Friday, February 25, 2011

Breaking Waves: Helping Fishermen in the Gulf

Nearly a year ago, BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded, resulting in more than 200 million gallons of oil plus methane and other hydrocarbons spilling into the Gulf. Marine and wildlife ecosystems were terribly damaged, and the fishing and coastal tourism industries have been devastated.

At last week's AAAS meeting in Washington DC, microbial geochemist Samantha Joye reported that the seafloor and its inhabitants had not nearly recovered when they made a dive last December:
Usually, there is a tremendous diversity of infaunal organisms on the bottom. Then, we began to see dead organisms like brittle stars. I noticed there were no holothurians (sea cucumbers) and these organisms are tremendously abundant at seeps. So, it was a grim view. We saw a few crabs but they did not look healthy and we saw oiled and dead corals.
There are some expedition photos on Joye's blog.

And it's not just the ocean depths that are affected. Frances Beinecke - president of the Natural Resources Defense Council and commissioner on the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling - wrote in January:
Eight months have passed since the BP blowout, and still the damage and devastation continue. Tar balls continue to wash up along Gulf shores. Oil sheen trails in the wake of fishing boats. Wetlands marsh grass remains dying and fouled. Toxic crude lies offshore in deep water and in fine silts and sands onshore.

It's not clear how long it will take for the Gulf to recover - and it may never recover completely.

In the face of all that bleak news, I was pleased to discover that that the members of the Book View Cafe  have contributed to the recovery effort by creating the anthology Breaking Waves. The book is a collection of poetry, essays and fiction from award-winning science fiction and fantasy writers in support of the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.  The Fund focuses on helping fishermen and their families in the Louisiana Parishes most affected by the massive oil spill there.

The table of contents:
I've linked to a few of the entries you can read online to get a sense of the contents.

You can purchase a copy of the DRM-free e-book at the Book View Cafe, or the Kindle edition at Proceeds go to the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

PD James: A Moral Fable

This is the last in my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Hortense Calisher, Doris Lessing.

I'm a fan of P.D. James. She's a master of her genre, which happens to be detective novels, rather than SF. However, I think her 1992 dystopian novel Children of Men should well be considered science fictional.

Children of Men opens in January of 2021, the last recorded birth on Earth - now 25 - has been killed in a bar fight. Our narrator describes how the declining birth rate and eventual universal infertility lead a world without children and a population sliding into despair and hopelessness.
The world didn't give up hope until the generation born in 1995 reached sexual maturity, But when the testing was complete and not one of them could produce fertile sperm we knew that this was indeed the end of Homo sapiens.   It was in that year, 2008, that the suicides increased.
It's a bleak picture she paints of future childless England - and very different from her realistic present-day crime novels.

In her 1995 Paris Review interview , James describes the science* that inspired her novel:

[. . . ] I don’t think of [Children of Men] as science fiction, as some have claimed. I didn’t set out to write a moral fable, but it came out that way. This time it was not a setting that inspired it, but the review of a scientific book drawing attention to a dramatic drop in the sperm count of Western men—fifty percent in as many years. I asked some scientists about this and they said that it was perhaps due to pollution. But the article drew attention to another factor: that of all the billions of life-forms that have inhabited this earth, most have already died out, that the natural end of man is to disappear too, and that the time our species has spent on this planet is a mere blink. So I wondered what England would be like, say, twenty-five years after the last baby was born and then for twenty-five years no one had heard the cry of a baby. I sat down and wrote it.
So she asked what kind of of future might arise from an extrapolation of present-day scientific findings. That definitely sounds like science fiction!

But the novel does feel very "English"  from my American point of view, much in the same way James' novels featuring the Scotland Yard detective Adam Dalgleish do.  I'm not sure if it's the realistic-seeming setting in the English countryside or the characters' mannerisms, but that aspect of Children of Men doesn't seem very science fictional. In that way it's much closer to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, than "regular" science fiction.

