Locus Online

notes on science, fiction, and points in between
2 Nov 1997

Don't Get Me Started
An "Ideas" piece in Saturday's New York Times discusses the new respectability of the idea of hysteria. Born of the 19th century, hysteria was abandoned as a formal psychological ailment in the 1970s -- and moved into the domains of literary critics and social scientists. Lately the term has been revived by Elaine Showalter, a humanities professor at Princeton University, in her book Hysteries. She defines the term as a persecutory belief acquired from popular culture -- talk shows, the news media, self-help books, and of course the internet -- by people who feel the need to blame personal despair on external sources -- a virus, sexual molestation, alien visitations, etc. Needless to say, her ideas are controversial.

Overrated Ideas
The same New York Times reports on the responses of six scholars who were asked what they thought was the Most Overrated Idea. Five answers are given: intelligence testing; repression; modernism; post-modernism; and eternal life.

Queen Latifah Recommends Octavia
In a recent issue of In Style magazine, recording artist Queen Latifah recommended Kindred by Warner Aspect author Octavia E. Butler. "It's fiction, and it would take me 20 minutes to tell you what it's about," Latifah says. "Read it before it's turned into a movie." (Noted by Warner Aspect.)

The Outer Limits
Newsweek for Nov. 3rd provides a good summary of the accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). It's a testament to HST's success that the article has to remind us that it was once best known as a flop -- before the 1993 shuttle repair mission that corrected a flaw in the original mirror. Now fully operational, some of its discoveries, according to the article, "reek of science fiction."

Among them: Protoplanetary discs in Orion suggest that most stars have planets, rather than the exception. Globular clusters haloing galaxies are not composed only of old stars, as once thought; rather new stars are being formed from the ashes of the old. Every galaxy seems to contain a black hole at the center. And galaxies interact, shaping each other, more than previously thought. "Our own Milky Way is now swallowing a dwarf galaxy called Sagittarius" the article remarks. The Hubble "Deep Field" image shows more galaxies that expected in the very early universe. NASA plans to launch dozens of future space telescopes, including the Next Generation Space Telescope in 2007.

The Human Subtleties
Critical reactions to John Updike's science fiction novel, Toward the End of Time, have been mixed, but most reviews acknowledge that the SF aspects are secondary to traditional Updike concerns. The book's power is in "its characteristically funny and flawed characters and its vivid account of the changing seasons in a small Massachusetts town," in the words of Locus's Gary K. Wolfe. Still, some of the mainstream reviewers' remarks about the SF aspects are revealing.

Paul Berman in Slate:

''Toward the End of Time'' might seem different from his other novels because of the sci-fi trappings, which do get rather fantastic. Updike's hero, Ben, a 66-year-old retired financial manager, is suddenly transposed across the ages to ancient Egypt, then to the time of Jesus, then to medieval Ireland. He begins an affair with a young call girl who on some other plane of existence may be a deer, and then a new affair with a girl so young as still to be a child. Strange astronomical weirdnesses roam across the post-nuclear sky. It's all very puzzling, and the urgent hope that Updike will explain these many mysteries keeps you faithfully turning the pages.

...It's not a great novel. Updike scatters too many leafy sci-fi fantasies across his pages and never does get around to raking them up again, which is disappointing. I don't entirely believe those sci-fi notions, anyway. The cast of characters is a little thin. But Updike, even in this book, is a great writer, the greatest we have, in his particular areas of strength -- in the control of visual details, in his rhythmic intensity, in the colors and shapes that come pouring syncopatedly from his mischievous pen. I fear that too many people will throw up their hands in exasperation at Updike's way of appealing for love by presenting his heroes as ever more odious or cantankerous, and too many other people will celebrate the book mostly for its secondary virtues--its astronomical wonders sailing through the futuristic sky, the human-chomping metal animals, a few political jokes. But there is a primary virtue to this book, subtler than its other traits, and this primary virtue is to be, ever so quietly, heartbreaking.

Margaret Atwood in the New York Times Book Review (12 Oct):

The almighty dollar has been replaced by a local scrip, economic refugees are now sneaking into Mexico instead of out of it, sci-fi creatures called metallobioforms roam loose in the shrubbery, devouring life like army ants, and the independent country of Texas is busily taking over adjacent states, but the book doesn't concern itself overmuch with such details...

Like many late-20th-century writers, Updike is fascinated with bodily goo, and by things that go yuck in the night. The verbal pleasure he takes in describing the exact nature and texture of Ben's searing and dribbly symptoms rivals Cormac McCarthy on exploding skulls or Patricia Cornwell on decaying corpses. As a commentator, Ben is nothing if not ruthless; but he's as ruthless with himself and his own body as he is with everyone else, and with everyone else's body. Alongside the ruthlessness he does manage, from time to time, a sort of wry tenderness. ''To be human,'' he says, ''is still to be humbled by the flesh, to suffer and to die.'' It's finally Ben's evenhandedness that confers on ''Toward the End of Time'' its eerie ambiance, its ultrarealism, its air of a little corner of hell as meticulously painted as a Dutch domestic interior. The light of his intelligence falls alike on everything: on flowers, animals, grandchildren, corpses, copulations; on ancient Egypt and plastic peanuts; on memory, disgust, dread, lust and spiritual rapture. The brilliant metaphors -- and they are almost always brilliant -- are applied, like Whitman's, to everything from the cosmic to the scatological. As a writer, Updike can do anything he wants, and what he's wanted this time is quintessence of mortality. As memento mori and its obverse, carpe diem, ''Toward the End of Time'' could scarcely be bettered.

Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 Oct):

We begin to realize that Updike's future comes with a considerable wink. His devastation is erratic, even frivolous. ... Updike has only a playful interest in future-games. What he has done is devise a kind of objective correlative for the growing sense of helplessness, disconnection and indignity that can assail old age. Turnbull's erratic world -- comfortably normal at times and at times wrecked and unrecognizable -- acts as a projection of the alternate failings and rallyings of mind and body as the human conditions weakens into its end.

Best Since
A reviewer in Salon (14 Oct), Rachel Pastan, reviews Philip Pullman's The Subtle Knife under the headline ''the best fantasy writer since Tolkien'':
Like many fantasy books, "The Subtle Knife" is about a cosmic battle between good and evil and the search for an object of power. "The Golden Compass" has a more original structure than this book does, but Pullman is a skillful writer who doesn't rely on stock elements to do his work for him, using them instead in creative and unexpected ways. Indeed the overarching moral and religious pattern, once revealed, is so shockingly subversive that I was amazed -- and intrigued -- to find it in a mainstream novel for children.
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© 1997 by Locus Publications. All rights reserved.