In Which I Babble Drunkenly About Comics In 2008

Ah, but we were so young and beautiful then, weren’t we?

And so woe is me, and so here we are again, Bloggers. I am out in the weird bugmesh-sewn garment bag strung between errant trees, absorbing the beautiful sunset and the music of the Swainson’s thrush, and you are probably stuck in the riot of summer festivals, Cuban jazz, hot peppers, and slithery shots of high-priced tequila. Whilst I contemplate the mysterious proliferation of daises under the fir trees, you attend to the merest rustle of the spouse’s eyebrow beneath the bedsheets, or contemplate the exotic motions of the big-belted girl by the jukebox. Don’t you? My God, I would, if I were in your place…

But never mind that now.

I want to talk about Jack Kirby. Specifically, a scene that I’ve mentioned before, in the issue of New Gods after “The Death Wish Of Terrible Turpin” (which is some kinda comic, by the way), where we find Orion and Lightray taking it easy on some penthouse balcony owned by some unnamed fully adult woman. Lightray is just standing around, as always; Orion is sleeping.

This is where it gets good.

Oh, and why am I telling just this, just now, on my huge holiday?

Blame Jim Roeg: he’s the one who said to me that the genius of superhero comics is in the pictures — in the occasional graphic emergence of sublime delight, like a seal’s nose, from the flat water of story. For me, much as I love Kirby and Ditko, and Steranko and etc., the ultimate “sublime” guy is always gonna be Alex Toth…Good Lord, but that man knew what he was doing. Scary stuff. But, I’m off topic. Wait, let me get off a little more:

Sean W.’s “Because Fuck It” List:

Best Gene Colan: Dr. Strange/Dracula crossover.

Best Steranko: Captain America, duh, grow up Sean!

Best Writing In An Issue Of Planetary: Elijah Snow in The Lost City Of Opak-Re

Best Stan Lee Dialogue: Thor, the Mangog issues — wow, I couldn’t’ve done that, congrats Stan! Forget Warren Ellis or Alan Moore or even the sainted Steve E.! Good stuff.

Best Bendis Dialogue: Powers: The Sellouts

Best ST: TNG Episode (best of a bad lot): “Tapestry”

Best Mark Hamill Performance: Corvette Summer

Best Robert Redford Line: “We’re Not Lost”, from “The Electric Horseman”

Best Bloggers: Dave Fiore, Marc Singer, Jim Roeg, Tom Bondurant (Tom because of his incredibly awesome Friday Night Fights etc., CRIPES!), Bully

Best Hulk Artist: Gil Kane

Best Continuity Nerd: Len Wein — he invented it, after all

Best Sense Of Vista: Ross Andru

Artist Who Most Knocked Me The Fuck Out Of My Socks Ever: Steve Leialoha on Coyote #2, closely followed by Steranko’s Cap, and Kirby and Ditko’s everything

Best Cancelled Comic Of All Time: Ditko’s Shade

Best Walt Simonson: Thor. Man, that was awesome.

Best John Byrne Pencils: X-Men #137, and if you don’t think he KILLED on that, there’s something wrong with you. But let’s not leave out Terry Austin, also absolutely ROCKING it on X-Men #137, like no kidding, that was some pretty intense inking.

Best Man-Thing Artist: Mike Ploog. He drew Dawg. ‘Nuff Said.

Person I Would Like To Meet At A Con: RAB…is third, because Redhead Fangirl and Evie are both, y’know, attractive girls, and frankly RAB’s chin scares me a little. It’s just too darn scientific. Fourth is my man Sean W., because I know he’d rush the stage nine times out of ten, and besides it’s ’cause of him I’m doing these lists

The Pro I Think Is Probably The Nicest: Neil Gaiman, surely?

The Pro I Would Happily Spend A Hundred Bucks On Getting Them Shitfaced: um, surely Gail Simone?

Best New X-Men Issue: X-Men #108 (narrowly edging #137)

Best Team-Up Ever: Power Man/Iron Fist #1

Best Pure Superhero Comic Ever: Superman Vs. Spider-Man. The King James Bible of superhero comics, and I am running out of beer

Tightest Plotter: Jim Starlin, for his Epic work

Most Unknown Frighteningly Awesome Thing: Steve Englehart and Steve Ditko’s “The Djinn”

Favourite Writer Who’s Still Alive: William Messner-Loebs. Man’s a comics genius. Although when he doesn’t care — nobody doesn’t care like him

Favourite Webcomic: Tozo. So sue me.

Favourite Artist: Uderzo.

Okay, back to Kirby, and that issue of New Gods. Orion is cat-napping after his (awesome) battle with Kalibak, and the girl touches his mask…she wonders who’s under it…and then she removes the mask, and Orion wakes up, and she’s horrified at his, not just ugliness, but presentation of BAD (he is Darkseid’s son, after all), and he says something like:

“Not quite the battlefield poetry you were looking for, is it?”

In my opinion it is a truly great moment in the annals of superhero comicdom. Uncompromising: doubtless the idiot fans got turned off by it. Oh yeah, that’s what I was ranting about! Sean W. directed me to a place (I can’t be mean: it’s Barbelith) where people were wondering out loud just WHAT qualities the New Gods stood for. Which is a game for aphasics: generalize all you will, Kirby didn’t put generalizations in that mix, in fact that was kind of his point. But LORD! Did anyone ever try anything as ambitious as this EVER in the superhero comics form…! Well, yes, someone else did, but his name was JACK FUCKING KIRBY!!! (Sorry for the profanity, Jack) Wow. I was just talking with Harvey Jerkwater about this, how Jack’s moral was beautifully specific to the form he was working in/had invented…it could not have been said in a novel, it could not have been said in a poem. You have to work your brain around it, it is not the standard comics fare, it’s something else. He “wows” you, no doubt…but you have to like Big Bear, in order for it all to work. Worse, so much worse…you have to respect Darkseid.

Anyway…

We were talking about that Jim-Roeg sublimity. Kirby and Ditko, the compositional geniuses of their time (and Timely was just bloody lucky to have them around) put it into every single panel they ever drew. Gene Colan too, And Frank Robbins, now there was a guy who knew how to lay out a page…

Best Roy Thomas Issue: that Invaders one when they’re all sitting at Lord Fansworth’s dinner table, and I’m not joking, because I could’ve said Avengers #113, which was a HECK of an Avengers comic! …But, shit, speaking of Heck…

Best Fill-In Issue Ever, Bar None: Don Heck on the Liberty Legion. Shit, that was some good stuff, and what a fucking story!

Okay, where were we…oh yes. Jack Kirby. New Gods.

I mean, what could be sillier than to say “Orion Equals Crushing Fate”, “Scott Free Equals Escape”. But Scott Free doesn’t equal escape, if you look carefully: he may equal individuality, but only in the same sense that Lightray equals CHANGE…really, all that sort of analysis is good for is stripping detail out of complexity. Hmm, something Harvey said…yes, that the failure of all science fiction is that the BEST it can be is allegorical…and even that’s not easy to do. But look, when you do genre, you simplify the world you want to extrapolate from: that’s why there is NO SUCH THING as good political SF (although I heartily recommend Robert Charles Wilson’s “Spin”, and Ursula LeGuin’s “Left Hand Of Darkness”)…

Allow me to say it out loud, for once: my love is specificity. Nuts and bolts. Devil in the details. Man on the ground. Actually as far as I’m concerned much of what they call “hard SF” can seriously suck my dick — we live in a grainy world full of rapid shits and disgusting surprises, and non-algorithmic textures, and a little bit of slippery blood and blackened toast. Extrapolation is pure bunkum from the get-go: no one can predict this shit…

Best Pure Crap Comic I Ever Bought: gotta be Man-Monster #1. Rich Buckler, in his heyday. Man, I read the bejeezus outta that thing…

Best Marv Wolfman: Tomb Of Dracula

Best Bill Mantlo: Seeker 3000

Best Hulk Comic: Hulk Vs. The Rain, by James Kochalka. Best fucking Hulk comic I ever read.