Read the entire 1995 interview with P.D. James, in which she talks about being a feminist, writing about detectives, her belief in God and her preoccupation with death.

It's quite worth checking out all the Paris Review author interviews, since they cover a wide range of topics and, as Nicola Griffith pointed out, it's a  an excellent way for anyone interested in writing to "get an education, for free".

* I think it's interesting that in the movie version of Children of Men, creator Alfonso Cuarón chose to twist the science underpinning the story 180 degrees by making women, rather than men, infertile. It isn't clear to me why that change was made. Cuarón has said the infertile women are a "metaphor for a fading sense of hope", but I don't why infertile men wouldn't play the same part - unless you think of male characters as individual humans, and female characters as symbols.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Doris Lessing: Sufism and Space Fiction

A continuation of my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, Hortense Calisher.

Between 1979 and 1983 Nobel prize winning author Doris Lessing published five "space fiction" novels. The  Canopus in Argos series is influenced by Lessing's interest in the mystical and spiritual aspects of Sufism, and focuses on an advanced interstellar species accelerating the evolution of less advanced species.

The Canopus in Argos series was not Lessing's first dip in to science fiction.  Her 1969 novel The Four-Gated City  - sometimes called her most important work - begins in post-WWII Britain and follows the characters through a bloody future World War III at the close of the 20th century.

In her  interview published in the Spring 1988 edition of the Paris Review, Lessing talks about the role of the novelist in possible futures in fiction:

Lessing:  I know people say things like, “I regard you as rather a prophet.” But there’s nothing I’ve said that hasn’t been, for example, in the New Scientist for the last twenty years. Nothing! So why am I called a prophet, and they are not? 

Interviewer:  You write better. 

Lessing:  Well, I was going to say, I present it in a more interesting way. I do think that sometimes I hit a kind of wavelength—though I think a lot of writers do this—where I anticipate events. But I don’t think it’s very much, really. I think a writer’s job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for. This is what our function is. We spend all our time thinking about how things work, why things happen, which means that we are more sensitive to what’s going on.

 I think that's an interesting take on the "predictions" that so many science fiction writers lay claim to - it's not so much a special knowledge of science or current events that allows authors to do that, but the habit of thinking about the way the world works that allows for plausible extrapolations to be imagined.

Even though Lessing doesn't think of her novels as science fiction, it's not because she disdains the genre. She raves about Stanislaw Lem's Solaris - and about being the guest of the 1987 Worldcon:

I’ve just read a book by the Solaris bloke, Stanislav Lem. Now that’s real classic science fiction . . . full of scientific ideas. Half of it, of course, is wasted on me because I don’t understand it. But what I do understand is fascinating. I’ve met quite a lot of young people—some not so young either, if it comes to that—who say “I’m very sorry, but I’ve got no time for realism” and I say “My God! But look at what you’re missing! This is prejudice.” But they don’t want to know about it. And I’m always meeting usually middle-aged people who say, “I’m very sorry. I can’t read your non-realistic writing.” I think it’s a great pity. This is why I’m pleased about being guest of honor at [the World Science Fiction Convention, in Brighton] , because it does show a breaking down [of compartmentalization of SF and non-SF].
In the interview, Lessing says she's going to publish a sixth Canopus in Argos novel, a sequel to  The Sentimental Agents. That novel apparently never materialized, and she moved away from writing "space fiction". The "goblin child" story she talks about writing is likely The Fifth Child, published in 1988, and since then she has published other speculative fiction works (although  fantasy or horror, rather than science fiction).

Read the entire interview with Doris Lessing, for more about living in Persia and Africa, involvement with Sufism,  her writing habits, the "Jane Somers" hoax and having one of her  SFnovels turned into an opera by Philip Glass.

Tomorrow: The series wraps up with an interview with PD James.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Hortense Calisher: Alien Gender and "Math" vs. "Word" People

A continuation of my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury.

