Thoughts . . . by Mark Rich

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

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.