Artist Who Made Me Read Comics: Herb Trimpe

Favourite Cartoon Voice Actor: John Hurt. Man, I just wanted to say that once out loud…

So in closing…does Jack Kirby’s later 70s work resonate somewhat with Philip K. Dick’s output of the same time? I think it does.

Discuss.

Lordy lordy, that hammock is a-callin’ me…

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41 responses to “In Which I Babble Drunkenly About Comics In 2008

  1. I find I have a number of problems with this passage:

    Hmm, something Harvey said…yes, that the failure of all science fiction is that the BEST it can be is allegorical…and even that’s not easy to do. But look, when you do genre, you simplify the world you want to extrapolate from: that’s why there is NO SUCH THING as good political SF (although I heartily recommend Robert Charles Wilson’s “Spin”, and Ursula LeGuin’s “Left Hand Of Darkness”)…

    Allow me to say it out loud, for once: my love is specificity. Nuts and bolts. Devil in the details. Man on the ground. Actually as far as I’m concerned much of what they call “hard SF” can seriously suck my dick — we live in a grainy world full of rapid shits and disgusting surprises, and non-algorithmic textures, and a little bit of slippery blood and blackened toast. Extrapolation is pure bunkum from the get-go: no one can predict this shit…

    Part of it is that I’m not entirely sure just what’s being meant by a lot of it, but if it’s what seems to be being meant, I can’t sign my name to it.

    For instance… if the best that SF can be is allegorical, then does that mean that:

    a) SF can’t be funny or touching or interesting or inspiring or terrifying or well-written or clever or insightful?
    b) SF can be funny or touching or interesting or inspiring or terrifying or well-written or clever or insightful, but those things are not as good as being allegorical?

    Neither of which I can swallow. I mean, if I thought that allegory was the only thing on the table, I wouldn’t bother reading the stuff. I can make my own connections between fiction and reality; I need something a little extra from my reading material.

    “No such thing as good political SF.”

    Well, what do we mean by ‘political SF’? Here are some choices:

    – SF that has the politics of its fictional world as part of its story
    – SF that is in some important way *about* the politics of its fictional world
    – SF that is in some important way *about* an idea that has political significance in what I will, with some reservations, call the real world
    – SF that is trying to make a point that is directly relevant to the current politics of what I will, with some reservations, call the real world
    – SF that is about, or even partially about, how different groups of individuals deal with each other

    If you’re trying to say that there’s no such thing as a good example of the fifth type, I [i]might[/i] agree. And then again I might not. [i]1984[/i], for one thing.

    As for hard SF… well, doesn’t it depend on what we’re trying to get out of the story? If all you care about is prediction, then, yes, the record is spotty. But, as stated above, there are far more reasons than that to crack open a book.

  2. Great, Matthew! We’re going to have a good discussion about this, I believe…unfortunately I can’t answer at length right now as I’m on my way to bed. However, I will say this, just as preamble:

    I think it indisputable (though I might be wrong about that!) that SF’s greatest strength is its allegorical utility: the ability to illuminate or reflect our own (as you say, provisionally) real world is something SF does better than any other branch of literature — and indeed that’s the use many of the real-world, non-genre-bound, award-winning practitioners of the stuff have used it for in the past. 1984. Brave New World. Allegory, and top-flight allegory at that. Of course there’s all the regular appeal of well-drawn characters and human feeling etc., but…be it resolved: allegory is what SF does best, and all the best SF stories are allegorical.

    I’ve mushed up a couple different things here, too. As to my claim about political SF, I aim to prove it, next comment in…although I may have to apologize for using imprecise language, I still aim to prove it. As to my bitter complaint about extrapolation, I mean to make a point with that too…that you’re probably already familiar with from previous posts of mine, Matthew, but what the hell. Hopefully I won’t just reiterate point-by-point my post on Asimov’s Prelude To Foundation, but I’ll come up with something newer as well. Don’t think I’ll be able to do better than noting Isaac’s absolutely impossible names, though — now that’s science fiction that’s honest about itself!

  3. Well, you’ve made (part of) your position clearer, but you’ve failed to persuade me towards it. I don’t even think 1984 and Brave New World are allegories, and I wouldn’t like them as well if they were. (Animal Farm and The Hunting of the Snark? Okay, maybe they’re allegories.)

    I’m more of an ars gratia artis kind of guy. It’s me and MGM all the way. SF stories are stories, and they are about themselves. Sure, you can write SF to be symbolically about real-world stuff, but it’s scarcely necessary and not specifically admirable.

    Of course, we can draw lessons from even non-allegorical SF about the real world; this is true. But then we can do that with any kind of fiction (likewise non-allegorical).

    I think the strength of SF is in its wide range of subject matter. It has some constraints about scientific plausibility and at least some logical rigor (especially hard SF), but within those loose boundaries, anything goes. This gives it a big advantage over most fiction. (Fantasy, in this context, is like SF, but without those constraints I mentioned. Which means that fantasy has to be careful to keep its excesses under control, or it winds up being about nothing at all. See: David Eddings.)

    I’m not even sure that SF does allegory better than any other kind of literature. I don’t really have a dog in the fight; it’s just not something I know to be true. Why would it be?

  4. Not sure if you read my post on this subject (Sean linked to it), but I agree: trying to tie Kirby’s characters down to any one all-caps MEANING is only going to make the conversation simpler and less interesting.

    I was reading an issue of the Forever People the other night — it was #8 or #9, I think — and there’s that scene where Darkseid starts barking orders at the Forever People, bluffing his way out of a scuffle while he disperses them, and… that scene. Wow. There’s an uneasy tone to it, plus a really weird character dynamic which just plain defies any A=B generalities. It’s proper drama, of a rather idiosyncratic and unsetteling variety, and I think this is where I need a little help. Cos if the best sci-fi can be is allergorical, are we drawing a distinction between what late 70’s Dick and Kirby are doing and what sci-fi does? Cos I can definitely roll with that, but I’m at work and my brain is muddled so I’m not sure if I’m reading you correctly.

    Or, alternatively, are we riffing on the idea that Kirby’s extrapolations are just really friggen good and weird?

    Intrigued to see where you’re going with regards to yr claims about political sci-fi, and how this reconciles with yr recommendation of Le Guin (if indeed it does!).

    More when I manage to think at angles slightly less crooked.

  5. greetings!

    I’m afraid I haven’t given Kirby’s ’70s stuff much of a look since the ’80s–which is odd because, back then, I liked it better than his big time early Marvel stuff (of course, that’s damning with faint praise, because I was always more into Ditko and Colan and Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway’s contributions to the franchise)–but you all are making me want to revisit things like Forever People and Eternals…

    as for SF–I’m very far from being a specialist in that genre, but, as an ardent Hawthornian (in fact, Hawthorne wrote an SFish tale with allegorical elements called “The New Adam and Eve”!), I have thought a lot about allegory, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there ARE no allegories, only allegorical elements, and that this is a good thing!
    I can’t wait to see how the conversation develops though…

    also–thanks so much for listing me in the answer above–it means a lot!

    Dave

  6. I was just looking over your post again when this bit leapt up and belted me in the eye (in a good way!):

    “Jack’s moral was beautifully specific to the form he was working in/had invented…it could not have been said in a novel, it could not have been said in a poem. You have to work your brain around it, it is not the standard comics fare, it’s something else. He “wows” you, no doubt…but you have to like Big Bear, in order for it all to work. Worse, so much worse…you have to respect Darkseid.”

    Which points my now less-frazzled brain on to the fact that yes, we’re going with the idea that Dick and Kirby are doing something different from your standard sci-fi fair. Sorry if I was getting muddled — I had a million reports and minutes on my brain (still do, ugh!).

    Anyway — all of this makes me curious, because most of my favourite authors in and around the sci-fi/fantasy/superhero genre seem to me to be “doing something” outside of the allegorical mode.