While the previous interviews in this series were with authors who should be familiar to most readers of both SF and literary fiction, Hortense Calisher's writing probably nearly so widely known to genre fiction fans*. Which isn't to say that she was in the least an obscure writer.

Calisher served terms as president of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the PEN international writers' association. Her short stories won an O. Henry Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, and she was a finalist for the National Book Award three times. She had a number of stories published in The New Yorker and Harper's Magazine  (subscription required).

Calisher's work is known for its "intellectually challenging fictional situations and complex plots", with "extensive explorations of characters and their social worlds".  She brought those writing qualities to her 1965 science fiction novel Journal from Ellipsia.  According to one review, the novel
... details the frequently comic misadventures of a genderless being from the planet Ellipsia, who comes to Earth to learn to be come human as part of an apparent exchange program between the two planets. To do so, s/he must learn the concept of "I-ness," having experienced only "we-ness" on Ellipsia.
When Calisher was interviewed for the Paris Review in 1987, the introduction describes it as anticipating the feminist fiction of the 1970s:
Her Journal from Ellypsia[sic] foretold by twenty years the 1970s’ preoccupation with issues of gender. Though Calisher resists the term feminist, her sense of direction and personal certainty might seem to suggest otherwise. 

In the interview,  Calisher describes how she trying to explore gender issues:
I was trying to get down to basic—a priori—flesh sensations in the beings we call the human animal. And in those we may know nothing of. It’s always amused me that run-of-the-mill science fiction—another genre I don’t go for—so often imputes our own sexual orientation to other possible worlds. Scientists themselves do the same. It’s hard not to.
Yeah, unfortunately that's a jab at "regular" science fiction - of course as a literary writer, she's not a fan.  (But to be fair, she could have enjoyed non-run-of-the-mill SF, whatever that might include.)

But she makes a valid point. Before the advent of the "New Wave" of the 1960s, most SF featured traditional gender roles and explicitly heterosexual heroes.  Before the 60s there weren't many SF authors exploring sexual orientation. And it's indeed true that scientists' implicit assumptions about gender differences can affect their interpretation of scientific data.

But sexual orientation and gender were not the only themes in Journal to Ellipsia. Calisher explains:
... I was interested in so much else in that book—the gap, for instance, between “word” people and “math” people, there for me ever since high-school algebra. Or between word philosophers and physicists, and their supposedly opposed explanations of the universe. When one critic called that book the first feminist book of the decade, I was utterly surprised. Flummoxed.
Not having read Journal from Ellipsia (which is long out of print), I can't comment on whether I would consider it feminist or not. But what Calisher seems to be saying is that she was surprised her novel was considered "feminist", because it did more than just explore gender roles.  If that is what she meant, I'm a bit surprised that she would be surprised, since even today many people associate being a "word" person with the feminine and being a "math" person with the masculine.

I looked up a couple of contemporary reviews of Journal from Ellipsia, and it seems to have been the sort of novel one either loves or hates. The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, for example, called it "undoubtedly the best science fiction novel of 1965", while the reviewer for Time Magazine thought it was "plonk" and suggested a potential reader should instead "throw it in the wastebasket". 

So putting the novel's aspects together - exploration of gender and differences between the worldviews of humanities and science; plus F&SF love and Time hate - it sounds like a book I need to find myself a copy to read.
Journal from Ellipsia was not Calisher's only book with speculative elements. Her 1983 novel Mysteries of Motion was set on a space shuttled in a then-future 1990.  She spent about a week doing technical research:
I read NASA’s own reports. Which stank to high heaven—excuse the pun—of bad possibilities. When the Challenger fell [in 1986], I was teaching a class at Brown. Students brought me the news. All I could say was “Yes.” Not that I was a prophet. It was just—all already there if you looked. Later I thought of going over the book to check all the stuff that had come true, but I couldn’t bear to at the time.
Even though one might consider a speculative near future story set in space would be science fictional,  the novel totally was not science fiction, at least according to the author.

