Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Descriptions of Autumn: Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson

Before autumn abandons us completely, if it hasn’t done so already, I want to share a few favorite and long-cherished passages describing it—in this “blog for all seasons”—and invite others to submit favorite readings of their own, whether recent or from the past.  To save time and space, I’ll include just two writers, Ray Bradbury and Poul Anderson, both in science fiction (and the ties between SF and autumn could make a separate blog of its own). 
One aspect of fall is the mood of change, the transience that makes for an invigorating, and yet subdued, dynamic feel:  the freshness of the new colors, the time speeded up and each day bringing something different.  After summer’s doldrums and humid haze, the sky clears, the winds grow brisk, and the low sun paints late-afternoon golds.  Each tree asserts its uniqueness with its own color and stands out from the forest crowd.  The time is vivid, painted, festive, with its longer twilights and nights orange-lit with decorations.  But the fat pumpkins are deteriorating, the leaves drying and crackling away, the harvests over-ripening, and the strong colors quickly withdrawing. 
Ray Bradbury in the short story “The Emissary” (from The October Country) describes a boy who is sick and confined to his bed, but who gets information about the outside world and season through his dog: 

            Martin knew it was autumn again, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees.  In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.  Dog jumped.  Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted.  No doubt, no doubt of it at all, this incredible beast was October.  (104)
Note the emphasis on change:  apples turned to cider, “farewell-summer,” a “departed” robin, the ferns “brittle,” and the image of burning in “leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees.” 
A similar passage that again stresses exuberance, color, and change, is taken from Poul Anderson’s early SF novel, Brain Wave: 

            Autumn again, and winter in the air.  The fallen leaves lay in heaps under the bare dark trees and hissed and rattled across the ground with every wind.  Only a few splashes of color remained in the woods, yellow or bronze or scarlet against grayness. 
           Overhead the wild geese passed in great flocks, southward bound.  There was more life in the sky this year—fewer hunters, Brock supposed.  The remote honking drifted down to him, full of wandering and loneliness.  It was a clear pale blue up there, the sun wheeled bright and heatless, spilling its coruscant light across a broad and empty land.  The wind was strong, flowing around his cheeks and flapping his clothes, the trees were noisy with it.  (113-114)

Here too are details of transience:  winter soon to come, only few splashes of color remaining, the wild geese migrating and their sound filled with “wandering and loneliness.”  Anderson’s novel covers several years and uses the descriptions of the seasons to indicate time changes.  Also, the subject-matter of the book is change itself:  the Earth moves out of a large inhibiting field in space and thus the intelligence of every person on Earth increases, forcing humanity to cope with the change.  (This sense of transformation is one of the ties between SF and autumn—SF assumes historical, sociological, and technological change, while autumn is the naturally recurring state of change.)
Another aspect of autumn is “mystery,” its slight and playful and yet always latent sense of horror, mostly childish but sometimes not.  Halloween, ghosts, headless horsemen, scarecrows, hounds, flaking labyrinth cornfields at night, barren tree limbs exposing full moons or needle-sharp stars.  Ray Bradbury in his “Pillar of Fire” catches this edginess in contrasting the season’s stillness with its fiery-consumption when a zombie “resurrects” and longs to feel his environment again:

The smells of the world were all about him.  Frustratedly, he tried to smell the smells of autumn.   Autumn was burning the land down into ruin.  All across the country the ruins of summer lay; vast forests bloomed with flame, tumbled down timber on empty, unleafed timber.  The smoke of the burning was rich, blue, and invisible.   (141)
Instead of quaint or pretty images we get “ruins,” forests that “bloomed with fire” and “tumbled down,“ the smoke of this burning strangely “invisible” or only blue sky.
And then, used as the introduction to a seminal fall work, Bradbury writes:

OCTOBER COUNTRY . . . that country where it is always turning late in the year.  That country where the hills are fog and the rivers are mist; where noons go quickly, dusks and twilights linger, and midnights stay.  That country composed in the main of cellars, sub-cellars, coal-bins, closets, attics, and pantries faced away from the sun.  That country whose people are autumn people, thinking only autumn thoughts.  Whose people passing at night on the empty walks sound like rain. . . . 

All the images are of mystery, insubstantiality, vague boundaries, darknesses, and people penetrated by or composed of autumn itself.  The season here is not a backdrop but a determinant, a powerful force that doesn’t just represent change but can reach out and change you. 
Other aspects of autumn can be seen (like location—it’s mostly a northeast American experience), as well as more ties to science fiction (like other planets made to be like “autumn” planets—see Poul Anderson’s “The Mills of the Gods” in his Orbit Unlimited, maybe a subject for a future blog), but I want to invite people to send me their own favorite passages of autumn.  Plenty are out there, so help me gather more—before the season disappears for yet another year.  