    Anyway, with that brief, flailing distraction out of the way, I guess my point is: does even allegorical SF succeed on the strength of its allegories? Like the esteemed Mr Fiore, I tend not to read any fiction as being totally allegorical; like Matthew, I tend to think that even more overtly resonant sci-fi (Orwell, Huxley etc) tends to succeed more on the strength of its components and details than its bigger allegorical themes.

    Take Ursula Le Guin for example – she’s a fairly classical sci-fi author, and a lot of her novels draw on or extrapolate from the world as we know it. And she’s great – The Left Hand of Darkness! The Dispossessed! – but how much is that down to the interpersonal drama and Le Guin’s way with words rather than the broader social or political points? Is it all about the accumulation of minor allegorical elements/sublime moments? That’s a question I’m asking myself right now, with the stunning answer being: uh, I don’t know!

    On a slightly different note:

    My Irish Literature tutor hated allegorical stories, claiming that the form was inherently conservative because it locked you (the reader/the author) down to what was already there.

    I’m not sure if I agree with that 100%, but I will say that I’m interested in the distinction between predictive fiction and allegorical fiction. The former seems totally doomed to failure, because as you say, how they hell could you accurately predict the future? And as for the latter, well… I dunno. I think it can be limiting if story elements start being forced to march to reality’s beat, but what if the story starts with that beat then develops its own pattern? I think that’s what I look for in sci-fi – a weirder beat that I can still dance to.

    Like, in VALIS or The Man In The High Castle I can see something of the inside of Dick’s head, something he’s doing with history, some of his perspectives on reality or modern society, etc. I can recognise these things, but the thrill comes from the way that his distortions surprise and confuse me.

    Or, like, with Buffy – HIGH SCHOOL IS THE GATE TO HELL! Ok, so far so obvious. It’s a big, common feeling, but once you get past the cheap thrill of that amplification it’s the way the narrative plays on and against this notion (and with/against “real life”) that hooks you. If Buffy hooks you, that is – I know plenty of people who just plain can’t stand it.

    Also possibly related: I can’t help but feel that the reduction needed to make a big budget movie out of a messy ongoing pulp serial is why so few comic book movies capture the appeal of their source material, for me – it feels a little clean and obvious, y’know? A little too one-for-one.

    Am I making any sense here, or am I just rambling away in the corner?

    Either way, I’m having fun, but I’d hate to feel like the guy talking nonsense over the rest of the party!

  7. Not one bit, David! I did read your post, and only didn’t comment on it because I hate using my “Google ID” to sign into things, like with a passion. So, instead of turning this post into what it should have been — a long and tedious rumination on beaches and hammocks and boats and summer reading — I decided to go off in a direction more like your own, instead.

    And, apologies for the delay in commenting, folks: a truly bizarre shaving accident sidelined me yesterday, cut both my thumbs and part of one ear! Ridiculous, but that’s what happens when you know you’re having a clumsy day, and don’t take the hint. I have a friend who used to consult astrological charts, and string up a big sign saying “RETROGRADE!!” over his sink to remind him that things could go wrong…me not buying much in the way of astrology’s predictions, I wouldn’t put up a sign saying that, but occasionally I’m tempted to hang one up that says “DON’T HANDLE BLADES TODAY!!”

    Then again, is astrology’s predictiveness generally any worse than that of “hard SF”? I think not…

    A couple more apologies: one, I’m no good at listmaking, so the reason that the above lists seem a bit like the result of a head injury is down to that…although head injury or no, it’s hard to beat Dave’s blog. But as always, when you sit down to such things you invariably leave some stuff out, and get some other stuff slightly wrong…which is why I usually try to go another route with that sort of thing: my F+SF entertainment fields, the old “What Comics Blogger Are You?” beta test, which I must get around to making an Alpha of, one of these days…still, as I’ve heard it said, there are no two more dangerous words in the English language than “fuck it”: they make such a compelling counterargument to good sense that once you say ’em any ill-considered action becomes possible, if not inevitable…

    And, second apology: we use “allegory” these days for a lot more things than a strict definition of the word would permit, and that’s how I’m using it here…not that it matters, in these days when the OED lists “OPEC” as a word, and sideways-happy-face as punctuation (its meaning being, perhaps, right-side-up happy face?) — the dictionary equivalent of a bizarre shaving accident, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    So, having said all that, on to business.

    As I went on and on about at some length in a post on the old blog (link available on the Non-Comics page, as “Eco And Asimov”), I was very surprised to find Isaac Asimov’s Prelude To Foundation one of the cleverest SF locked-room mysteries I’ve ever read — and a fitting conclusion to the decades-long Asimovian thesis which had started to look hopelessly shot to hell sometime around the publication of Robots And Empire. If you’ve ever been a fan of our friendly neighbourhood Professor — especially if you got a little disappointed by him in the Eighties — or indeed if you’ve ever been a student of Philosophy of Science, you’ll probably do yourself a favour if you pick it up: light, breezy, and pleasantly stodgy in a nostalgic way, it’s nevertheless a book about ideas…and let’s face it, that’s always been a rare thing to find, in this genre that always proclaims itself so imaginatively adventurous. Because, is there really anything less “hard” than so-called hard SF? I’m a very big fan of it, don’t get me wrong; but chocolate cake can call itself filet mignon all it wants, and it’ll still be chocolate cake. The recipe is still the recipe, and the formula is still the formula: in cooking as in chemistry as in chess, there are always some reactions and transformations which are forbidden, given any specific set of initial conditions. Well, why else are so many SF stories set after some colossal war, disaster, or discovery? Why do so many rely on the suggestion of Aeon? Only because the bulk of SF stories take place — tell me you didn’t see this coming — in a kind of historical Elsewhere: from where we stand today, they’re simply unreachable. If SF stories are not about anything, they’re not about “the possible” — I mean forget flying cars, how many SF tales take as their historical starting-point some unspeakably massive engineering effort worth trillions of dollars, or some unimaginable political upheaval such as the establishment of a “world government”? Anyone who actually lives in the world of the present must suppress a belly-laugh when offered such casually ambitious “backstory” — I mean, talk about putting the cart before the horse!

    Asimov did a marvellous job of acknowledging this fundamental cart-horse-putting through the linguistically-inconceivable names he slapped on his protagonists…and in so doing, he slipped into allegory so quietly that almost no one really noticed. And from there, into the metatextual. Sorry, long preamble, and if you want to read it in non-condensed form, that “Eco And Asimov” link awaits…but for now let me just get to the point: when SF embraces its allegorical side, that’s as “hard” as it ever gets. The locked-room mysteries set on other planets, investigated by black-robed mathematicians or “Space Patrolmen” with names straight out of Elsewhere, these are all figures of the difficulties inherent in doing science, itself, and so (improbably!) they have access to the actual real-world issues that impinge on modern man’s psychology. And that makes ’em a bit stunning.

    But of course “allegory” is just a little bit the wrong word, here, or at least its casual use perhaps gives a little bit of the wrong impression: it implies you need characters named “Dr. Hubert McHinery” or “Star Captain Terry Frinking” to get the job done, and (at least the way I’m using it here), you don’t need those things. You need something, but it need not be as cut-and-dried as all that. Because, whoever said you couldn’t have a complex allegory? Probably somebody has shown quite clearly that in fact you can’t, but I’m going to pretend I’ve never read that person, and go on heedlessly into my slightly dumb argument.

