Wednesday, August 09, 2006
In the Penny Press!
As some of you may know, I'm a big fan of the novels and short stories of James Tiptree, and I'm grieved there will be no more. I think the novel "Up the Walls of the World" is on of the best of the genre (see my Top 50 list, when I get around to posting it), and if anything, the short stories are even better.
The most amazing extra-literary thing about James Tiptree was, of course, that he was Alice Sheldon. That fact wasn't known to the science fiction community at large for many years, during which sci-fi magazines and conventions teemed with rumors about who exactly this person was, sending in one fantasic short story after another from a Post Office box in Washington. I have a very long history of writing under psuedonymns myself, so I consider this great fun.
Imagine my delight, then, when the latest issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction published a long collection of letters to and fro between Tiptree and Ursula LeGuin, another giant of the genre, who had at the time no idea that Tiptree wasn't a man.
The collection, "Dear Starbear: Letters between Urusula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree," edited by Julie Phillips, is the only bright light in what was otherwise an utterly wretched DESERT of an issue, stuffed from stem to stern with groaningly awful short stories and puerile book reviews. When Gardner Dozois, in his introduction to the latest "Year's Best Science Fiction," urges sci-fi readers to subscribe to the monthly magazines in order to save them from oblivion, he perhaps forgets that first the magazines in question have to NOT SUCK.
But OH! WHAT a bright spot! The letters between these two are near-perfect examples of all that snail-mail correspondence could be, in its 600-year-long heyday. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the two women in question are steeply, roastingly smart - the letters scintillate with wit, depth, and most of all the kind of effervescent playfulness that bubbles up uncontrollably when two people find that 'click.'
I've been actively pursuing friendships with humans for a very long time, and that process of 'clicking' mystifies me as much now as it ever has. Even after all this time studying it, I can honestly say I only know four things about it: 1) it has nothing to do with shared background, intellectual capacity, or interests, 2) it is giddyingly joyful to feel, perhaps adult life's sweetest pleasure, many times sweeter than 'falling in love' (anyone who's experienced both will attest to that), 3) It doesn't necessarily lead to sober, life-long friendships, and 4) Its disappearance can never be predicted, and that disappearance hurts like hell.
LeGuin and Tiptree very much 'click' in these wonderful letters, and they clearly both realize it.
I thought the best bits were when either writer, comfortable in the privacy of their correspondence (the perennial guilt of reading letter-collections is that you become a guilty party in the rupturing of that confidentiality), feels free to riff on their peers in the sci-fi community.
Imagine my delight when Tiptree writes this about Philip K. Dick, so revered by all the twenty-somethings I know who only like him because they're too snobby to descend to reading ACTUAL science fiction:
"And Dick ... I know precisely what you mean, he's a mass of flaws that spell out JACKPOT. A sort of total dogged naivete, the language creaking and jerking so you can't believe it, any ten-year-old would know better - like a magician with muscular distrophy, you see the pigeons lumping around in his sleeves and the thousand silk scarves on the floor - my god, can he have the nerve to go on with this? - and yet it works. Like you, I shall firmly maintain that that thing hopping around on the floor is positively NOT an escaped rabbit - until it's recognized that he's done something unique&grand&lovely&nutty. Or until somebody comes along & does it better."
(And before any of you aforementioned 20-somethings pipes up that Tiptree is kinda sorta PRAISING Dick in the above passage, let me cut you off with a pro-active SHADDUP. Tiptree is roundly damning the man's writing ability, which is all I'm talking about and all YOU should be talking about. If you're reading somebody because you think he's 'counter-culture' or would piss off your parents, if you're reading him for those reasons DESPITE the fact that he's a crappy writer, then you're an idiot who's doing a disservice to the entire endeavor of literature)
Reading these letters, entirely engrossed in their ongoing story, I was on the edge of my seat to learn if Tiptree actually tells LeGuin that he's a man, and if so, does it explode their correspondence? And sure enough, he DOES tell her his huge bombshell - that he's Alice Sheldon - in a singularly brave letter that closes by hoping they can still correspond.
And LeGuin's answer has to be one of the coolest (and you all know how I hate that word) things I've ever read:
oh strange, most strange, most wonderful, beautiful, improbable - Wie geht's, Schwesterlein? sorella mia, sistersoul! Do you know what? I don't think I have ever been SURPRISED before. Things have happened but when they happen one thinks Oh, of course, this had to Be, etc., deep in my prophetic soul I Knew, etc. - but not this time, by God! And it is absolutely a delight, a joy, for some reason, to be truly absolutely flatfootedly surprised - it's like a Christmas present!"