Calisher - who died in 2009 - only wrote one other work of speculative fiction: the horror story "Heartburn", published in The American Mercury in 1951.

Read the full interview with Hortense Calisher at the Paris Review.

Tomorrow: Doris Lessing.
* Which is to say, I had never heard of her before reading this interview.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ray Bradbury: The fiction of ideas and giving the gift of books

A continuation of my series of posts on science fiction author interviews in the Paris Review. Previously: Aldous Huxley, William S. Burroughs, Kurt Vonnegut.

Ray Bradbury shouldn't need any introduction. His earliest stories were published in science fiction fanzines in the late 1930s. Since then, he has published hundreds of short stories and novellas;  a dozen novels, including The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes, plus plays and poetry.

The Paris Review's interview with Ray Bradbury is a composite of unpublished interviews from the late 1970s, supplemented with additional discussions not long before publication in early 2010.  In it, he talks about reading, writing and what science fiction means to him:
Science fiction is the fiction of ideas. Ideas excite me, and as soon as I get excited, the adrenaline gets going and the next thing I know I’m borrowing energy from the ideas themselves. Science fiction is any idea that occurs in the head and doesn’t exist yet, but soon will, and will change everything for everybody, and nothing will ever be the same again. As soon as you have an idea that changes some small part of the world you are writing science fiction. It is always the art of the possible, never the impossible.
That sounds like a solid definition. Of course what some people consider "impossible", others just consider "improbable", so, as ever, the boundary between fantasy and science fiction is a fuzzy one.

But whether fantasy or science fiction, Bradbury argues that books can inspire kids to become scientists or engineers or simply do something interesting with their lives.
That’s what we have to do for everyone, give the gift of life with our books. Say to a girl or boy at age ten, Hey, life is fun! Grow tall! I’ve talked to more biochemists and more astronomers and technologists in various fields, who, when they were ten years old, fell in love with John Carter and Tarzan and decided to become something romantic. [. . .] I find this in most fields. The need for romance is constant, and again, it’s pooh-poohed by intellectuals. As a result they’re going to stunt their kids. You can’t kill a dream. Social obligation has to come from living with some sense of style, high adventure, and romance.
Although kids today are more likely to read Harry Potter or The Hunger Games series than Tarzan, I think his basic premise is right. Fantastic fiction can help kids (and adults) set their imaginations free, and inspire dreams of progress and adventure. 

Bradbury also talks about writing pensées - evocative poetic prose - like the description of the dinosaur in his short story "A Sound of Thunder":

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. [...]
He really can paint a picture with words, which is what I enjoy about Bradbury's writing.

Read the whole interview to find out about Bradbury's views on other writers, how he writes, and the stroke he suffered in 1999. Most of it is great, although I totally disagree with his opinion on the value of learning mathematics.

Tomorrow: Hortense Callisher

Friday, February 18, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut: War, Anthropology, and Atheism

This is a look at another SF authored who was interviewed by the Paris Review. The interviews with  Aldous Huxley and William S. Burroughs took place in the early 1960s. Now we jump ahead more than a decade to a 1977 interview with Kurt Vonnegut.

The Paris Review's interview with Kurt Vonnegut starts out with a discussion of Vonnegut's experiences as a infantry scout in during the Second World War.  His experience as a prisoner of war during the firebombing of Dresden formed the basis for his 1969 novel Slaughterhouse Five - at least for the parts that weren't set in a zoo on the planet Tralfamador.

Before the war Vonnegut studied chemistry at Cornell University for several years. When he enlisted in the Army, he was transferred to the Carnegie Institute of Technology where he studied mechanical engineering. His studies were interrupted by the war.