    You do need something, though: and though most writers never bother to say more than “after we built the space elevator”, some do make a tasty amuse-bouche of how their impossible initial conditions were manouevred into being, out of the circumstances of the world we know. Sometimes you get to see just what the “forbidden transformation” was, and that can be at least as allegorically rich as any Colonel Hidebound drawing down on a visiting Space-Jesus…hmm, probably richer, actually…but wait a minute, where did I leave my point…

    Ah, there it is. So, what’s SF even about, eh? Why would anyone ever bother to write a simple boy-meets-girl story only it has to be on another planet, what’s the value of creating a future society that operates on a simplified view of our own politics? “Reflection” is actually way too easy an answer, I think; after all, so you wrote a story of how American politics would work on Mars or in the asteroid belt…so what? Why don’t you just write about Pittsburgh? You know? A bit further down this road you arrive at an inn called “The Unsophisticated Polemic”, and finding the lodgings poor you probably turn around and head back home, and call off the vacation altogether…but that’s not being fair to the good things about SF, which are the reasons why you’d experiment with outlandish settings in the first place.

    Aha, now who’s talking nonsense, David!

    But if you’ll excuse me, my thumbs need rebandaging, and also I’d like to post this quick so you all know I’ve haven’t just run off somewhere…will continue in reasonably short order.

  8. …still, as I’ve heard it said, there are no two more dangerous words in the English language than “fuck it”: they make such a compelling counterargument to good sense that once you say ‘em any ill-considered action becomes possible, if not inevitable…

    Y’see the “Because Fuck It” list was just a quick and dirty way to list a favorite book from every creator i could think of. (the original one is here if you want to join in the argument – http://supervillain.wordpress.com/2008/06/26/because-fuck-it-thats-why/).

    I like the way you’ve gone with it, though. And “Fuck it” may be the most dangerous two words in the english language. I have to remember that. But you’re list –

    Best writing in a Planetary issue – the Lone Ranger/Shadow issue never ceases to blow my ass away. Hell yes on Dr. Strange/Dracula. Apparently theres a Buffy story he did that was essentially Coffy-as-Slayer. I’ve got to track that down. Agreed on The Sellouts. Best cancelled comic of all time – Automatic Kafka. Artist who made me read comics (obsessively)- Chris Bachelo in Generation X #1.

  9. My chin would just like to add: quant suff!

    And Redhead Fangirl is a girl? Explains the name, I suppose. And there I was, spending time around her without adequate cootie protection — what was I thinking?

    I think Sean’s got it exactly right that Kirby did want us to be thinking about what his modern gods represent…and, commenting on Sean’s post, my pal Mark is even more right in his suggestions of how they might be read. It only falls down when it’s done in an artless and concrete way in the mistaken belief that being overly literal equals “clarity” as David puts it. Metron is not the god of “knowledge” but the god of a concept for which we don’t have a single-word name — call him “the god of pursuing abstract knowledge with utter disregard for how that knowledge might be used or the damage that might be done to others by the act of pursuit” — and if we had a word for that idea, we wouldn’t need to have a god like that. Gods are powerful ideas that we can’t process or understand in any other way so we have to personify them. Just like when you understand atmospheric disturbances, you don’t need to invent a God of Thunder to grapple with the concept of storms.

  10. Quite so, RAB! Man, that’s a good point.

    Must get onto Part II of my long comment, before apt remarks like that one render my inchoate noodlings moot!

  11. I’m with Matthew and David and Oscar Wilde. “I mean, if I thought that allegory was the only thing on the table, I wouldn’t bother reading the stuff.”—absolutely!

    I reread 1984 and Brave New World while we were on the road last year. BNW may start off like its going to be satire, which is a variety of allegory, but then it gets faster and faster, and bang, you’re in, and it’s no allegory. What would it be an allegory for? I don’t know. But it is political, like Plato was political. It asks really hard questions about human happiness and meaning. Then again, those questions might become redundant one day, and BNW might go on. It’s just the words, put together the way they are. Words, not story or allegory or whatever, are where it’s at. Those details, as you say.

    Even more than being modes of writing, allegory and prediction are modes of reading, and not very good ones, I think.

    The value of boy-meets-girl only it has to be on another planet, is in providing a means of talking about things that are hard to talk about in boy-meets-girl on this planet. Hawthorne said it well (as Dave has pointed out many times) and so did Mary Shelley in her preface to that “first SF novel”, check both of them out here.

    I don’t pretend to understand Kirby yet. I was just reading Fourth World vol 1, and my understanding was different than when I read the black and white reprints two years ago. (The Dick comparison is intriguing…) And I admit that SF is my default mode of reading, it is what I think of as “non-genre”, but—isn’t Fourth World SF?

  12. Heh – there are a lot of David’s in this comments thread now! Damn our common name!

    Plok, dinnae worry about any tipsiness that carried over into your original post. Even its weirder moments are intriguing rather than just frustrating.

    Indeed, reading it I felt like the Martian Manhunter trying to mould his brain into the shape of the Joker’s in JLA: Rock of Ages. Aha…ahaHAaHha! Aha! HA!

    Ok, not really, but still – doesn’t that scene parallel the process of reading good sci-fi, in an odd way? It’s all about reshaping your brain in strange, sometimes frightening ways. Truthfully, though, that’s part of the appeal of most fiction – isn’t it? Sci-fi (and weird fiction in general) just has a licence to push further, as David G hints at above.

    Rab – nice take on the Kirby Gods. My post was an attempt to make a more general point about meaning in genre fiction, but rest assured that I’m definitely in agreement with you, Sean and Mark with regards to how the Fourth World characters have meaning.

  13. Ah!

    Okay, had a meeting!

    First thing tomorrow, and I hope we won’t just end up disagreeing about what “allegory” means…although I think we may disagree a little already, since I would certainly call Brave New World allegorical, and in fact I already have! But, wait, didn’t I say that political SF never works, too…?

    Uh-oh!

    Heh, I think I can get around that one, and hopefully at last clearly state my reasoning at the same time. Keep your fingers crossed!

    Must crash now, damn it.

  14. I just realized that you might have been trying to type ‘rapid shifts and disgusting surprises’. Which would parse a little bit more readily.

  15. Okay, back for a few minutes. So, right off…you know, I most definitely do read Brave New World as allegory (I read Gulliver’s Travels that way, too), and I think allegory is a fine thing, that by no means precludes good writing or nifty characters — David brings up LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed”, and asks if its triumphs are in its allegorical elements, or its nuts-and-bolts construction — and I am going to try very hard to get into my love of the nuts and the bolts here, but it may take a little time, or possibly even a further comment — to which I would answer “damn straight the appeal and accomplishment of The Dispossessed is down to its allegory”, just as I would argue that the appeal and accomplishment of The Tombs Of Atuan is down to its allegory…because after all, LeGuin writes beautifully wherever she goes, but I didn’t like Orsinian Tales much, because I like my imaginative fiction “harder”. More uncomplicatedly allegorical! The characters in The Dispossessed cannot see that they’re living through a story that resonates very powerfully with the life-experiences of people living on Earth in the twentieth century, and trapped in its politics, but we see it, and it’s a hell of a grabber: the whole thing’s steaming with a poignancy and identification that arises out of those connections. Sure, you can read Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies and be ignorant of their allegories, and they still work: I read Gulliver’s Travels as allegory now, but I certainly didn’t do so as a child, and it was still good! But to say that allegory isn’t necessarily present in, let’s just say Animal Farm again…

    Well, it is present, anyway. Isn’t it?

    Christ, I feel like Joe Rice, arguing for something in which I cannot reasonably believe in as strongly as I seem to. But I’ll soldier on regardless…

    Right, Animal Farm. No, let’s switch to Lord of the Flies again. Allegory, damn it. But, why the aversion to allegory, guys? You talk about it like it’s opposed to things about stories which make them enjoyable to read. You talk about it like it’s broccoli, or something. But aren’t LotF’s allegorical elements responsible for most of its status as a good read? Not that it contains no eloquently descriptive passages, or anything…but then again, look at the semantic content of those passages, and you’ll see the thread of allegory so deeply woven-in that it’s in practical terms inseperable from the good descriptions. MTIO #7, though I didn’t know it at the time, was indeed my first exposure to Camus — one of Steve Gerber’s favourite authors. And that exposure had an effect on me, I tell you truly; nossir, I did not miss it when it went by. I didn’t know what it was…but I didn’t miss it. Likewise, Brave New World: what did I know about the world of this alienated techno-Republic and its soma-addicts (oh, so clever!), when I was very nearly John Savage myself? I mean, I was just a child: but it was the allegorical nature of Brave New World that drove my appreciation for the set-pieces and the dialogue, surely. It didn’t go right by me, either.