If by some serpentine chance Julie Phillips should ever stumble upon this little blog: please! Give us more Tiptree letters! He maintained spirited correspondences with half the leading lights of sci-fi in the 70s, surely there's a lot more out there? I, for one, am now distantly hoping for a Collected Letters of Tiptree...
The other periodical on our radar today is the latest issue of Vanity Fair, which I bought mainly for the article about the relationship between the two Presidents Bush.
The first frickin paragraph of the article makes it clear, however, that the writer got no further than front-gate security with either man. The article is consequently full of bootless speculation and manufactured musings by fictitious 'old friends of the family,' and honestly, who needs to read THAT?
Fortunately, the issue had lots and lots of other good stuff in it, including, amazingly enough, a very enjoyable piece on the season's fashion shows in Milan, written by the talented - and very openly gay - actor Rupert Everett. Considering the fact that Everett is also extremely handsome, sending him on a backstage junket to MIlan seemed like sending Linda Tripp to do a back-kitchen piece on Wendy's, but - mirabile dictu - it works.
The reason is that Everett is actually a pretty talented and zingy writer, a fact I should have remembered, since I very much enjoyed his novel "Hello, Darling, Are You Working?"
The article is called "Lips Together, Knees Apart," and here's my favorite little bit, culled from very many very good little bits:
"So who is the Jill Sander man? Did I want to be him, or what can he do for me? Is he a lesbian? The little black suit I'm wearing from the store is heavy and tailored. The short jacket feels like a corset, but the effect is clean and simple and I feel like a Swedish journalist. The clothes on the catwalk are minimalist, boxlike, and boyish - narrow trousers and big shoes, beautifully made in black and beige, with bright-colored Pakamacs and jerseys, but there is no mystique in the narrow leg of the trouser. At least not for a man. The very minimalism seems to reduce masculinity to limp adolescence, and, almost as if to make this point, the models file down the catwalk listless and shell-shocked, a Zoloft generation of schoolboys on the way home from an act of violence."
The breezy fun of this proved a needed tonic against the grim tidings in the rest of the issue (contrary to what magazine-snobs reflexively think about Vanity Fair, at least half of every issue is thought-provoking, grim stuff - say what you want about Graydon Carter, but he's clearly instructed his editors to pay for good meaty stuff to balance out all the frangrance ads he needs to pay the bills ... although no grace-note is possible for putting Kate Moss on the cover and making mention on the inside of the 'tabloid-storm' that descended on her last year; um, she was caught snorting coke ON FILM ... it's not like anything 'descended' on her at random)
By far the most wrenching of these grim pieces is Michael Bronner's examination of the U.S. Air Force's minute-by-minute response to the events of the morning of 9/11. Bronner was given access to the tapes from the Northeast Air Defense Sector for that morning, and several of the people involved spoke to him on the record.
The resulting picture - of competent, well-intentioned professionals caught completely off guard - ends up being quietly harrowing.
As you're reading along and these people encounter one possible hijacking on their screens, go through the (to us, in hindsight) torturously slow process of discerning that it's not a safety drill, then encounter ANOTHER hijacking .... and then a THIRD ... and then a FOURTH ... you practically want to weep right onto the page.
The central character to emerge from all of this is Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Nasypany, general commander on the 'ops floor' during the crisis, and someday, when CGI technology allows any images of any actor to play any part, a movie will be made from this article, and Nasypany will be played by a 48-year-old Robert Duvall, and if computer programs can win Oscars, he'll win one. Nasypany comes off as just about the best kind of guy the US could have hoped to have in that worst of all situations (and it's not just Bronner's take on things; the article provides a link to actually hear some of the tapes - at vf.com, of course).
The article closes with this:
"When I asked Nasypany about the conspiracy theories - the people who believe that he, or somebody like him, secretly ordered the shootdown of United 93 and covered it up - the corners of his mouth began to quiver. Then, I think to the surprise of both of us, he suddenly put his head in his hands and cried. "Flight 93 was not shot down," he said when he finally looked up. "The individuals on that aircraft, the passengers, they actually took the aircraft down. Because of what those people did, I didn't have to do anything."
I have as much fun with 9/11 conspiracy theories as the next person, but I think I'll be a little hesitant next time, after reading that.
The shortest piece in the issue was by William Langewiesche, VF's new foreign correspondant. As some of you may know, I'm a huge fan of Langewiesche, consider him to be one of the finest freelancers out there (along with Scott Raab, of course) - which is why this piece, "Baghdad is Burnin," was a little disappointing. Maybe it was just the subject matter, but to me it felt a little strident and provisional.