After the war was over, Vonnegut went back to school to study anthropology as a post-grad at the University of Chicago. As he describes it, anthropology influenced his opinion of religion and his own atheism:
After the war, I went to the University of Chicago, where I was pleased to study anthropology, a science that was mostly poetry, that involved almost no math at all.
[. . .] [Anthropology] confirmed my atheism, which was the faith of my fathers anyway. Religions were exhibited and studied as the Rube Goldberg inventions I’d always thought they were. We weren’t allowed to find one culture superior to any other. We caught hell if we mentioned races much. It was highly idealistic.

Those views would influence the depiction of the fictional island dictatorship of San Lorenzo in his Hugo-winning 1963 novel Cat's Cradle. The government of San Lorenzo promotes (by prohibiting) a made-up religion to control its population. 

Apparently a poor student, Vonnegut left the anthropology program without completing his degree.  Luckily one of the University of Chicago's deans was apparently a fan, and got Cat's Cradle accepted in lieu of Vonnegut's rejected thesis in 1971.  
Twenty years [after leaving the University of Chicago], I got a letter from a new dean at Chicago, who had been looking through my dossier. Under the rules of the university, he said, a published work of high quality could be substituted for a dissertation, so I was entitled to an M.A. He had shown Cat’s Cradle to the anthropology department, and they had said it was halfway decent anthropology, so they were mailing me my degree
According to Vonnegut it was a "piece of cake".

Several characters in Cat's Cradle were inspired by the scientists he met while working in the public relations department of General Electric in Schenectady, New York.  Even the idea for the novel's compound "ice-nine", supposedly came from Nobel-prize winning GE scientist Irving Langmuir.   The way Vonnegut tells it, he wasn't even the recipient of that suggestion:
[H.G.] Wells came to Schenectady, and Langmuir was told to be his host. Langmuir thought he might entertain Wells with an idea for a science-fiction story—about a form of ice that was stable at room temperature. Wells was uninterested, or at least never used the idea. And then Wells died, and then, finally, Langmuir died. I thought to myself: “Finders, keepers—the idea is mine.”
Even if Wells had used the idea in a story, I doubt it would have turned out anything like Vonnegut's version.

Read the whole interview for more of Vonnegut's reminiscences and thoughts on writers and writing.

Tomorrow: Ray Bradbury

Thursday, February 17, 2011

William S. Burroughs: Body Modification and Biologic Courts

This continues the series on interviews with SF writers in the Paris Review. Yesterday, I posted about the 1960 interview with Aldous Huxley. Today, I'll take a look at the 1965 interview with William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1965. His weird and controversial novel Naked Lunch had been published in the United States in 1959. At the time this interview was published, its sale was still banned in Boston.

Burroughs was interviewed the year after publication of his Nebula award-winning novel Nova Express. Nova Express was the third book in his Nova Trilogy, and was assembled using the cut-up method, in which "existing texts ... cut into various pieces and put back together in random order." Definitely not what most people would think of a standard science fiction novel.

The plot summary for Nova Express makes it sound hallucinogenic:
The Nova Mob—Sammy the Butcher, Izzy the Push, The Subliminal Kid, and others—are viruses, "defined as the three-dimensional coordinate point of a controller."[...] "which invade the human body and in the process produce language." These Nova Criminals represent society, culture, and government, and have taken control. Inspector Lee and the rest of the Nova Police are left fighting for the rest of humanity in the power struggle. "The Nova Police can be compared to apomorphine, a regulating instance that need not continue and has no intention of continuing after its work is done."

The novel also apparently involves biologic police agents and legal battles between competing life forms are fought "Biologic Courts".

As Mac Tonnies described it, it's "the literary equivalent of downing a few vials of choice LSD".