    Damn, I’m really not gonna get to the nuts and bolts this comment. I have something sort of neat to say about the Fourth World in this connection, I think. It’s gonna have to wait, though, most likely.

    Have to wait, until I get done saying that all politics is our politics, just like any story of young love is our story of young love — there just aren’t any others. Imagination doesn’t just fly free. As Wittgenstein had it: “the world is all that is the case.” So, the boy and the girl on Mars…when I ask why anyone would put them there, I mean why would anyone put them there arbitrarily. Why would you bother? Unless you had something to say that couldn’t be said in Pittsburgh, of course, but then the question rapidly becomes what is that thing? What on earth is there that can possibly need to be said about young love, that can’t be said in the here and the now and the us? Well, that’s a rhetorical question, obviously: Cordwainer Smith put two people who’d been through a machine that made them French onto a broken-down highway in the sky where they talked to a psychic Australian computer, or something…for allegorical purposes, though their questions about love were in fact just what ours are. So it could not have worked as well if it were set in Pittsburgh, and it couldn’t have worked as well if it were set in Heaven either, because the decaying skyway and the Frenchification machine (calling Danny Dunn!) were necessary to the specific conceit of the story…which produced a decent amount of poignancy, but not (I think) poignancy that just floated in through the window.

    Having said all that, though…I do have some counterexamples I could throw out there, just in case it seems like I’m saying all SF is allegorical. I shouldn’t even say all of the very best SF is allegorical, really. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars springs particularly to mind in this regard, because where Paul and Virginia don’t know what they’re enacting, and Piggy and Ralph don’t know either (well, Piggy sort of does), all the Martian colonists do know, in fact they know bloody well, how their story relates to our “real world.” So…allegory? I’m not sure you can make a strong case for it here (though you certainly can make a strong case for it in the later volumes of the trilogy), but then that’s because of the flip side of SF’s unique facility with allegory — along the Zero Path, where everything gets smushed instead of separated, you can make the case for the boy and girl meeting on Mars instead of Pittsburgh, because Mars and Pittsburgh end up on a continuum, next to each other, instead of looking at one another in a mirror. Interestingly, though, that’s just when you’re not showing anything new: once Mars is the “same” as Pittsburgh and vice versa, the love story can’t have very much recontextualizing going on in it. Of course, if you throw in some aliens and some mind-reading…!

    But then you’re back to mirrors.

    And therefore, again…why set the story on Mars?

    I’m not sure its possible to defamiliarize or recontextualize the everyday by placing it in a distant or fantastic setting and not call that allegory, is basically what I’m saying…and especially when the everyday you’re trying to re-explore is political, since the world is all that is the case. After all, anything anyone needs to explore with politics can be done far more easily in the historical novel than the SF novel, can’t it? I mean, you’ve seen our aliens — as aliens go, they can’t touch the Romans or the Celts, can they? Which is probably all they are, anyway, and yet where are the lessons, where the timeless conclusions, where the Galactic perspective? I’ll submit that they’re just not there. Another interesting thing Asimov does in PTF is have Hari Seldon meet with an anti-Empire activist…and then show plain as day that Hari’s got nothing to tell him, and no way to help him! It’s an instructive anticlimax: SF never has had much in the way of an ethical backbone, when it comes to its imaginary politics. Well, how could it? The citizens of Planet X struggle to break free of the tyranny of Planet Y…and you know, there’s not much to say, there, unless Planet X is a figure for Poland, and Planet Y a figure for the USSR…and even then, there’s not much to say. Usually. Is there? At least, not straight up. I think.

    Not that I’m saying it couldn’t be done…!

    I’m intrigued by Dave’s (the other other Dave’s) remark that there’s no such thing as allegory — hmm, uncomfortable taking a stiff view here, when so many other people are taking moderate and flexible ones…nevertheless, I continue to soldier on! But maybe I’ll just wait ’til tomorrow to finish up this soldiering, when I hope to finally strike a moderate and sensible note, and explain how my bullheaded comments on allegory may be gathered in the same fist with the love of detail, Phil Dick, the Fourth World, and even (maybe) Larry Niven. Wow! Will that be some trick!

    Ye gods, what have I gotten myself into?

    Gonna try to get to a matinee of Dark Knight tomorrow, but it’s Saturday…and I don’t know if I can line up. Actually my dream is to spend a whole day seeing all our recent movies, what are there like eight of them out now? Truly a Golden Age.

  16. Having said all that, though…I do have some counterexamples I could throw out there, just in case it seems like I’m saying all SF is allegorical. I shouldn’t even say all of the very best SF is allegorical, really.

    See, I thought those things were exactly what you were saying.

    I’m starting to believe that you’re working off of a different definition, or a different idea, of just what allegory is, and what it takes to make a story allegorical, than the rest of us are. What it means to me is, a direct symbolic correspondence between multiple story elements and real-world elements. What does it mean to you?

    But, why the aversion to allegory, guys? You talk about it like it’s opposed to things about stories which make them enjoyable to read. You talk about it like it’s broccoli, or something.

    Well, it can be. I’m not opposed to allegory when it’s a) really there and b) done well. I just don’t think it is there all that often. Meanwhile, you seemed to be pushing the notion that it’s a) always there and b) the only part of an sf story worth talking about.

  17. Well, I was not saying all SF is or has to be allegorical…I was saying allegory is SF’s special strength, and that when it’s embracing allegory is when it’s at the top of its game: the BEST it can be, is [when it’s being] allegorical. I guess those brackets show where the confusion lies.

    And, I was saying that ALL the very best SF is allegorical…it’s just that now I’m saying I probably shouldn’t say that.

    As to our definitions: no, that’s pretty much it. Same thing. Except I would probably include some sort of poorly-worded idea of gauging how many allegorical elements must be present, for the story to be tarred with that brush. It’d be unfair, I think, to just call any story with allegorical elements a proper-named “allegory” just like that: I think stories with zero symbolic correspondence with real-world elements are in extraordinarily short supply in SF, if there even are any. Not too weird: every story has to connect to its readers in some way, and a genre that defines itself so loudly as being based on extrapolation (even though I contend that isn’t a very good articulation of what it’s founded on at all) has got to have a lot of allegory in it, a lot. For example, American SF is often simply America writ large across the stars: there are probably hundreds of very good examples of this that could come to hand easily and swiftly, if anyone wanted to make a list of ’em. And it’s probably because people always extrapolate (or always think they extrapolate) from where they start out, and education is a big part of that: Americans are educated about America a whole lot, so it makes sense that their imagined futures would be distinctively American in flavour, even if they’re Galactic Empire-type futures. So in a way, these futures never leave the present! There’s an addiction, too, to the idea of “future history” or parallel history that diverges from “real” history cleanly, sharply, and comprehensibly out of a single key event…which could be a technological advance or scientific discovery. At least, these days there’s an addiction like that — the old SF pros weren’t all on the same page on that one, it was something they toyed with that eventually became a sort of orthodoxy I think, like the idea that “shields” would be likely to exist on starships (which would also be likely to exist), and that they would go down in percentages. Sorry, I could rattle on about that quite a bit, theories of history and such, but…also, there are other tensions continually (though not continuously) in play in SF, that form its basic moral toolkit: most obvious of which is probably (as I’ve said before) “as man becomes more entrained by the systems of his technology, how can he preserve his humanity, or even reliably identify what it’s made of?” Now that stuff’s common! But is it enough to say “yep, this book’s got that in it, must be an allegory therefore?” I’d say no, that isn’t quite enough…but it can sure be a big part of “quite enough”! Allegory traditionally has a lot to do with moral, after all: showing a moral, trying to persuade others to accept a moral, reconciling inconsistent moral stances, ridiculing hypocritical morality…sometimes browbeating and blackmailing, being immoral its own self. Again, super-common stuff, and in the past this was generally employed in such a way so that you were supposed to get the moral, you were totally supposed to read the allegory as allegory. In the more recent past (of the last couple of centuries anyway, I guess), this obvious explanatory function has atrophied a bit, and the purposeful nature of allegory has sometimes been discarded and sometimes been cloaked. But when you throw away the purposeful, rhetorical aspect of allegory, is it still allegory? I would ordinarily say no; but public opinion, as far as I can tell, says yes…so I’m just going to go along with it, in this case. When I was in school, they told me an allegory had to be religious or political, and if it was anything else it wasn’t allegory, but this is no longer the conventional application of the word, it seems…probably good news, because I’m not sure even the Cave would squeak in under that wire.