The works quoted were read long ago but they still impress:

Anderson, Poul.  Brain Wave.  1954.  Anthony Boucher, ed.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.    
        Vol. 2.  New York:  Doubleday, 1959.  7-119.
________________.  Orbit Unlimited.  New York:  Pyramid, 1961.
Bradbury, Ray.  “Pillar of Fire.”  1948.  Anthony Boucher, ed.  A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.  
        Vol. 1.  New York:  Doubleday, 1959.  141-169.
Bradbury, Ray.  "The Emissary."  The October Country.  New York:  Ballantine, 1956.  104-111.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Autumn Landscapes, Poetry, the Romantics

Every year at this time I feel the need to “capture” autumn—in words, in photographs, in the reading of autumn stories. 
It’s no easy task.  The mood of autumn is—by definition—transitional, brief, fleeting, yet intimate.   And, though I love the clear skies and soft low sun that awakes the fires latent in the leaves, even more I’m attracted to “secret” autumn, the season touched by rain or twilight, wet leaves clogging the paths, houses hidden in descending darkness with jack-o-lanterns and pumpkin-lights lonely and desolate when they’re meant to be festive.  Autumn landscapes are thus ambiguous.  They tune up in order to tone down.  They show vivid colors of life in withdrawal, sensations in retreat, like a fading watercolor on darkening parchment—nostalgic, furtive, mysterious, cloud-wrapped. 

Once, while teaching a course in Western Cultural Traditions, I used European history to find fitting metaphors for a poem about autumn:

Spring’s Elizabethan, summer is Greek, 
Winter’s a Medieval Romanesque.    
But autumn?  Darkly Romantic is fall.   

And the poem went on to make comparisons between the season and the age:

Gothic cathedrals, tumbled in ruin,
Seem perfect for autumn’s brief tinted shades.
Leaves wheel down like angels in exile
From stark-blue heaven to yellow-red earth:
Gilt dreams, ripped skins, drops of blood, tears,
Scarred little Satans in flames of descent.

Paradise Lost obviously got in there too, but it’s appropriate since the Romantics (well, Blake at least) often felt that Satan was the real hero of that poem. 

The season’s gray mists and cool colored steam,
Under bare limbs and bleak Lovecraftian stars
 (Stars threaten and stare only in autumn;
In winter, they’re candles—in summer, lamps),
Make settings wearied of life’s high demands.

I felt compelled to bring in Lovecraft, though I could have pointed to Bradbury’s many Halloween stories too.   And I really believe that the stars in autumn pack a greater punch.  “The Colour Out of Space” didn’t take place in fall but everything else about that story fits.  

In general, the many landscapes of fall are those

That weep, that shed, strip their colors and die,
Burned-up, burnt out, in landfalls of decay.
Crepe-paper droppings, faded wrappers . . . leaves. 

Oh, those brooding Romantics would have loved it, as they looked at trees but saw deteroriated church-like halls where shards of stained glass, like decadent gems, flung their testaments to departed life in a macabre excess of colored debris, falling rose-windows, careening galaxies.  They’d be sullen, solitary, yet ecstatic at what they saw,
That in slow-tinted autumn comes
The fall.  

(The two photographs were taken on a glorious day in Erie National Wildlife Refuge last fall, where the light, the clouds, and the colors were perfect.)  

Friday, October 11, 2013

Images in Stone - Photography, Animated Landscapes

            Common in the old “funny animal” comic-books was a page where a drawing of a landscape, with much line work, had objects hidden in it that the viewer was asked to find.  “Help Grandma Duck Find Her Farm Tools,”  “Save Mickey from the Hidden Animals in the Woods.”  And you’d have to search the trees, bushes, houses and barns to discover the hidden objects whose outlines were obscured in the intricate drawing. 
            Father Guido Sarducci of Saturday Night Live (the comedian Don Novello) made a joke of this activity when he held up a large picture of a pizza and challenged the viewers to “Find the Popes in the pizza!”  Of course, it was just a pizza with nothing hidden (at least I never saw anything) which made the task even funnier.  (If real it might have become an ad line as good as “Where’s the beef?”) 
            All this brings us to pictures of big rocks.  I like to take such photos for the color, the texture, and sometimes even the ghostly images that seem to lurk in them.  Interestingly, I usually don’t notice such images until after the photograph is taken and seen in 2-D, and often when changed from color to black and white.  I don’t look for them while photographing, but there on the computer screen suddenly—good gosh, would you look at that? 
            These images are of boulders, cliffs, crevasses, erosion, but when the imagination gets a hold of them and plays with how they appear, then who knows what might be observed in the creative interaction between our minds and all that dead material “out there.”  We impose on what we see, or, as Wordsworth said in Tintern Abbey, “half create” what we perceive.
            Add good-humored titles and you’ll see what I mean. 
            These rocks look like stuffed sagging faces:

“My hat is crooked.”  “My chin droops.”

            The next picture was taken because the rock seemed somehow appealing, the composition balanced, appropriate for an unidentified “gut” feeling.  But after changing it to B&W, the title jumped out immediately.

“Let the Sleeping Dog Lie.”

