Nightstand II

It’s always nice to have things easily to hand. From bottom to top again:

Yogi Kondo et al. Interstellar Travel and Multi-generation Space Ships. This seems to be papers presented at an AAAS symposium with the same title as the book. In other words, some serious looks at a few of the technical issues such an undertaking raises.

Jacqueline Koyanagi. Ascension: A Tangled Axon Novel. Kameron Hurley’s blurb promises us “…badass women running around doing badass things….” Both this and the book above were in the swag bag at Capclave 2014. I’ve barely glanced at either. But (hey!) free books — what’s not to like?

John Clute. Scores: Reviews 1993–2003. Speaking of Capclave, here’s the first of my loot from the dealers’ room. Clute is one of the best critics writing today, but this book’s typography is absolutely appalling: pale, spindly, too tight, and littered with errors.

George R. Stewart. Names on the Land. The classic study of American toponyms.

Henry Mayhew. London Labour and the London Poor, Volume II: The London Street-Folk (continued). Another classic study, in the Dover facsimile reprint. This is the place to go if you want to learn about, say, rag-pickers. And who doesn’t want to learn about rag-pickers?

John Clute. Canary Fever: Reviews. Further Capclave loot. More of the same from Mr. Clute: perceptive writing, rendered painful to read by incompetent typography. It’s set slightly larger than Scores — but such sloppy proofreading! such stingy margins! such horrendous spacing!

John Clute. Look at the Evidence: Essays and Reviews. Ah! What a pleasure this one is (yet more Capclave loot). Here the craft of the physical book is at a level with the writing in the book. Clever apercus! Proper small caps! Insightful critiques! Even typographic color! And — something amazing for a book at this price — a sewn binding!

Avram Davidson. The Island Under the Earth. The last of my Capclave purchases: a pristine Ace paperback of a fine story by a criminally neglected genius. I am making progress towards my goal of acquiring a copy of every word the man ever published.

Retrospective diagnosis

Attempting to impose a modern medical interpretation upon symptoms that have long since carried away their sufferers is always a chancy affair, and the older the facts the more dubious the conclusion.

Consider the case of Elizabeth Kelly, eight years old.


I. Sunday 23 March 1662

Elizabeth attends meeting 9 a.m. to noon. She then goes with Goody Ayres to the Ayres home, where Goody Ayres “did take broth hot out of the boiling pot and did immediately eat thereof and did require our said child to eat with her the same […] whereupon she began to complain of pain at her stomach for which pain I gave her a small dose of the powder of angelica root which gave her some present {=immediate} ease.”

They return to the meeting, then home. Elizabeth “did not much complain at her return home, but three hours in the night next following the said child […] did suddenly start up out of her sleep and holding up her hands cried: Father! Father! Help me! Help me! Good Wife Ayres is upon me. She chokes me. She kneels on my belly. She will break my bowels. She pinches me.”


II. Monday 24 March

These outcries against Goody Ayers and symptoms of pain and discomfort continue most of the night and the following Monday. “We used what physical helps {=herbal medicines} we could obtain, and that without delay, but could neither conceive, nor others for us, that her malady was natural.” (The deponent here and above is Elizabeth’s father. I do not have access to the original document; I am quoting from a modernized version given in R. G. Tomlinson, Witchcraft Prosecutions. The editorial glosses are mine.)


III. Tuesday 25 March

“In this sad condition she continued until Tuesday.” There is a temporary respite of the symptoms: “While the said Ayres was there, the child seemed indifferent well and fell asleep.”


IV. Wednesday 26 March

“The said Ayres departing, the child was more quiet till midnight. Then she broke out fresh, as before, against Goody Ayres. […] In this plight she continued until Wednesday night and then died. At last spake was, Goody Ayres chokes me. Then she was speechlessness.”