In the Paris Review interview, Burroughs expands on the idea of that the future of the human race will involve genetic engineering and require some sort of "biologic law" and courts to mediate the changes.
Science eventually will be forced to establish courts of biologic mediation, because life-forms are going to become more incompatible with the conditions of existence as man penetrates further into space. Mankind will have to undergo biologic alterations ultimately, if we are to survive at all. This will require biologic law to decide what changes to make. We will simply have to use our intelligence to plan mutations, rather than letting them occur at random. Because many such mutations—look at the saber-toothed tiger—are bound to be very poor engineering designs. The future, decidedly, yes. I think there are innumerable possibilities, literally innumerable. The hope lies in the development of nonbody experience and eventually getting away from the body itself, away from three-dimensional coordinates and concomitant animal reactions of fear and flight, which lead inevitably to tribal feuds and dissension.  
I'm struck by how much that last part  - about the future of the human race eventually "getting away from the body itself"  - sounds like some modern proponents of transhumanism who see the divorce of the mind from the limitations of the body as one of their ultimate goals. A man ahead of his time, perhaps? or is it a simply reworking of Buddhist ideas of mind-body separation within a scientific frame? I don't know enough about Burroughs' ideas to tell the difference.

In the interview, Burroughs also talks a bit about the inevitable cross-fertilization of science and art:
In the first place, I think there's going to be more and more merging of art and science. Scientists are already studying the creative process, and I think the whole line between art and science will break down and that scientists, I hope, will become more creative and writers more scientific.
Perhaps inspired by this notion is the "Mutate or Die" project, which involves isolating and manipulating DNA from a preserved sample of Burroughs' poop.  It definitely involves science, and it's meant to be art.

Read the whole interview for more from Burroughs about cut-ups, addiction, and how he created his fictional characters.

Tomorrow: Interview with Kurt Vonnegut.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Paris Review Interview with Aldous Huxley: Psychedelic Drugs and Enlightenment

A few months ago, Nicola Griffith posted that the Paris Review had opened its archives of author interviews, back to 1953. I don't usually read literary magazines, but I finally got a chance to browse through the Paris Review's archives. It is quite interesting to see what the science fiction writers they interviewed have to say about science and their fiction.

Of course the authors they interview are all "literary" sorts of authors*, and they wouldn't necessarily agree that their writings that I would consider science fictional are SF. Even so, the authors did take into account science in their writing.

I thought I'd highlight a few of the interviews that touched on the biosciences. The first is an interview with Aldous Huxley, in which he talks about his ideas about society and drugs.

When Huxley was interviewed in 1960, he was 65 years old at the time of this interview, and working on his novel Island, which would be his last. Island depicts a utopian community, that is a counterpoint to the dystopian society he depicted in Brave New World. Huxley describes his work in progress:

It’s a kind of fantasy, a kind of reverse Brave New World, about a society in which real efforts are made to realize human potentialities. I want to show how humanity can make the best of both Eastern and Western worlds. So the setting is an imaginary island between Ceylon and Sumatra, at a meeting place of Indian and Chinese influence. One of my principal characters is, like Darwin and my grandfather**, a young scientist on one of those scientific expeditions the British Admiralty sent out in the 1840s; he’s a Scotch doctor, who rather resembles James Esdaile, the man who introduced hypnosis into medicine. And then, as in News from Nowhere and other utopias, I have another intruder from the outside world, whose guided tour provides a means of describing the society. Unfortunately, he’s also the serpent in the garden, looking enviously at this happy, prosperous state.
The islanders take moksha medicine, a fungus-derived psychedelic drug. As it's described in the final version of the novel the drug helps liberate consciousness and bring self-knowledge:
Their response is the full-blown mystical experience. You know—One in all and All in one. The basic experience with its corollaries— boundless compassion, fathomless mystery and meaning.

"Not to mention joy," said Dr. Robert, "inexpressible joy."

In contrast, in Brave New World, the drug soma is described as making people content, complacent, and able to ignore the difficulties of their daily lives. Linda, mother of the "savage" John, takes massive doses to cope with her return to civilation:
The return to civilization was for her the return to soma, was the possibility of lying in bed and taking holiday after holiday, without ever having to come back to a headache or a fit of vomiting, without ever being made to feel as you always felt after peyotl, as though you'd done something so shamefully anti-social that you could never hold up your head again. Soma played none of these unpleasant tricks. The holiday it gave was perfect and, if the morning after was disagreeable, it was so, not intrinsically, but only by comparison with the joys of the holiday. The remedy was to make the holiday continuous. Greedily she clamoured for ever larger, ever more frequent doses.
The permanent soma-induced holiday leads to Linda's death.

