes a rather large misstatement——"During and just after World War II, Ms. Merril was the only woman associated with ... the Futurians." His listing of prominent Futurians may mislead readers, moreover, since of the four mentioned only James Blish was a member when Merril was. Jonas also perpetuates an error about her birth name.

I know Jonas is, and feel confident Liptak must be, capable of excellent work. Overwork and hurry may well account for much, here. Even Judy had trouble keeping her story utterly factual——as she forthrightly admitted.

Monday, April 1, 2013

On Being Re-Enabled

My younger sister Barbara was among the stalwart few who visited this blog back when I, too, did so. How nice it is, then, to mark her birthday (she is trying to catch up in years to me, but since I am the tortoise in this race she keeps losing) today by revisiting these old haunts of mine.

My sporadic appearances here reflected computer problems, in part. This venue and many others have become territory partially hidden and inaccessible to old systems -- such as an old iMac a dozen years old or so. Given that, and that the computer was also hiding and scrambling some of my simplest TextEdit documents, my possibilities for adding to the miasma of global-energy-sucking blog postings proved a bit narrowed. While Martha's computer was working well, how often could I keep borrowing it?

The built-in obsolescence that so disturbed Kornbluth in looking at his 1950s world remains an unpleasant aspect in ours: for Web complexities move regularly beyond the capabilities of old machines to cope; and the relentless march of technical "improvements," even more firmly than in the 1950s, locks us into dependent relationships with industrial corporations.

Many, perhaps most, seem to accept this without much complaint. They like having new things, after all.

I love old things, by and large, and hate the habit of waste we condone in this society, which seems tied to our usual acceptance of the artificial, the simulated, the ersatz, and the commodified. View the contents of most shopping carts at the grocery store, if you doubt this.

As a writer I feel rather content with the pencil with which I write these words -- and quite fond of the manual typewriter that I have used today in some writing, too. Yet for several recent years I have been unbusinesslike as a writer thanks to a series of computer-related setbacks that added up to a stalled career. I remained a writer in my world, yet appeared to be a non-writer to the outside world because of my difficulties with my interface with that world.

I purposely use so unattractive a noun -- "interface" -- for it captures the difficulty of this situation. I enjoy being enabled, technically, with regard to the outside world. That I have little choice about accepting this enablement, however, disturbs me. The Internet continues its growth and its consumption of global resources that our earth can ill afford to waste. In being required by my work to deploy the same interface as everyone else, I am being required to help perpetuate and worsen the waste.

I am forced moreover to buy into impermanency. These pencil markings of mine have a potential existence that is so immense it makes the potential existence of whatever electronic version I make of them appear that of a gnat. Having lost such an incredible amount of manuscript-editing and manuscript-preparation work in the last three years has made the gnat-aspect clearer to me than ever. It has become another of the semantic twistings of technological society that the act denoted by the word "saving" can be, in terms of "documents," actually the act of alteration, destruction or obliteration.

As I say, I enjoy the benefits of being enabled, of being more "connected" -- more disconnected, in other words, from the quiet satisfactions of my isolated pencil and typewriter. I am accepting, as I wish more people would realize they are accepting, that I am "having the good of it," in the phrase of Phil Klass. As Phil saw, it remains for us to take the "moral stance" even while being culpable for taking the material good of a less than ideal situation.

... and all this may seem an odd way of saying hello to you, the reader -- whoever you are. Yet that is what I am doing. So:

Hello. Or, to some of you: happy birthday.

Cheers ...

Friday, February 8, 2013

For Verne's Birthday

"Complaining doesn't have to do any good -- it's enough all by itself."

Did Jules Verne see to the heart of the American soul? He himself made no such assertion but had his plucky American character Ned Land say it.

In observing Jules Verne's birthday today I thought I would celebrate the statement, and try to live up to its spirit.

I read his novel Lighthouse at the End of the World earlier this week -- and enjoyed it. The dialogue sounded stilted and less naturally Vernesque than I thought it should, which made me think the translator might have little experience in writing fiction ... and made me wonder if perhaps he took out too many exclamation marks.

"What! Too few exclamation marks in a Verne novel!" you say.

My reaction exactly.

Something I thought completely and strangely awkward, however, I saw in the translator's introduction. On the first page, in all-capitals, the word "PLOT" appeared before me. The introduction begins thusly: "Lighthouse at the End of the World (1905) by Jules Verne (1828-1905) is not well known in the English-speaking world ... Before studying its composition, characters, and themes, it is useful to summarize the plot ... "

Can this translator have any sympathy for Verne at all? Or for Verne's readers? What provoked him to summarize the story at a point when the reader has barely opened the book? I had no choice but to skip the introduction as a whole and go on to the story. Later I went back to read the translator's words -- and promptly found a use for those missing exclamation marks: for I needed something to pencil into the margins. In this "plot" the translator seemed to be making things up. I can repeat the statement that most surprised me, since it is not quite a "spoiler," being at best a misleading statement of actions: "The pirates draw in an American ship, killing all on board except First Officer Davis." Does this sentence not suggest to you that the pirates killed a ship's worth of American sailors? Yet such an incident failed to appear in the novel I read. (Were the editors at University of Nebraska Press asleep already, on page two of text?)

The translator then ends his "plot" with this: "The climax involves much drama and bloodshed." I believe this puts things a little strongly. His exaggeration cheapens his subject, unfortunately -- for this reader. I believe other intractable Verneians might feel similar disgruntlement.

I think the problem here may have arisen because the translator feels on secure ground, as translator, without feeling quite on the same ground as a writer. (His footnotes, I should add, seems to reflect a genuine scholarly impulse.)

I rather like this novel and hope to do more thinking on it someday. In the meantime since it does have a symbolic dimension it comes in for a small reference in my current book, which I will here just call Wonder Tales.

Before diving into the book, when reading the back-cover matter, I took pleased notice that William Butcher published something called Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography. While the "definitive" claim seems foredoomed to inaccuracy and gives off an unpleasant scent of self-importance, I have been wanting to catch up on more of the Verne materials that have cropped up, here and there, in the last few decades. After seeing what Butcher does, however, in foisting a "plot" of Lighthouse onto readers before Verne himself has a chance to squeeze in edgewise one of his own exclamation marks, I feel a bit more inclined to look for non-definitive books.

The first "review" of my own C.M. Kornbluth, as it happens, said in effect that I had probably written the definitive life of Kornbluth. In everything he said about the book this reviewer showed he had failed to read it before making his knowing pronouncements -- an accidental oversight on his part, no doubt (the book is immense, after all, compared to his paragraph of comment); and after saying his bit on the subject the reviewer laid this deep-sea whopper on my platter, fished from who-knows-what depths of ignorance. Had I planned to write the definitive biography I would never have begun the book in 2008. In C.M. Kornbluth I undertook to re-introduce Cyril to the reading world and to inspire others to pursue studies of his life and works. To this day I offer the book as an invitation, an exploration, and an introduction -- albeit an introduction with well-documented detail and some, I hope, critical vigor. Do I offer or did I ever offer C.M. Kornbluth as the last word? You may answer that yourself.

The "reviews" written without knowledge of the book being reviewed do considerable damage, even when not appended to a sales site at that thrice-be-damned cultural imposter named Amazon. I rather wish this particular reviewer would take back his statements about C.M. Kornbluth, even though all of them are favorable -- but wish especially that he would take back the one suggesting my book might be definitive.

It does me no good to wish this, of course.

And this quite satisfies me, since I have resolved to take Ned Land's words to heart.