V. The inquest, 28 March?

“Wee whose names are under written, were called forth and desired to take notes, of the dead child of John Kelly, doe hereby testifie, what wee saw as followeth: the child was brought forth and layd upon aforme, by the good wife Aeres and good wife waples, and the face of it beinge uncovered good wife Aeires was desired, by John Kelly to come up to it and to handle it; the child havinge purged alittle at the mouth the goodwife Aeires wiped the corner of the childs mouth with acloth, and then shee was desired to turne up the sleeve of the arme and shee did indeavour to doe it, but the sleeve beinge some what straight, shee could not well doe it. then John Kelly himselfe ripped up both the sleeves of the armes {text crossed out} and upon the back side of both the armes, from the elbow to the top of the shoulders were black and blew, as if they had bin bruised or beaten, after this the child was turned over upon the right side and set upon the belly, and then there came such a sent from the corps, as that it caused some to depart the roome, as Gregorie wolterton, and George Grave, then the child being turned again, and layd into the coffin John Kelly desired them to come into the roome againe, to see the childs face, and then wee saw upon the right cheeke, of the childs face, a reddish tawny great spott, which covered agreat parte of the cheeke, it beinge on the side next to goodwife Aeires where shee stoode, this spot or bloach was not seene before the child was turned and the armes of the child did apeare to be vere limber, in the handlinge of them; Thomas Catling Gregory wolerton {illegible} Thomas Bull Joseph Marsh Nath willet George Grave” (Samuel Wyllys Papers, Case of Goody Ayers: Testimony of the Inquest Committee)


VI. The autopsy, 30 March?

Performed at the graveside by Dr. Bryan Rossiter, who presented his report on 31 March. This is the first recorded autopsy in Connecticut, and perhaps the second in New England, and it will be apparent that Rossiter had little experience with dissection, or even of cadavers at all. Here is his report in full:

“All these six particulars underwritten I judge preternatural: Upon the open of John Kelly’s child at the grave, I observed:

“1. The whole body; the musculous parts, nerves and joints were all pliable, without any stiffness or contraction, the gullet only excepted. Experience of dead bodies renders such symptoms unusual.

“2. From the costal ribs to the bottom of the belly, in the whole latitude of the womb, both the scarf skin {=epidermis} and the whole skin with the enveloping or covering flesh {=peritoneum} had a deep blue tincture, whereas the inward part thereof was fresh and the bowels under it in true order without any discoverable peccancy {=disease} to cause such an effect or symptom.

“3. No quantity or appearance of blood was in either venter {=lower abdomen} or cavity such as breast or belly but in the throat only at the very swallow {=glottis?} where there was as large a quantity at that part could well contain, both fresh and fluid and in no way congealed or clotted but as it comes from a vein opened, so that I could stroke it out with my finger like water.

“4. There was the appearance of pure, fresh blood in the backside of the arm, affecting the skin as blood itself without bruising or congealing.

“5. The bladder of gall was broken and curded without any tincture in adjacent parts.

“6. The gullet or swallow was contracted like a hard fish bone so that hardly a pea could be forced through.” (Tomlinson, op. cit.; the glosses are again mine.)


VII. The conclusion

The contemporary determination of cause of death was, of course, witchcraft. If we reject that diagnosis, what, with the information available, might we propose instead?

Against originality

There is after all no such thing.

There simply cannot be!

This can be proved from first principles.

Words — and therefore sentences, paragraphs, pages, books — acquire what meaning they have, termed an acceptation, by the general consensus of a language community. Words mean what we use them to mean. But we cannot use words arbitrarily, or at least not if we expect to be understood. I may call a lion a blanket but no one will understand “lion” when I say blanket; they will understand “blanket.” Such fatal slippages may occur on the lexical level (malapropisms), the syntactic level (solecisms), or the discourse level (Finnegans Wake, Dada). Originality is the enemy of comprehension. Q., as one likes to say, E. D.

But, a querulous reader might object, you are talking about innovation, not originality.  —Cliche, too, is the enemy of comprehension, this reader might point out. —Boredom is the enemy of comprehension. Titillate us, this reader might exhort, with the new, the never-before-read, the thrill of the unknown!

O hypothetical reader! So logical. So greedy.

Why not be satisfied with reiterations of what you’ve already read? Most people are, you know. Sure, it’s dressed up in fancy new duds, but it’s the same old bones and flesh underneath. Watch it dance!

Well. I concede this much: boredom is the enemy. But the stuff of story is always matter that we’ve seen before, rearranged and repainted in brighter colors. Have you never read Television Tropes & Idioms? In the truly original, in the really, actually never-seen-before, what is there for us to grasp hold of? How could we understand it? “If a lion could talk et cetera.” We should approach the rootlessly new with baby steps.