Huxley's different take on drug use in his two novels appears to be based - at least in part - on his own experimentation with drugs in the years between publication of Brave New World and his work on The Island. In his interview, Huxley talks about drugs in Brave New World and in real life, based on his drug-taking experiences that he described in his non-fiction book The Doors of Perception.
Soma is an imaginary drug, with three different effects—euphoric, hallucinant, or sedative—an impossible combination. Mescaline is the active principle of the peyote cactus, which has been used for a long time by the Indians of the Southwest in their religious rites. It is now synthesized. Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) is a chemical compound with effects similar to mescaline; it was developed about twelve years ago, and it is only being used experimentally at present. Mescaline and lysergic acid transfigure the external world and in some cases produce visions. Most people have the sort of positive and enlightening experience I’ve described; but the visions may be infernal as well as celestial. These drugs are physiologically innocuous, except to people with liver damage. They leave most people with no hangover, and they are not habit-forming. Psychiatrists have found that, skillfully used, they can be very helpful in the treatment of certain kinds of neuroses.
So Huxley seems to have formed his later ideas about drugs through a combination of personal experience and science. Mescaline and LSD were both made illegal in the US in 1970, seven years after Huxley's death. I suspect it's less likely that present-day authors would feel so free to experiment with psychedelics - or at least freely discuss their experimentation.

Be sure to read the whole interview for more from Huxley on his writing process and thoughts about fiction.

Tomorrow I'll look at the Paris Review interview with William S. Burroughs.

* You can tell they are "literary" writers from the covers of their novels: rather than illustrated characters or scenes, they usually just abstract images and text.

** Aldous Huxley's grandfather was Thomas Henry Huxley, known as "Darwin's bulldog" for his support of Darwin and advocacy on behalf of his evolutionary theory.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Romance and the Sea

Moltkes Heart Clam - Meiocardia moltkianaHappy Valentine's Day, dear readers!

For a bit of romance, I recommend Bruce McAllester's "The Courtship of the Queen". It's the story of a shell-collecting boy who grows up with a secret.

It's not quite science fiction, but it's a lovely tale.

Image: Moltkes Heart Clam - Meiocardia moltkiana - by Flickr user smallislander.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Just in time for Darwin Day: The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder and Evolution

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
~ On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin (1876 Edition)

Today - February 12th - marks the 202th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Just in time to celebrate, the print version of  The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution - an anthology of evolution-related fiction from Tangled Bank Press - has just been released in print. 

Originally released as an e-book, editor Chris Lynch has collected contributions by a number of speculative fiction  authors and poets:
[. . . ] The Tangled Bank: Love, Wonder, and Evolution is bursting with stories, poetry, and full-page artwork about the meaning of evolution. From science fiction and fantasy, to comedy and horror, to fairy tales and literary fiction, this anthology has something for everyone. An international lineup of more than 40 contributors includes Sean Williams, Brian Stableford, Patricia Russo, Carlos Hernandez, Jetse de Vries, Christopher Green, Bruce Boston, and Emily Ballou. Dark, whimsical, and shot through with wonder, The Tangled Bank explores the universe Charles Darwin revealed.
Chris Lynch has generously sent me a copy of the e-book, and I'm looking forward to reading it. The bits I've sampled so far have been both interesting and entertaining. It's also beautifully illustrated with drawings by Ernst Haeckel.

If you'd like a sample,  you can read Christopher Green's short story Darwin's Daughter for free.

You can also read a couple of contributor Anne Bryan's Darwin-related sonnets on her web site, and listen to poet Emily Ballou read from her collection The Darwin Poems

Print, e-book and EPUB editions of The Tangled Bank are available for purchase through