Escapism 2020/2021 pt1a: What I read

So as part of my new year’s ritual, let’s talk about some of the things I read in the last two years, beginning with The New Gods by Jack Kirby. I never got the thing with Kirby.

I knew of him, I’d read a couple of his comics, I knew the huge influence he’s been on Marvel in particular, superhero comics in general, now also movies, and lots of artists (even working in other genres). I also knew how he got fucked over by the publishers he worked on. But I never got the thing. Until now. Still not sure I can put it in words, but reading one of the comics he made after rage-quitting Marvel and getting the freedom to do whatever he wanted at DC was kind of an eye-opener. The storytelling was solid, if not amazing, at least from a this-was-made-in-the-early-70s perspective, and I suddenly saw some line work that reminded me of other artists who must have been inspired by him. There’s also a general feel to his drawings that I’ve been aware of but I can now appreciate much more.

A few years ago I started re-reading the Dune series. I’ve now gone through Children of Dune and God Emperor of Dune. I’m guessing a lot more people have been reading the first book now since the movie was such a success, but I hope they don’t stop after the first book. I remember thinking back when that it was with God Emperor of Dune that it got really interesting, and I tend to agree, still, 20-something years later. Not going to go into more details than that to avoid spoilers. But I also got it into my mind that I should try some other books by Frank Herbert, which I did:

Whipping Star is linguistic sci fi at its finest, in my mind. Second in Frank Herbert’s sabotage series of one short story and two novels (The Tactful Saboteur, Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment), written parallel to the first couple of Dune books in the 1960s and -70s. I see echoes of this one in many other works of mostly sci fi/speculative fiction, but I had never heard of it before I stumbled upon it now. I’m very glad I did, because this should be seen as much as a classic as Dune is. The Arrival (which I’ve only seen as a movie, not read the book) comes to mind as a comparatively dumbed-down exploration of some of the same concepts. Language, how different species might experience time differently, how we might approach understanding each other. Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Arrival (even though as a comics creator I can’t see whay they wouldn’t try to communicate with images), but Whipping Star is so much more of a mindfuck. In the good way. You need a bit of patience, because everything isn’t clear from the beginning (same goes for the short story, The Tactful Saboteur, which I found in Eye, a collection of short stories by Herbert). But the main characters understand even less, and it clears up during the course of the book.
The first main conversation lasts for about 50 pages, and if you like the way Herbert writes dialogue in Dune, for example, then you need this. It is such a treat!
The Dosadi Experiment, the third and final part, brings more alien culture clash, also handled interestingly.

Destination: Void is a story about the first steps in the journey of a generational spaceship. You know the kind where the journey takes longer than one lifespan, so the passengers need to either be frozen or prepared to let the trip last for several generations. I’ll be talking more about the genre in a future post about movies/TV, specifically Aniara, Human, Space, Time and Human and Avenue 5. Destination Void differs in that it’s about a planned trip, not an accidental one. It’s also written by Frank herbert, so expect some interesting concepts in the relations between the small crew and the ship’s brain-based computer. There are three more books in the series, so at some point I will go on with those.

