Challenging SF

The fine fellows over at SfSignal ask the which SF books are challenging to read, but worth the effort?

My answer is below. Use the link to see answers others gave.

The question is which challenging science fiction & fantasy books are worth the effort. I assume challenging, does not merely mean long, but means difficult or opaque to read, that is, requiring diligent study, but which reward that study with insights that touch more than one area of life. Which science fiction books are hard but worth the hardship?
Let me begin by saying the number of books in this category is, of necessity, very small. Necessarily, if a writer is good, he is clear. If a writer is not good, usually the ideas he explores are trivial rather than profound. Most writers who are good are good at both. So the number of writers who are good enough to be profound, but not good enough to be clear, is small.

That said, there do exist, from time to time, men of unusual genius whose ideas are so profound that they cannot be made clear to any reader not willing to study the work in depth. While we expect such men to rise in the field of classical literature, Homer, Milton, Shakespeare and the like, science fiction is a recent and popular type of genre writing with its roots in pulp fiction and boy’s adventure stories, and rarely attempts to achieve classic stature. Those that make this attempt self-consciously–I am thinking of certain New Wave writers, or, rather ‘artistes’– usually blunder, mistaking obscurity for profundity, obscenity for bravery, or mere defiance of convention as innovation, and they end up being, not a poet like Milton, but a poseur like James Joyce.

The difference between the impostor and the true is that the true genius rewards endless rereading. All the sweat of digging the deep well is answered with a fountain of living water that endlessly refreshes the weary and turns even in fields far away to green. A great book is one that touches even remote topics, or that will strike you with a new thought or insight even years later. The impostor has you dig and dig, and at the bottom, the same old dank mudhole of thought that says nothing and means nothing.

The question therefore is which books demand study and amply reward it? First and foremost is Gene Wolfe. I say without fear of being contradicted (at least by sober men) that Mr. Wolfe is not merely the finest science fiction writer at large today, he is the finest writer today of any genre. He is the Jorge Luis Borges of North America.

I could name any of his works as fitting the pattern of rewarding obscurity, but let me mention merely his Short Sun Trilogy: On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles, and Return to the Whorl. The plot on the surface concerns the odyssey of a paper mill owner named Horn across the haunted oceans of the newly-colonized planet Blue, where man has no roots and is not welcome, seeking his old master Silk, who is the sole hope for the dying colony to survive. Over his mast hangs the vampire-infested sister planet Green; under his keel are mermaids and monstrous sea-goddesses; before him is the invisible town where the one remaining landing craft still in operation rests, glamorous with the promise of return to the multigeneration colony-vessel that still hangs like some morningstar dying in heaven; behind him are memories; with him, seen, is the creature who is not his pet and the woman who is not his wife, and perhaps not human, and the boy who is not his son, and definitely not human; and with him, unseen, are the ghosts of the vanished race, more advanced than man, who once walked this world.

The difficulty for the reader is that the main character is not only not who he seems to be, he is not even who he thinks he is, and even though written in first person, the reader must be alert to when the narrator, unbeknownst even to himself, is possessed by or evolves into one of the other characters in the tale or another tale. That it is also told not in chorological order, and that what is being sought and saved is much more important than a mere world, does not make the reading any easier for the neophyte.

Gene Wolfe delights in that difficult technique, so often abused by clumsier hands, of unreliable narration, where the character writing the story does not tell the whole truth, and the reader must see through the deceptions and omissions, deliberate or otherwise, with which the narrator disguises events. That this is done against a science fiction background, where the reader is expected to deduce (with no explicit explanation from the author) what is normal for the strange new world of the author’s invention, makes the camouflage all the more difficult to penetrate, because the reader must know what is normal for the world to spot the abnormalities which form the chain of hints the author plants. Gene Wolfe writes as a detective story, but one where the detective never solves the crime: but the clues are all in place, hidden or open, to allow the reader to do so.

Those of you unwilling to plunge headlong into so difficult a trilogy may instead read the famed, and deservedly famed, short story ‘Fifth Head of Cerberus’ by the same author. Because more brief, it is, if anything, more obscure yet also more worthy of deep rereading. It is a tale of a young man growing up alone all by himself in a high class bordello with his family, killing himself and becoming himself, or, rather, becoming trapped as himself. Some day they will need him.

Second, let me list Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay as a book demanding study. This obscure work is like a fever dream of the imagination, so rich in invention as to beggar parallels, ornamented with symbolism so occult and profound as to read like a work of apocalyptic literature, easier to behold in awe than to hold in one’s understanding.