    (I guess I’m jumping ahead of myself a bit, here, but oh well.)

    So allegorical elements are basically “always” there…or, next best thing to always, but that doesn’t necessarily make every story that’s got ’em into an “allegory” automatically, as I see it. But yeah: I think it’s pretty much always there, in that sense. And while it definitely isn’t the only part of an SF story worth talking about, I think it’s absolutely the part of every SF story that is always worth talking about! What kind of future is this, and what kind of “truth” animates it? The author always picks this themselves, natch, and depending on how he/she picks it, that can make a story into a full-blown allegory right there! But what disturbs me is when authors (particularly SF authors since they use so much more allegory than writers whose main concentration is young love in Pittsburgh, or something) pretend that a choice like that has not produced an allegorical in-story truth instead of a “same rules” real-world truth of some kind or other…and I can think of plenty of writers who do this quite a bit, possibly because they place too much trust in their powers of extrapolation, or (unfortunately) also possibly because they are indeed pursuing a “persuasive” allegory, but just want to slip it by you, and not own it up front. This is what happens when people love the “science” in science fiction too much, I think — they start to think their own self-chosen rules of the game in-story have no allegorical play to them, but can simply be asserted as the way everything works in the real world already, didn’t you know or hadn’t you heard. And this bugs me: whether it’s a cloaked allegory just pretending to be strict transposition of real-world fact for nefarious authorial purposes, or some kind of rejection that a story can have allegorical elements in the first place, I think in the end both of these boil down to SF that isn’t really very good, or at least oughtn’t to be called the BEST — because the conscious play, or acknowledged play, with allegory is what often enriches an SF story, as, well, any other story I suppose…

    But it comes up a lot in SF.

    It occurs to me: is that the sort of allegory that you would consider broccoli, Matthew, the unacknowledged kind? Because I would totally agree with that. Whereas I think the conscious play with allegory is delicious, um…hot fudge sundae? Irish coffee? I kid Mr. Niven; I kid because I love.

    Now, the Red Mars thing…I consider the allegorical values on that are kept reasonably low, for a few reasons. But then in the following books, you could make worse mistakes than to see the outline of the early history of the States swim up into view between the lines of type. But, I don’t consider Red Mars inferior to Green Mars, or Blue Mars because of that! And actually my favourite Robinson book is The Wild Shore, which I think makes a truly fabulous real-world point, but only in context with its two sequels, otherwise it’s relatively unencumbered by this baggage. But, not entirely free of it, I think! And I do think that aspect of the SF story should always be on the list of what to dwell on while reading…but then again, that’s just me.

    Whoops, this was a much longer reply than I meant to give! Anything to avoid bedtime, I guess.

    So…I can’t re-read this just now, does it all make any sense?

    More later, undoubtedly.

  18. wonderful stuff Plok & friends–

    I’m content to watch the play of thought for now, except for:

    1. “allegory”/”allegorical elements” thing–it was basically my way of saying that, yes, all stories have something–or, actually, EVERYTHING–to do with our world, so what’s the point of a genre which defined solely by its reference to same? I suppose you could call my objection a preemptive strike against interpretative models that spend all of their time looking for one-to-one correspondences, which I just don’t find useful at all… Even a work that is begging you to read it this way (i.e. Pilgrim’s Progress or “The Celestial Railroad”) is better off ignored (not the work itself, of course–merely the call to allegorical interpretation!) But that could just be me…

    2. Danny Dunn (not to mention Irene, Joe and Professor Bullfinch) is awesome!

    that is all

    Dave

  19. Plok, I feel like your definition of allegory (contra your claim about old style allegory) leaves practically every kind of fiction as allegory, because it’s always about the real world symbolically. To me, as to Matthew I think, allegory is basically a story about the “real world” with the names changed to protect the innocent. To me, a story that demonstrates human behaviour, like Lord of the Flies, is not allegory (not successful allegory, anyway). Similarly, to me, The Dispossessed is not allegory just because it tries to play with some real political systems; I’m sure it was considered allegory when it came out, but I’m too young to appreciate the correspondences. Cordwainer Smith’s editor (Pohl?) admires the allegory of his work, but admits it is baroque and beside the point; certainly the allegory was beyond me, but the feelings were not.

  20. A fair point, David; and yet just “changing the names” doesn’t get you all the way home either, wouldn’t you agree? Primary Colors may have been a roman a clef, but its hard to see its value as allegory…

    Definitely I believe that allegory should be recognizable as more than just “a kind of metaphor” or “a story that in some way dramatizes real-world issues”…the teaching-story or persuasion aspect of allegory always seems to me to be the real matter at hand…and yet it’s not like we’re short of teaching-stories that don’t quite make that cut, either. So, I was hoping that I’d allowed some room for this distinction, even if I wasn’t able to actually, you know, make it very well: as you say, every story has got to refer to the real world in some way, its characters have to refer to the reader in some way, etc. etc…but just having this reference in place isn’t even enough to make a work fiction instead of nonfiction, so what odds?

    Smith’s an interesting case, though: as you know, I never realized his specific allegory in Alpha Ralpha Boulevard until just a couple years ago, but just as you I felt it anyway…however, wasn’t what I felt a product of what the allegory was, even though I didn’t make the connection that Smith did? Meanwhile the metaphor I got, absolutely…but then again you can find that metaphor anywhere, and it wasn’t enough on its own to produce that feeling, rather it was the novel imagination of the story that did it, and wasn’t that novelty sourced in the allegory, even though I didn’t understand enough about architecture to understand that specificity?

    Likewise, perhaps, over here sits Kirby’s New Gods, relics of (as Scott McLeod puts it) the time of childhood perception where the apprehension of shape precedes the attachment of meaning. I don’t think it’s an allegory any more than I think it’s science fiction…

    But now it’s hot in here, so I have to run off again. Damn it! I seem to always be running off, these days, eh?

    Oh well…at least I saw Dark Knight today!

  21. “Allegory” works best as a reader-assigned quality, though (I think), and that could cause some confusion if people are defining it from different points of view.

    For an author to say “this is allegory” about their own work strikes me as unfair, in some way, to the reader. It’s like the author is trying to close something that I want to open.

    On the other hand, if I read something and say about it, “this could be an allegorical relationship to this thing I’ve been thinking about, when looked at in this way that I think is interesting,” well, it’s still allegory, but it’s only mine. It might interest someone else as well, or open up even further readings, which is great, but I’m not stealing reading from other readers in the way an author asserting an allegorical relationship necessarily must.

    All SF must surely be open to the latter as much as anything else is. I don’t really care about the former approach, so I can’t really say if the best SF also does that.

  22. I haven’t left the discussion, but I’ve become somewhat perplexed by it. Obviously plok and I are disagreeing about something, but the more he explains the more we seem to share the same (or at least similar) assumptions, so I’m having a hard time figuring out just how it is that we’re disagreeing.

    It says a lot for Williams and Abrashkin that Irene and Joe were such great characters. In the hands of lesser writers Irene would be less capable and Joe would be an idiot.