More sci fi, but much much older: The Book of Enoch is an approximately 2300(?) year old sci fi/horror(?)/fantasy story. Some would call it mythological or religious and they wouldn’t be wrong considering it’s one of the background works of Judaism/Christianity/Islam and even canon in some branches, like Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity.
To me, it was more interesting to read it as really old sci fi, and it might even have been written that way originally. In any case, it is one (of many) example of the apocalyptic genre that was a thing mostly for a few centuries around 2000 years ago. There’s some cynical politics in there, a bitterness over all the evil the writer/s saw around them, and a hope that the wrong-doers will be punished in a utopian final judgment. An event where all sins will be forgiven, but there’s simultaneously no salvation for the sinners. I guess the absolution is only available for the good guys who might also have sinned, while the bad guys are eternally fucked. A mix of wishful thinking and commentary on the times it was written.
Part of the book is the story of when a bunch of angels (100 of them, 10 main leaders who are named) decided to go down to Earth to marry human women. And of how they were punished for it. The most well-known thing about this (as mentioned in passing in Genesis) is that they had children with the human women. Children who grew to be massive giants. What’s less known is that not only did they have angel/human hybrid kids, they also taught their wives about medicine and other things. And they taught the human men how to make weapons and armor and work with metal, and astronomy, astrology and so on. Their punishment was for all this, not only the procreation. Granted, the greatest sin was that they had defiled themselves by being with human women. But the writer probably also didn’t like war. Or science. Or medicine. Or giants. Or especially women. I’m not sure if this should be read as conservative/nostalgic or as a cathartic curse on contemporary mainstream society, with their wars and all those other things.
Parts of the book can be read almost as a Lovecraft story, with dream sequences and these cosmic beings procreating with humans and names like Azazel, Araqiel, Zerachiel, Chazaqiel…
Another interesting thought: If you see this as sci fi, you might see religions as fandoms, sacred texts as shared universes. Think of the Bible as if it was the Marvel comics universe. Different writers contributing to stories about different characters and events, some dealing with supernatural powers, all set in the same universe/timeline (while for example the Olympian pantheon is an adjacent fandom within the same genre). There have been in-group discussions about what’s canon and not, how the fandom should be organised, what themes are important in the stories, who counts as a true fan etc.
When I thought of it this way, it made a bit more sense as a historical/social phenomenon within human culture. That was part of what made me interested in the Book of Enoch to begin with. I wanted to see how it would feel to read such a text if I saw it as a really old sci fi book. I must say it does work quite well.

Speaking of HP Lovecraft, I finally managed to get all of Alan Moore‘s Providence, so I re-read The Courtyard and Neonomicon, since they are all part of the same story.

Alan Moore is easily one of the best and most interesting contributors to the mythos based on Lovecraft’s stories. Providence is at the moment quite hard to find (or it was, until the compendium edition was released recently) but well worth the effort. It was frustrating but kind of fitting since much of the story is about the main character trying to find a book. Each issue of the series, at least the first ten, is part comic, part entries from a notebook/journal written by the main character. It fucks up the reading rhythm a bit, but gives some extra insight into the character when you read his after-the-fact interpretations of what you’ve just read in the comic, as well as some events that weren’t shown in the comic pages. It shows how oblivious he is to certain elements, but also gives some insight to some of the context.
For example, the main character is homosexual and has several sexual and/or flirtatious encounters during the course of the story, but even when he writes about them in a journal only meant for himself, he takes care to use neutral pronouns or insinuating that the person was female, probably because it’d be dangerous not to do so IF someone else would happen to read it, even though he comes from what seems to have been a pretty open gay culture in New York in the years around 1920.
As usual, Moore does his research and uses it in his worldbuilding, setting the story against the backdrop of a world war, prohibition, the fear of communists following the Russian revolution etc.

Also as usual, he uses the sequential nature of comics to enhance the storytelling, which I won’t go deeper into here. If you read it you’ll understand. He incorporates the prejudices of the zeitgeist and of Lovecraft himself and lets it enhance the horror. Lovecraft did this as well, but Moore flips the perspectives. Instead of the otherness of everyone except White men being one of the sources of horror, here it’s the process of othering that is part of an oppressive background to the more cosmic elements. Which is a simplification, but I believe that to be a basic intention in the way Moore deals with those topics while adapting someone like Lovecraft.
A friend of mine, French artist Alkbazz, posed the question at one point: what would the world be like without Lovecraft? It made me realize how far his influences reach. How many writers and artists haven’s been influenced by him? No, not by him but by his works. An important distinction considering how much he was a child of his times and how racist/sexist/homophobic those times were (think the 1980s but much worse, less insightful and closer in time to some massive examples of genocide. If you grew up in the late 1900s you’ll probably know what I mean). But the contributions Lovecraft made to the horror genre, in many ways grounded in the fundamental realization of how insignificant we are in the cosmic scheme of things. Insight that probably derived in part from the scientific discoveries of the time and how the public consciousness moved in a more secular direction. We had to come to terms with a world where we weren’t chosen by God, where we weren’t at the center of the universe and if Gods existed they either didn’t care or had no respect nor concern for us because we were like tiny faceless inhabitants of their fleeting dreams.

I think that has to be enough for today. I have things to say about more things I’ve read, but I’ll let you rest a bit before continuing. So…

To be continued…

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