            And this hard rock cliff suggests the soft and cuddly: 

“Kitten in Stone”

            Too bad no grass blades grew there for whiskers. 
            And the following was interpreted in one quick word. 


            I also used “Teeth” for sharp stones in tundra, “Emaciated Fingers” for narrow mounds between ruts in badlands, and “The Beartooth” for a crag that really does have that name.
And finally, my favorite:

                                                 “Rain Makes Me Scowl”

            Such a grumpy old sourpuss deserves that dribble irritating his face. 
            We half create what we see.  We impose interpretations.  Our minds and our memories drown our surroundings, sometimes preventing any chance for objectivity.  Now that we “see” those clownish doughboys, that dog, that kitten, those feet, that squeezed cranky petulant frown, it’s hard to notice anything else.  The landscapes are changed without our even asking, and we can’t get back to a bare slate. 
            Do we really see, or are we lost in a funhouse of reflections and projections? 
            Oh, by the way, if you come across any Popes in pizzas out there, or even in rock formations, do let me know. 
(The first two photos were taken in Arches National Park, UT; the third and last in Old Man’s Cave State Park, OH; and the fourth at a rest stop off Interstate 70 on the San Rafael Reef, UT.)

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Popular "Versus" Literary Fiction

A recent article in the New York Times described a study showing that people who read literary fiction score better than readers of non-fiction or popular fiction on tests measuring “empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.”  These skills are used in reading body language, decoding what other people might be thinking, predicting another person’s needs, and becoming “sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.”  The study thus suggests that reading literary fiction can help you achieve more social skills.  (“For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekov,” )

I was briefly interviewed for this article—being the Director of a program for Writing Popular Fiction—possibly to see if I would disagree with it.  But instead I gave it my full support, saying it’s no surprise at all that reading literature is valuable in learning how and why people behave.  Such fiction places readers into the minds of other people and allows them to see different worlds through different eyes, and the complexity and depth of its characters and the dialectical interaction with them can help readers gain empathy for people they don’t know and don’t understand. 

What I didn’t get to argue is that the study takes nothing away from the worth of popular fiction, which in its own right is just as valuable and necessary as literary fiction.  The article suggests (to explain its findings) that popular fiction deals more with plot than character, that its readers are passive and do not need to engage as much in deciphering character behavior, and that even in a single work of literature we get a broader spectrum of points-of-view that require participation and active deciphering from the reader. 

These comments are accurate, and I fully endorse the worth of literary fiction.  But popular fiction is not so much inferior as simply different.  You need other scales to evaluate it, and the spread from bad popular fiction (riddled with clichés and stereotypes) to works near literary in style and subject matter but that still fall within “popular,” is as broad as the span of “bad” to “good” in literary fiction.  The reader of popular fiction might be more passive, but the reader chooses how much to be passive in deciding which type of novel to read.  And there’s more direct interaction (through fandom, writing conventions, and social media) between the reader and the writer, which encourages a dialectic of its own. 

In many ways, the appeal of popular fiction can be more direct, more emotional, more immediate, and more personal.  Popular fiction is genre fiction, categorized into generally recognizable types—romance, mystery, science fiction, horror, fantasy—though with much overlap and many sub-genres.  These groupings identify, for the benefit of the readers, what the work is usually about.  Readers choose from these categories to satisfy their particular need, whether for simple entertainment or an emotionally satisfying reaffirmation of personal beliefs.

As opposed to the elaborate, complex, and often open-ended ruminations of literary fiction, readers of popular fiction are usually in search of specific reassurances—the belief that the romance arc can bring two different and antagonistic people together to form a bond, the need for the police or a detective to solve a crime and re-establish the peace of a society threatened by extreme anti-social behavior, the yearning to see and understand parts of the universe (or parts of the future) we can’t yet reach, the assertion that one’s deep fears can be revealed and the manifestation of them ultimately faced, and the knowledge that our waking dreams and fantasies can be embodied in other fictional worlds similar to but different from ours. 

Instead of a questioning exploration into complex selves that can destabilize a reader’s expectations, popular fiction provides a reassurance for individual hopes and longings already defined in the reading culture.  These dreams are common and form distinct groups of readers, so they generally know exactly what they want—a sense of empowerment, justification, and self-assurance for their own wishes, whether those be for a “happy ending,” for outsmarting a murderer, for riding the roller-coaster of a contemporary thriller, or for seeing another world in time and space. 

Maybe that doesn’t lead to the specific social skills addressed in the study, even though genre readers create tight-knit groups of fans with much interaction between themselves and even the writer.  But popular fiction addresses needs that are common enough, and persistent enough, that many people often share them, and thus large enough for publishers to form identifiable markets for them.

There’s thus room for both types of fiction, one that asks questions and one that suggests answers, one that unsettles and one that affirms.

Finally, significantly, readers in the experiment in the study said they enjoyed reading the popular fiction more than the literary. 

That discovery too is no surprise.