Monday, 30 November 2009

A Not So Invisible Man: On H. G. Wells

Having just finished The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells (having previously read an omnibus edition with The Time Machine and The War of the World), I thought it worthwhile to talk about him and his work, not to mention his importance for the genre of science fiction.

To quote from the biography in my edition of The Invisible Man:
"Herbert George Wells—novelist, social critic, and visionary futurist who became one of the most prolific and widely read writers of his generation—was born in the London suburb of Bromley, Kent, on September 21, 1866."
It might sometimes be easily forgotten that Wells was not only an early (and very important) science fiction writer, but that he also wrote other types of fiction as well as engaged in historical and political writing. In particular, his social interest as related to history and politics quite clearly shines through in his science fiction writing as well, and it might be these interests, at least in part, which earned him disparaging comments from Jules Verne (1828–1905) for the lack of strict scientific accuracy in his stories. Despite Verne's opinion in the matter, I think Wells manages to create a convincing sense of verisimilitude that allows him to tackle not only science in and of itself, but society (without which there can be no science) and its role. Don't get me wrong, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Verne's approach to science fiction, but I doubt he could, for instance, have made as an intriguing study of the concept of invisibility as Wells does in The Invisible Man; simply because of the pseudo-science Wells has to resort to as a backdrop for his real agenda.

As such, I would argue, Wells probably has a stronger kinship to his fellow countryman Mary Shelley, whose creation of Frankenstein operates in similar ways to Wells' fiction (granted that Wells resorts more verbally to both the science of his day and pseudo-science if need be). Whereas Verne's focus seems to often be connected to the technological, Wells is entrenched in the realm of the social; and I would actually argue that the latter has been of overall more importance to the science fiction genre. Perhaps that is why it is easy to trace most if not all of science fiction's primary topics as already there in Wells writing.

In The Time Machine (1895), Wells covered the concept of time travel, clearly a popular science fiction topos throughout the history of the genre. It is also clear from his main focus on the Eloi and Morlocks that his future vision is strongly tied into a societal thinking (formed by many of the ideas of the time).

In The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), the idea is all about scientific experiments and the moral issues related to them (much like in Shelley's Frankenstein). More importantly, perhaps, is the strong suggestions of the science of genetics, which are at least implied by the general plot of the story. Not to mention the fact that this was far before the the discovery of DNA and the concept of cloning really entered the scientific and public debate.

In The Invisible Man (1897), the scientific experiment is once more part of the analysis, but perhaps to a greater degree, it is thought experiment on how a supernatural phenomenon like invisibility would function in the world; both practically in a sort of scientific sense and socially.

In War of the Worlds (1898), Wells turned to the notion of alien invasion, a topos so common to science fiction, both in literature and film, that it almost seems redundant to point out.

In When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), Wells revisits the future, but while the plot obviously (on a strictly technical level) involves a form of "time travel," it is different from The Time Machine in that it is merely an enhanced version of the time travelling we all do on a daily basis. As such, perhaps, the focus should be more on the topos of stories set in the future; but it is hard to not also note that the notion of extended sleep brings cryogenics and options for space travel to mind for modern readers.

And finally, in The First Men in the Moon (1901), Wells turned his attention to space travel (Verne having, of course, been there ahead of him in From the Earth to the Moon and Round the Moon) as well as another instance of first contact with an alien culture.

In short, Wells managed to cover most (if not all) of the major topoi of science fiction in a period of six years and, it could arguably be said, laid a good foundation for the genre; both terms of establishing topoi and in terms of literary style. Because I dare anyone to call Wells writing lesser literature. This is writing with a fine and acute sense for language, to be sure.

When he dies on August 13, 1946, he had long since turned to other forms of writing, but his influence on the genre of science fiction cannot be denied. In fact, it can be quite clearly seen to this day.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

First Lines Quiz #2 — Music: And the Correct Answers Are...

1. Genesis, "Dancing with the Moonlit Knight"

2. Muse, "Supermassive Black Hole"

3. Queen, "Another One Bites the Dust"

4. Pink Floyd, "Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1"

5. Porcupine Tree, "Fear of a Blank Planet"

6. David Bowie, "Ashes to Ashes"

7. Marillion, "Script for a Jester's Tear"

8. Van der Graaf Generator, "La Rossa"

9. Judas Priest, "Dissident Aggressor"

10. Sting, "Russians"

Not that many participants this time around and seeing as how both of them clocked in one correct answer each, I think they both deserve honorary mentions: lazy and Tom.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

First Lines Quiz #2 — Music

Back in August, I did a First Lines Quiz inspired by my friend Lazy over at Lazy's Library. Then (as in Lazy's inspirational case) the challenge was to recognise from which book (by which author) the first lines in question were taken.