  23. Matthew, I always find it interesting when two people end up arguing even though they don’t really disagree! Wouldn’t mind if it happened less often, of course…

    So, here’s the first problem: I said the BEST that SF can be is allegorical, and that’s an incredibly vague statement. Do I mean that SF can’t be any good UNLESS it’s allegorical? Do I mean it has to be like Pilgrim’s Progress, i.e. super-didactic? Was I using “allegorical” in accordance with some strict formula or other, or was I just tossing the word around for the hell of it?

    The second problem follows on from the first: clarifications offered in response to problems with initial phrasing are difficult to accept as “fair play” — it just looks like I’m changing my position to win agreement while insisting that I haven’t done any such thing. This can come off like me saying your objection is ridiculous because your definitions are wrong, which is a silly thing to say because if I introduced definitional muddiness into the discussion it is obviously not your fault you didn’t take what I said the way in the way I meant to say it, but mine.

    Now here’s another problem, that I said there’s NO SUCH THING as good political SF. Well, but what can I mean by this? It’s a little less vague, but it’s so absolute that it practically needs extra vagueness to be a meaningful point of view. No such thing as good political SF? Do I mean that there could never be any, because of some kind of flaw in SF that would overmaster any given writer’s talent or conception? Or do I mean, rather, that there simply hasn’t been any good political SF, because of any number of factors up to and including some previously-unsuspected limitation on what SF can do, or possibly just because of the way the dice have got rolled, so that good political SF cannot be said to exist as a matter of fact? Of course then we get into just what the hell I mean by “good”, I guess…

    Well, there’s nothing more provocative than a vague assertion, I guess!

    But, now that (I hope) I’ve gradually remedied my vagueness, at least a little…

    Fourth problem: Matthew, I am still left with the feeling that you just plain don’t like allegory! The “broccoli” thing. Or have I got that wrong?

    If I’ve got it right, that could be where we disagree most strongly.

  24. In Smith, I don’t think it was the allegory that I felt, just as whatever it was wasn’t Smith’s intention-direct. Delany would write something like “the symbols on the page passed through my eye where they were interpreted by my brain as corresponding to learned symbols that held a private meaning for me which elicited feelings” and that you can’t point to “allegory” in a work like you can point to “punctuation”. It only comes into existence at the critical juncture, in what is a new work by the critic.

    Whatever it takes for the author to get the stuff on the page, great, but all I have are the words and my own reasons.

    (But I really must get back to work now…)

  25. For your four problems… the first and the third are the ones I’m tripping over, because I’m having trouble picking out just what the points of contention are. The second one I’m not worried about at all; you don’t have a history of trying to weasel out of things and even if you tried it, I’m more than four feet tall and can cope.

    The fourth one is interesting. Allegory is one of those things that’s not quite respectable, or that’s the idea I get. But who am I to judge on that basis? I have, after all, spoken up for Ayn Rand in the past, and Rand has committed a worse ‘sin’ than allegory: she was didactic. Well, I don’t mind if Rand, or anybody, is didactic, if that’s what they want to do, so how can I object to allegory?

    I do think that allegory is not a virtue but a term of classification. I’ll never love a book for being an allegory, but I don’t mind loving one that is an allegory, depending on its positive attributes.

    Plus, as I said, I think you see allegory where I don’t. 1984 and Brave New World are the examples on the table. I read the first one for the first time not long ago, and the second one many times much longer ago, and I don’t see how they’re other than straightforward sf stories. Obviously they’re meant to be relevant, or even enlightening, to the real world, but that’s not the same thing.

  26. you are so right about Abrashkin and Williams Matthew E!

    someone please direct me to some Danny Dunn-blogging!

  27. Well, what bars Brave New World from the ranks of allegory? I’m a bit unclear on this: the placidity drug is called soma, the protagonist is John Savage, they talk about Fordism and not some other kind of equivalent -ism with a less suggestive name…what am I missing? I’m as uncomfortable with the term “allegory” as anyone, but sometimes you’ve got to use it regardless…and SF purposely dislocates the present into the future, the future into the past, human beings into inhuman beings, all the time. Doesn’t it? Sometimes skilfully and sometimes not.

    I’m reminded of the cover of Hulk #1, and the little ad-blurb that proclaimed “Fantasy As You Like It!” I always took that to mean, not “hey, we already know you like this sort of thing, so pick it up already!” but “take this fantasy as you please!”…and I think the Hulk — the Hulk, mind you, not Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde or anything else that moves in the same general imaginative circles — functioned better as fantasy than as SF. Even though I’ll allow that probably wasn’t the intention behind the blurb. I did promise something on Kirby, so here it is: allegory? Science fiction? It doesn’t seem that way to me — I don’t know what would be particularly science-fictional about New Gods, even though Jack was definitely known for playing with SF’s typical conceits. And as RAB has pointed out, if it’s allegory then the most pointed thing about it is…hey, Jack, just what is it, that you’re allegorizing here? Now that’s some ambitious stuff, if we’re to read it that way — in the superhero mode, we have all the clues we’re usually given right there in New Gods too, the costumes, code-names, and powers, the terrifyingly symbolic creatures duking it out on Main Street, with Joe Average caught in the middle…sure! Except it’s meaning at us much harder than your average issue of Thor, and yet at the same time its representations are more oblique. Successfully bring the thing down to the level of “Orion, Soldier-God”, and while you’ve made a true-ish name, it doesn’t do the same job as it does in other examples of superhero comic reading — it beggars the symbolism, instead of enriching it. Jeez, I swear I don’t know when I’m going to get around to the Kirby/Dick thing, damn it…but anyway, I read New Gods as far more politically sophisticated than 99% of the political SF that’s out there precisely because it introduces its A-B-C interpretive strategy only to shun that strategy’s implications on its way to a more complex message…which is contained wholly in the text, difficult to abstract, and turn into formula. “Fantasy, As You Like It!” But most of even the best political SF tells us little except that there are good guys and bad guys, or sometimes it goes further and says that there are no good guys or bad guys, only different kinds of difficulties…but, really, who doesn’t know this already? And contemporary SF is so vulnerable to the Big Picture biases of the armchair engineer, physicist, sociologist, historian, that it almost can’t help encoding a message…which is why I say it’s at its best (well, actually it was Harvey who said that, but nevermind) when it’s bringing some level of self-consciousness to its use of past/present/future dislocations and re-stagings…another way of saying that its at its best when its Big-Picture message also inoculates the reader from that same message’s persuasion. Science, real science, is at its best when it’s specific, assiduous, “on-the-ground”…I think science fiction is, too.

    Or…sorry, I’m turning myself around, have I just plain become inconsistent? Maybe so. Will have to review this little screed…

    But anyway, see how much fuller a treatment Kirby gives of politics by stapling it to the superhero costumes and the punch-ups…and then folding in what I think we could legitimately call adult concerns about symbolic meanings and roles. Ooof, I’m tired, hope this made sense, although I’m not sure it did…

    I’ll try again later; keep trying, in fact. And we’ll just see if at the end I had to throw up my hands and say “Cripes, I just didn’t think this damn thing through!”

    But anyway, the main question: what am I missing from the definition of allegory, that makes me see Brave New World as one?

  28. Well, what bars Brave New World from the ranks of allegory? I’m a bit unclear on this: the placidity drug is called soma, the protagonist is John Savage, they talk about Fordism and not some other kind of equivalent -ism with a less suggestive name…what am I missing? I’m as uncomfortable with the term “allegory” as anyone, but sometimes you’ve got to use it regardless…[…]what am I missing from the definition of allegory, that makes me see Brave New World as one?

    – I figured that ‘soma’ was taken from the same linguistic root as, I don’t know, ‘somnolent’ and ‘somnambulist’ and stuff. Is there another meaning I haven’t picked up on?
    – But was his name actually ‘Savage’ or did the Brave New Worlders just give him that name because they figured he was a savage? My assumption was always that it was the second case.
    – I did pick up on ‘Fordism’, but I took that to be extrapolation and not allegory. In the same sense that ‘Social Darwinism’ is a (bad) extrapolation of what Darwin said, but you wouldn’t call it an allegory of Darwin.