The surface tale is straightforward, if baroque. An Englishman named Maskull, together with his companion Nightspore, is invited (or lured, or commanded) to depart the foggy streets of London for the giant planet Tormance circling the double-star Arcturus, whose twin suns, Alppain and Branchspell, infuse the life of that world with opposite physical and spiritual influences, always at war. Maskull is sent to follow Surtur.

He wakes alone to find his body strangely mutated. The story, such as it is, consists of his wandering, surrounded by omens of his impending death, across the face of this variegated world, meeting (and usually murdering) the vivid yet singular man or woman (or phaen) who either befriends or bewitches, or follows or betrays him as he passes through his or her (or aer) the singular yet vivid one-man realm each inhabits, each realm representing a different world-view. Maskull encounters such oddities as the two primary colors, jale and ulfire, that do not occur on Earth; or a human of the third sex, nether male nor female, unknown to our sphere; or he hears music so wild that it cuts and kills the bodies of the audience, and it is played on a lake of liquid metal by sheer force of thought; or he sees, through additional sense impressions unknown here the inner nature, the moral force, or the usefulness to his unbridled will of objects in his environment, oceans whose waters support human weight, mountains rectilinear as skyscrapers shaken by continuous landslips and rises, forests of leaves of glass whose shadows are brightness, lakes which reveal visions of the future, underground worlds without color, or mountains emerald-bright with the warm green snow of living waters whose passes no living man can recross. Maskull seeks the creator of this world, a god called Surtur, or Shaping, or Crystalman, but it soon becomes clear the world is false, and life itself a snare and a delusion, and the world-maker is the enemy and impersonator of the true god, and Crystalman is the enemy of Surtur. And when he dies, or wakes, he become his companion Nightspore, or was him all along.

The difficulty for the reader is that the tale is a Gnostic allegory, and anyone unfamiliar with the doctrines of this heresy will have no frame of reference to understand the events or their significance; also , the author is making allusions, or, rather allegorical reflections, to matter of post-Kantian philosophy, and readers not familiar with Hegel and Nietzsche will not grasp the author’s didactic purpose: David Lindsay is presenting, in terms of lush and vivid imagery, an argument to reject various modern philosophers; or, if not an argument, a vision of rejection.

I strongly recommend this book to any reader who wants to see what depths and heights of strangeness science fiction can reach when unshackled from conventional form, but I also warn the unwary that the ultimate message of the book is so repellant and blasphemous that the book is not without spiritual danger. Readers possessed by the typical dazed minds and hungry hearts produced by the wreckage of our modern educational system, and the boglands of our modern popular culture should avoid this book until they are older, wiser, warier, and stronger in the spirit. Reader whose eyes go blank or whose lips curl in a sneer at the mere mention of the word ‘spirit’ (as I was when first I read this book) are too shallow to be harmed, and may read without fear, enjoying the imagery (as I did when first I read this book).

Third, and as an anodyne to David Lindsay, let me list That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. You might be surprised that I list this book, written in clear and undemanding prose, as difficult or demanding study. It seems, at first glance, to be a straightforward story concerning a young and ambitious professor Mark, and his unhappy wife, Jane, the ghastly modernization of their charming college town, Edgestow, by a world-conspiracy of evil scientists, the N.I.C.E., who serve and obey the severed head of a Saracen, Al Cassan, speaking prophecies from dark beings older than Earth, Thulcandra; and concerning the resurrection of Merlin, the descent of the gods, the fall of the Tower of Babel, and a bear named Mister Bultitude.

This story I consider the masterpiece of C. S. Lewis’s writing, and hold it in deeper esteem than his far more celebrated children’s books. Mr. Lewis wrote a profound essay called the Abolition of Man, warning of the dangers of, well, the wreckage of our modern educational system, and the boglands of our modern popular culture, long before the phrase “moral relativism” or “culture of death” passed into common parlance. Strength is a tale, speaking to the imagination, of the same matter that Abolition speaks to the reason; and in its pages, the author touches on nearly every aspect and ramification of the modern world view, or, rather lack of world view, involved in the modern rejection of reason and right reason. The nature of the estate of marriage, of the role of the magistrates to punish lawbreakers rather than to educate them, the role of the news media in shaping the national debate, the role of kingship, of science, of logic, of faith, of archetypes and legends in our lives, and more are touched on. Whole books could be written just on the implications involved (and have been: I will recommend but one: C. S. Lewis In Context by Doris T Meyers). This is a book that seems straightforward but is actually profound.