This time, however, I decided to try something slightly different, since I figured the quiz would work just as well with music. So, from which songs (by which artists/bands) are the following first lines taken?

1. "Can you tell me where my country lies?"

2. Oo baby don't you know I suffer

3. Steve walks warily down the street

4. Daddy's flown across the ocean

5. Sunlight coming through the haze

6. Do you remember a guy that's been

7. So here I am once more in the playground of the broken hearts

8. Lacking sleep and food and vision here I am again, encamped upon your floor

9. Grand canyons of space and time universal

10. In Europe and America, there's a growing feeling of hysteria

I hope you'll enjoy the challenge and good luck!

Friday, 13 November 2009

Some Thoughts on Genre

I promised in a previous post to talk a little about genre...

Genre is many things, it would seem.

Roughly speaking, I would say that there are two major different types of genre: content genres and format genres. Perhaps this is more than a bit simplified, especially considering the great amount of critical literature on genre and genre studies, but nevertheless, I feel that it is a valid view.

Content genres are, of course, genres who are defined (at least primarily) by a specific content, say science fiction or fantasy. This is not to say that some such genres can't also have certain elements and conceits vis-a-vis format, but their primary definition relies on the content they display.

Format genres, on the other hand, are defined by their format, on how they shape a text, for instance, say like poetry or novels or sonnets. And now you probably stopped abruptly with a "wait a minute" on your lips. Yes, I did write both poetry and sonnet there (cleverly separated by the novels, don't you think), and no, I did not make a mistake nor am I so badly schooled as to be unaware of the fact that sonnets are in fact poetry. My point, however, was to bring us to another complication; i.e. that genres exist as an interrelated network of hierarchical structures.

What I mean is that both within content and format genres we have levels at which these genres operate. Poetry gives us a broad genre understanding of the work at hand, whereas sonnet gives us a much more specific one, bound by rhyme schemes and metre as it were. Both describe the same thing, but with different specificity. Equally I might also say that an alexandrine is poetry (since it is true), although I couldn't claim that an alexandrine were a sonnet, or vice versa.

Basically, it's a system of species and subdivision, much similar to the old adage "a horse is an animal, but not all animals are horses."

To complicate matter even further though, it is of course, at this point, worth saying that we can cross-breed genres on the same level and of the same type, and then of course add distinctions on various levels.

So, we could have a poem, narrative in nature (and I guess function), perhaps even using the specific format of the sonnet (by using a sequence of sonnets most likely to get enough space to properly have time and space to tell a story) which is used to tell a science fiction and crime cross-breed, where we might also even be able to define a specific SF subgenre (say space opera) and a specific crime subgenre (say forensic).

As such, the definitions can occur on a very fine level or a more general one, focus on the content or the format. They will be important for the writer to understand when he or she sets out to use specific genres, yet will also be interacting with the text in manners which proves to us that an author can never fully control which genre he or she is writing in. There will always be sliding and overlapping, and the reader or viewer will inevitably see things that he or she reads or views based on what he or she knows.

Which of course isn't to say that the author can sit back and simply not care.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

A Grizzly Story or a Disney Story: Thoughts on Herzog's Grizzly Man

Last evening, I watched Werner Herzog's documentary Grizzly Man, about bear lover and fanatic (for want of a better word) Timothy Treadwell. The film, made by Herzog in 2005, is composed mainly from the the over 100 hours of video filmed by Treadwell during the last five of his 13 summers spent up in grizzly bear country in Alaska, until he and his then girlfriend were killed and devoured by a bear in 2003. Despite this fact, the film has clear marks of Herzog in the way it has been edited together and the questions it raises.

If Treadwell, a recovering alcoholic and failed actor, can be described (quite aptly) as a natural Romantic, Herzog on the other hand serves as a more cynical counterpoint. For Herzog nature offers nothing Romantically sublime, but rather an utter indifference (something which Herzog's narration in the film returns to over and over again). To him, Treadwell's story is interesting mainly from two angles, both of which continually shine through:
1) the film maker's, i.e. the fact that Treadwell's footage captures scenes that are filmically sublime, in some sense; perhaps in their capturing the unforeseen and the spontaneous;
2) the human one, i.e. in Herzog's view, and the view of the finished film, Treadwell's footage tells us less about bears than about human beings, exemplified by that one human being, Timothy Treadwell.