I’ve nothing against innovation, don’t misunderstand. But the fetishization of originality — “MAKE IT NEW!” — “ÉTONNEZ-MOI!” — is a disease of Modernism (note the capital M) that we need to inoculate ourselves against. It’s a recent fad, and one that we should have long since outgrown. Consider Pope:

Some to conceit alone their taste confine,
And glitt’ring thoughts struck out at ev’ry line;
Pleased with a work where nothing’s just or fit,
One glaring chaos and wild heap of wit.
Poets, like painters, thus, unskilled to trace
The naked nature and the living grace,
With gold and jewels cover every part,
And hide with ornaments their want of art.
True wit is nature to advantage dressed,
What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed;
Something, whose truth convinced at sight we find,
That gives us back the image of our mind[.]

But true expression, like th’ unchanging sun,
Clears and improves whate’er it shines upon,
It gilds all objects, but it alters none.
Expression is the dress of thought, and still
Appears more decent as more suitable;

And but so mimic ancient wits at best,
As apes our grandsires, in their doublets dressed.
In words, as fashions, the same rule will hold,
Alike fantastic, if too new, or old;
Be not the first by whom the new are tried,
Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.


This is the rational impulse of humanism, refusing to bow to either Apollo or Dionysus, rejecting both extremes. Boredom is indeed the enemy (“We cannot blame indeed — but we may sleep”). Let us chart, then, a middle course, between the Scylla of the artist-as-divinity and the Charybdis of the artist-as-drudge; and let our craft be called Artifice (with its sails of labor filled with the winds of inspiration), and let us navigate across all the infinite seas (because all the seas are one) to another world, a new one, a better one. A little at a time.

The most glamorous fraud in the world

Everyone loves lists, making lists being one of the chief delights of mastering the arts of literacy. The best lists are capricious, free-form, and strongly believed in, like this one:

Bringing Up Baby: It’s silly and ridiculous and sidesplittingly, eye-wateringly hilarious. I’ve seen it umpteen times and it is always just as fresh and delightful as it was the first time.

Heart of Glass: Haunting and weird and pretentious as fuck but beautiful, beautiful. I had an art teacher in middle school who liked to say: “There are no boring subjects, only bored people.” Don’t be a bored person!

8 1/2: If the first ten minutes don’t have you jaw-dropped and goggle-eyed, then there’s something wrong with your soul. Perhaps it could be missing…? And that’s just ten minutes, there’s so much more!

Eclipse: I hadn’t seen this for years when I happened across it on television. I came in on it towards the end, Monica Vitti is having a little spat with someone (Alain Delon!), then she goes shopping, buys something, and walks out of the frame. The movie keep going for another ten minutes, and we never see any of the characters again, just traffic, rainwater, trees swaying in the wind—but it is mesmerizing! Pure visual poetry.

Barry Lyndon: Pure visual poetry again, but of a more epic kind, and funny too. Also desperately pathetic and heart-wrenching. It’s just as important not to take the cynical and worldly narrator too seriously as it is not to accept Barry Lyndon’s version of himself at face value.

Edward II. There’s something about all of Jarman’s films that enthralls and intrigues. It’s not the homoeroticism—although that is of course always delightful—nor even Tilda Swinton—still the most beautiful woman in the world, as everyone knows—but something deeper, closer to the bone. The enthusiasm with which he embraces anachronism and narrative discontinuity, knowing that they’re both unavoidable, really, so why not put them to artistic use? His honesty in admitting he doesn’t know the answers to the problems he confronts, and not knowing is no barrier to finding out but rather the first step. And his anger, his refreshing anger, at all the cant and deceit and hatred and futile destruction in the world-as-it-is.

Prospero’s Books. You know how sometimes a movie will have an extraordinary title sequence, wow bam boom zoowie, and then the movie proper starts and it’s shit? Prospero’s Books has an opening like that, and then it just keeps on going, and you think: He can’t keep this up, he just can’t, it’s impossible. But he does. He does.

The greatest writer in the universe (I)

Is of course Joanna Russ.

Where did I first encounter her work?

It may have been her book reviews in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late seventies (of the previous century, I mean; I was a teenager, I’m not that old). Certainly they have formed my view as science fiction as a literature; how much so I did not appreciate until rereading them earlier this year in The Country You Have Never Seen.

Or maybe a story I read there? “The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand” is a splendid pastiche of Verne, with not a sting in its tail but a caress.

Or did the essay in Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw make me go out and buy up everything of hers in print?

Because I did. It took a while, but I have every book of hers as listed in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. I am a completist for only a few writers—Russ, Davenport, Yourcenar, Crowley (John, not Aleister), Shaw, Disch, this is not an exhaustive list—but Wow! I must read them all! I must have my own copy so that I can read it again and again! This was my reaction to encountering Joanna Russ.