Fourth, I list The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison. This book I call difficult only because of its prose, which is gorgeous, orotund, rich, poetical, ironic, majestic, and link nothing else found in the science fiction field. Unless the reader is immersed in Elizabethan poets, or has a dictionary close at his elbow, the prose will advance upon him like legionnaires bedecked in dazzling plumes that peacocks or birds of paradise might bear, or feathers from the wings of mythic hippogriffs, atop helms crusted with the tusks of boars aflame with hammered gold, or breastplates of dark adamantine beset with the jacinth, the emerald, the sard, the sardonyx, the tourmaline, and opals freaked with jet adorning gauntlets steel forged in breath of captive dragons, whilst greaves of orichalcum with panes of jade inset tramp the bloody field of war and furious combat, and the reader will fall, dazed and dazzled. For such is the prose of Eddison.

The story concerns the Iliad of Mercury, where men of war like demigods for strength and beauty are beset by the warlock-king Gorice XII, whose darkest grammarye is that he cannot die. There are sword fights and sea fights, sieges and betrayals, and armies that wander lost through wastelands thick with glamour and devilry; and prophecies; and mystic mountains unclimbed, till then, by mortal men; and when one of the four princes is carried off alive to the land of the dead, his three brethren voyage to the world’s end and beyond it to recover him. Whether villain or hero, the characters of the drama loom memorable and magnificent. These are not small men, but grand both in their nobility and in their treasons.

This book is not for everyone: this sauce will be too rich to your tongue and too overseeped in heady and delirious spices of Arabic lands of legend-golden Cathay, if your palate is conditioned to the thin and meatless broth of Hemmingway-type prose, journalistic prose, that just passes data efficiently and quickly to the reader’s lax brain, trying to avoid memorable turns of phrase that might jar from his half-sleep the data-absorbing subject (for he is not really a reader).

Fifth and finally, let me list World of Null-A by A.E. van Vogt. This is perhaps the easiest and most accessible to read of the works listed here, but the author is a master of the unexpected Hitchcockian plot-twist, shift of meaning and identity, and paradox. In this book, added to the confusion of the authors preferred plot of ever-deeper paradigm shifts, is the rather abstract philosophy of Non-Aristotelian logic, or ‘Null-A’, which is depicted in action but never actually described: the reader is merely expected to grasp the intricacies of this theory of semantics, psychology, ontology and nominalist metaphysics while in the midst of a tale of an amnesiac superhuman defending a scientific utopia from a conspiracy of human traitors and inhuman agents of a ruthless extraterrestrial empire.

This book, even though written years ago, and its author’s first novel-length foray into science fiction, nonetheless contains some of the tightest plot-weaving and most bewildering plot reversals in any SF yarn. Even until the last word of the last line, the reader is kept guessing as to the true identities of the characters involved, and the Null-A theory as to the nature of identity must be grasped for the ending to make itself clear to the reader–which it will do after the last word is read, and the book is closed, and the reader is pondering on the meaning of the events: and the book merits to be pondered.

World of Null-A was savaged by science fiction’s earliest and best known professional critic of the genre, Damon Knight, who pushed the work into undeserved obscurity, perhaps because he preferred the type of works written, or, rather, committed, by poseurs and artistes such as I mention with scorn above. Mr. Knight dismissed the paradigm-shifting technique of plot-weaving as mere sleight of hand. But perhaps it not as easy as it looks to juggle all the pieces of a jigsaw in midair, forming one picture to the reader, and then, by flipping one more bit of the puzzle into view, to both change the whole picture of what has gone before, and have the picture make sense; and then to do it again. The scientific process itself is nothing other than this juggling of jigsawwork to create successively more elegant and accurate pictures of the cosmos: to dismiss it in art is to overlook it’s significance in life. Others have attempted the Vanvogtian style of paradigm-shifting, either successfully, as with The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness, or unsuccessfully, as with Mr. Knight’s own deservedly forgotten Beyond the Barrier, a work that serves as a living reminder that those who cannot perform a tricky technique of art at even an apprentice level should not mock it as a mere trick.

The book and its sequel, Players of Null-A may not be in print, but they are worth seeking out, if for no other reason than to undo an injustice perpetrated by Mr. Knight. I have heard a rumor that some obscure midlist author wrote an authorized sequel to the work, but I doubt that author’s skill is equal in general to the masterful work of A.E. van Vogt, or specifically to this, his masterwork.


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