Yet, between Treadwell's natural Romanticism and Herzog's cynical view of nature, the film brings out a third point of some importance, at least in my own analysis of it. People around Treadwell (former friends, lovers and acquaintances) continually talk about him as a person who wanted to be a bear. This is a line which his monologues on camera problematically both reaffirms and disclaims (the latter mostly in footage where he claims not to be one of the bears, but rather something like their lord and master).

Now, the notion of living with animals on the animals' terms is perhaps not as ludicrous as Herzog would seem to think. People like Dian Fossey who lived with the gorillas in Rwanda in such a manner seem to be proof of that possibility, but Treadwell for all his 13 summers in the Alaskan grizzly bear country does not seem to have been part of this. Don't get me wrong, I do not doubt that Treadwell himself believed that he was doing just that, but what his filmed material reveals something different. In none of the many clips Herzog has chosen to include in the film does Treadwell interact with the grizzly bears on the grizzly bears' term. Rather he talks to them as if they were cuddly toys (in a manner most resembling Fab 5's Carson Kressley gone nature fanatic).

I am here also reminded of The Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, whose show continuously from within the confines of civilisation makes it abundantly clear that even those animals who are among the most domesticated by us are after all a different species. While communication is possible, such a thing necessitates an understanding of that difference, of finding ways to communicate with the animal in their own language as it were. In Cesar Millan's case, this means understanding the rules of dominance and submission inherent in canine pack mentality and never mistaking the dog's expressions for human expressions.

Treadwell, while claiming to understand the language of the bears and wanting, perhaps, to be one, shows no such actual tendencies in the material we are shown. In fact, if anything, the film offers the complete opposite. With his overly film-oriented persona he brings the age of reality TV to mind (e.g. shows like Jackass, Wild Boyz or the late Steve Irwin's Crocodile Hunter, though admittedly with a different sentimental flavour), and this is where the focus ceases to be the grizzly bears and truly becomes Treadwell himself. Herzog's revelation of repeated takes on Treadwell's part brings this very conscious film maker to the fore and some of his more emotional rants also show us the failed actor still acting out (Herzog's somewhat "veiled" reference to Klaus Kinski and his own collaborations with that man, so wonderfully depicted in the documentary Mein liebster Feind, brings this out even more).

In the final analysis, Treadwell was not so much a man who had gone bear (to paraphrase an old saying). He was a recovering alcoholic who had managed to turn his back on booze by substituting it with something else. And that something else was apparently a somewhat delusional view of the natural world of the grizzly bears. Without being able to stomach the "unfairness" (a very human concept, I think you will agree) of the natural order of things, be it young cubs killed by their elders or droughts that have Treadwell raging at deities he expresses no belief in (well, maybe some belief when rain actually appears), and with his insistent habit of talking to the animals as if they were small children (in a rather cute manner, as it were), it simply becomes impossible to see Treadwell as an actual part of the bear community. He becomes a, perhaps benign (at least in the most direct sense), intruder in the world of these grizzly bears; one that was allowed for a time to co-exist in their habitat (obviously on borrowed time, as it turned out), but an intruder nonetheless. Because Treadwell obviously desired a fantasy world. His was the desire to be a Tarzan or a Mowgli, a child of the woods, of the animals; but animals as understood from a Disney-fied perspective.

Throughout the film, Treadwell continuously talks about his respect for the bears (and the foxes). Yet his continuous, cute commentary and dialogue with them (including telling the animals repeatedly that he loves them) reveals little respect for them to my eyes. That is, at least if respect in any way means understanding the Other on its own terms rather than on your own terms. Because Treadwell, for all his rants and ravings against civilisation, was at the end of the day anthropomorphizing the bears and the foxes he interacted with, attributing them human emotions and responses rather than actually trying to understand these animals on their own terms (and seemingly expecting them to understand him on his).

In the end, to return to the title of this post, Timothy Treadwell's story was a (somewhat delusional) Disney story which turned into a grizzly story, simply because there is no other way such a story could end. Understanding the Other, whether in a cultural sense or (as in this case) a species sense, necessitates a proper understanding of the terms of interaction. Projecting one's own terms upon the world can not yield any true results; nothing more than a life inside a projected fantasy bubble. And those have a tendency to be shattered pretty harshly.