One part struck me especially:
"The history [of America's attempts to install a functional democracy in Iraq] now seems long, though it is short: having overthrown the regime without a plan on how to govern, and having reeled back from the ensuing chaos, the United States set up a traditional colonial authority, headed by an American proconsul, Paul Bremer, that was intended to rebuild the country, improve the physical infrastructure, establish the rule of law, eliminate corruption, install a capitalist economy, and generally Americanize Iraq before gradually handing it over, years hence, to a sovereign democratic process. There was at first no rush. But, for complex reasons - including simply that we live in a post-colonial era - the United States soon turned out to be a poor colonial master."
I'll bet those of you who know me can just guess what I think of this, right?
America turned out to be a poor colonial master not because we live in a post-colonial era but because America never set out to COLONIZE Iraq. Instead, America did what it always does, this weird, lethal ... what? I don't even know what to call it - armed wishful thinking? Violent wait-and-see? The entire situation in Iraq - regardless for the moment of whether or not it should have been created in the first place, a separate question - could be entirely SOLVED in six months if America decided it actually wanted to COLONIIZE Iraq.
And none of this business of eventually, years hence, turning the country back over to its native inhabitants. The only reason anybody today thinks that's the necessary end-note of colonialization is because it happened repeatedly to the British in the 20th century. But it happened to the British because they couldn't PREVENT it - tough to crush uprisings in New Delhi when you're living on US Army dried milk back at home. If colonizing powers CAN keep their colonies, they bloody well WILL (just ask my friend Pepito about the history of his own beautiful homeland of Puerto Rico, with special emphasis on who the island's CURRENT "colonial master" is).
The model here shouldn't be glam-rock England. It should be Rome under the Antonines. The process is very simple.
You perceive a foreign country as a threat to you. It helps if this threat goes hand-in-hand with that foreign country HAVING something you want. Iraq sits on rich oil fields. Parthia sits on rich silk routes from the East. Nobody ever fights a pre-emptive war with Ethiopia.
You send in your troops and cast out the country's ruling elite. You install, as Langewiesche says, a proconsul. You give him, of course, control over your occupying forces, otherwise who's GOING to control them?
Then you do some simple things: you install your own countrymen in ALL higher governmental offices. You of course, OF COURSE don't allow ANY of your conquered subjects to hold positions of any power whatsoever (because, as any 5-year-old can reason out, they hate you and will use whatever power they have to hurt you).
Since you'll be faced initially with inevitable local insurgencies, you impose martial law and a strict curfew - the Romans always madee it sunset - immediately. You put up posters everywhere with one simple declaration: any infration, however small or explicable, will be punished by death. No more than fifteen executions later, there will be no infractions.
NO free assembly of more than three people. No free commerce. No free press or television. No marriages or procreation among the natives, on penalty of deportation. All males between the ages of 15 and 60 must report to the nearest military base every morning for work detail. Work detail would consist of that 'rebuilding the infrastructure' Langewiesche mentions. Restoring the shattered economy would be the responsibility of the proconsul and his officials, and their understanding would be the same as a Roman proconsul's: make it happen, make it happen fast and well, get the country up and running again, or we'll sack you, panel a jury to sue and ruin you, and maybe, in the worst of cases, lop your head off and give somebody else the job. As long as you, personally, get to keep a part of the taxes you raise, there'll be no shortage of volunteers.
And that's the way it stays. No handing back anything to anybody. The winners run the place, and insurrections are answered with punitive thoroughness.
But then again, maybe Langewiesche is right - maybe we DO live in a post-colonial age. Even though the process I just described was absolutely standard for 6100 years of human history, there's no doubt in my mind that it would be met with international howls of protest if America tried to implement it in Iraq tomorrow. And the weird thing is, the people howling the loudest would probably be the Iraqis themselves, even though under Roman occupation they're no longer bargaining for basic food on the black market, no longer living in fear of the next bomb going off, no longer losing their husbands and wives and children on a daily basis.
People are odd. It's a strange, blind-feeling time, when history offers no answers. Equitable discussion and shared power obviously isn't working in Iraq, and yet every single one of you who just read my alternative probably thinks I'm a crackpot for even suggesting it. Strange.
Still, the important thing to remember is that all this deep thought was sparked by an article in Vanity Fair! So stop being a playah hatah and read my trollings of the NEXT issue with an open mind!
at 5:59 PM