What prose, what intelligence, what beauty and compassion. What humanity. I like books that make me feel more intelligent than I actually am. (It’s a vice, perhaps.) Joanna Russ’s books make you feel more humane that you actually are. They’re a view—like peering through a knot-hole in a barricade—onto a larger, a wider, a better world.


A real mermaid in a real river, twenty knights on bay horses, Charles le Magne ceding to the Duke of Anjou, a bridge built on one side of the stage while on the other swarms of workmen methodically erect and demolish a miniature castle twenty-five feet high, the invasion of the north by the pagans, Eleanor the Fair brought with a train of horsemen, bridesmaids, nobles, counts, and servants to wed Louis the Pious “who never showed his white teeth in a smile” and through it all, here, there, everywhere, now cajoling, now laughing, now pointing, making faces, preternaturally active, skipping, calling on the music—the Satyr, the genius loci of the beech woods, whose gray, smooth, straight trunks surrounded the entire natural amphitheater, producing at the top a half-canopy of new leaves: limp, half-extended, like umbrellas with the skeleton showing through the early-spring substance and just the color of new lettuce.



She was a soft-spoken, dark-haired, small-boned woman, not even coming up to their shoulders, like a kind of dwarf or miniature—but that was normal for a Mediterranean Greek of nearly four millennia ago, before super-diets and hybridization from seventy colonized planets had turned humanity (so she had been told) into Scandinavian giants. The young lieutenant, who was two meters and third tall, or three heads more than herself, very handsome and ebony-skinned, said “I’m sorry, ma’am, but I cannot believe you’re the proper Trans-Temporal Agent; I think—” and he finished his thought on the floor, his head under one of her ankles and this slight young woman (or was she young? Trans-Temp did such strange things sometimes!) somehow holding him down in a position he could not get out of without hurting himself to excruciation. She let him go. She sat down on the balloon-inflated thing they provided for sitting on in these strange times, looking curiously at the super-men and super-women, and said, “I am the Agent. My name is Alyx,” and smiled. She was in a rather good humor. It still amused her to watch this whole place, the transparent columns the women wore instead of clothing, the parts of the walls that pulsated in and out and changed color, the strange floor that waved like grass, the three-dimensional vortices that kept springing to life on what would have been the ceiling if it had only stayed in one place (but it never did) and the general air of unhappy, dogged, insistent, sad restlessness. “A little bit of home,” the lieutenant had called it. He had seemed to find particular cause for nostalgia in a lime-green coil that sprang out of the floor whenever anybody dropped anything, to eat it up, but it was “not in proper order” and sometimes you had to fight it for something you wanted to keep. The people moved her a little closer to laughter. One of them leaned toward her now.

“Pardon me,” said this one effusively—it was one of the ladies—”but is that face yours? I’ve heard that Trans-Temp does all sorts of cosmetic work and I thought they might—”

“Why yes,” said Alyx, hoping against hope to be impolite. “Are those breasts yours? I can’t help noticing—”

“Not at all!” cried the lady happily. “Aren’t they wonderful? They’re Adrian’s. I mean they’re by Andrian.”

“I think that’s enough,” said the lieutenant.



And the whisper comes again, but louder this time—Shall these bones live!—and it stirs the edge of Zubeydeh’s veil where she sits brooding over the abyss. And a little, errant breeze without the power of a fingernail goes down into the valley and breathes over the dry bones, a little breeze not even as alive as the real Aunt Dunya’s voice, which now passes from wall to wall over the dead watercourse and the barren rocks. It is nothing living but only the memory of another voice, the voice of Dunyazad, Shahrazad’s sister, that mad, dead, haunted woman who could not tell stories, who could not save herself. It is the voicelessness of Dunyazad that passes like a sigh from wall to wall of the valley of dry bones and shivers faintly over the multitude of the dead. It has no Word. It has nothing to say. It whispers its crazy nonsense thoughtlessly and hopelessly to nothing at all, but where it passes, throughout the length of that still, grey place, there is the barest shiver, the faintest stir, the dimmest, most imperceptible rustling. You can barely see it. You can barely hear it. From autumn leaf to autumn leaf goes the message: something, nothing, everything. Something is coming out of nothing. For the first time, something will be created out of nothing. There is not a drop of water, not a blade of grass, not a single word.

But they move.

And they rise.