    Maybe you’re not missing anything; you’re just drawing connections that I wouldn’t draw. I see Brave New World as comparable to 1984 and It Can’t Happen Here and Anthem and, I’m sure, any number of other works of that period. (Levin’s This Perfect Day would also fit but was written too late. And what was the one by the Russian author? We by Zamyatin, have I got that right?) They’re if-this-goes-on novels; they’re extrapolative, to the extent that that’s a word. During the Crisis (1929-45), lots of people were quite sensibly concerned with the amount of totalitarianism in the world, and were disturbed by the extent to which totalitarianism’s underlying ideas were present even in free countries, and remained so into the High (1945-63). And so we got science fiction novels warning us about just what we’re letting ourselves in for if we’re not careful. I see things like this as having a different relationship with reality from what allegory does.

    As for Kirby, I figure it like this: you seem to be saying that Kirby’s allegories are not simple. To the extent that you can find direct correspondences between this story element and that real-world element, it doesn’t get you very far, and in fact interferes with your attempt to grok the story. Yes? Then I would say that Kirby is not doing allegory. I’m not saying that allegories have to have simple tab-A-to-slot-A correspondences, but I do think you have to be able to map them out somehow, and if you can’t, then it’s not an allegory. It’s, you know, a complex story. Perhaps one that throws some light on reality in some way, yes, but a story on its own.

    But most of even the best political SF tells us little except that there are good guys and bad guys, or sometimes it goes further and says that there are no good guys or bad guys, only different kinds of difficulties…but, really, who doesn’t know this already? And contemporary SF is so vulnerable to the Big Picture biases of the armchair engineer, physicist, sociologist, historian, that it almost can’t help encoding a message…which is why I say it’s at its best (well, actually it was Harvey who said that, but nevermind) when it’s bringing some level of self-consciousness to its use of past/present/future dislocations and re-stagings…another way of saying that its at its best when its Big-Picture message also inoculates the reader from that same message’s persuasion.

    You’re assuming that political SF’s only job is to throw light on our own politics. But it can also tell a good and interesting story about the unusual politics peculiar to the (science-)fictional world. That’s worth something on its own.

    Anyway, this part here, that I requote: ” tells us little except that there are good guys and bad guys, or sometimes it goes further and says that there are no good guys or bad guys, only different kinds of difficulties…but, really, who doesn’t know this already? ” Okay, fine, but is there anything else that we know? Because if there isn’t, it’s a tough standard to expect the SF authors to know more than that when nobody else does. Which I suspect is the case.

    But I disagree that SF is best when the author is making sure he doesn’t try to persuade the reader around to his/her way of thinking. SF authors tend to be interesting and intelligent people, and I like it when they have the courage of their convictions. Go ahead and try to talk me into your pet ideas, I can take it. If you won’t, who will? Spider Robinson has hardly written a book in which he doesn’t advocate some kind of futuristic touchy-feely hive-mind society for us, something with which I could hardly disagree more violently, but it doesn’t stop me from reading every new book he comes out with.

  29. Well, we do know more: we know things that are experiential, rather than theoretical. The specifics of things, their irreduciblly lived-through details…not that I’m advocating ripping those things completely away from any abstractions at all, but without experiential details you don’t have a story but a diagram…and a lot of political SF seems content — no, eager — to err on the side of the diagrammatical. If SF authors find it hard to tell us about that other type of political knowledge, there are a hundred novels in the English canon that can teach them how

    And, I certainly do assume that political SF’s job (note I omit the “only”…but not by much) is to throw light on our own politics. After all, there are no politics but ours! But I can see we’re probably just going to have to agree to differ on this point: I don’t think a story about the peculiarity of science-fictional politics is worth much on its own, because I don’t believe it ever exists on its own — if it’s just a bunch of aliens doing their thing, some of ’em will be stand-ins; if a human being is there, then the aliens are for him to compare his species’ social organization to.

    Maybe we can still argue about something else, though: for example, I think SF’s “extrapolative” quality is really not extrapolative at all, but reflective — as I said, the dislocation of present into future just makes it easier to talk about Our Times without making it look like that’s what you’re doing. You say that SF’s cautionary political tales are warnings about what might happen — I say they are wake-up calls about what is happening. Which of course is sort of like saying the same thing, but not quite…because I’m also saying, how does the extrapolation get justified? Some extrapolations must be less convincing than others — just read The Economist’s annual Science And Technology Supplement to see a good example of this — and usually it’s because the extrapolation isn’t “realistic”. But what’s this realism, when we’re talking about the unguessable future? Thank you, Matthew, you’ve brought me back around to my point: most SF extrapolations are ludicrous to begin with, which is fine, but the more they try to shoulder the burden of plausibility themselves the more ridiculous they become. To say “after we built the space elevator” is a massive leap, maybe even more massive than to say “after some lone kook discovered the principles of FTL travel in his basement one day” — Warren Ellis was recently ranting on about how human beings should just terraform the shit out of Mars, and that’s maybe more ludicrous than even the space elevator. We can’t even “terraform” Earth, for heaven’s sake! Naturally not; planets are not small, simple, and manageable objects/machines. Beyond that: we don’t even understand our own.

    Now I’m wandering again. Ah yes, how does the extrapolation earn plausibility? I maintain: by how convincing/familiar its allegorical and characterization elements are, because it isn’t really an extrapolation at all, and its “realism” depends on how faithful it is to what we see in the shaving-mirror. And how could it be otherwise, when we can’t even predict the weather accurately? If one considers 1984 to be merely predictive, then it’s easy to dismiss its cautionary note — in fact people in the Western countries do this all the time, they pooh-pooh the idea that they have any cause to fear Big Brother…and so it isn’t the lessons of extrapolation they fail to learn, but the lessons of history. Not that I don’t enjoy a flight of fancy, too; I’ve read a lot of books about the times “after we built the space elevator”, and I’ve enjoyed them…that doesn’t mean I consider that the presence of the space-elevator makes their point for them, though.

    Glad we agree about Kirby — you sum it up better than I did. However, could you be a bit more specific about when you think something crosses the line into allegory? You say:

    “I’m not saying that allegories have to have simple tab-A-to-slot-A correspondences, but I do think you have to be able to map them out somehow…”

    How? I mean, what are the limits on “how”, or do you feel it’s just a “I know it when I see it” sort of thing? See, I still see BNW as allegory, because I think it fits the definition very well, it “maps” very well, though without A-to-A correspondence. You don’t think this, and vive la difference I guess…but why? Where’s your break point? What’s BNW lacking, that if it had it would produce allegory?

    “Fordism”…I think you made a mistake there, because how could there be such a thing as “Fordism”, how could people in an extrapolation talk sensibly about “the year of Our Ford”? Ain’t no -ism like that, except on the factory floor — Ford isn’t who we look to for original philosophy, except if you count the assembly line as philosophy.

    Also, as I understand it “soma” is the root of words like “somatic”, not “somnolent” (“somnolent”, though — what a great word!), although I’d figure it very likely that Huxley wouldn’t’ve minded a little blurring of the lines, there. And yeah, it’s “We” by Zamyatin…take away my union card, I’ve never read it! Must get on that…

  30. How? I mean, what are the limits on “how”, or do you feel it’s just a “I know it when I see it” sort of thing?

    I’ll never respond with ‘I know it when I see it’; if I ever do, it’s time to take me out back and shoot me. No, the limit is, if you can map it out with a complicated (or even vague) map-tab-A-to-slot-A scheme.

    Also, as I understand it “soma” is the root of words like “somatic”, not “somnolent” (”somnolent”, though — what a great word!), although I’d figure it very likely that Huxley wouldn’t’ve minded a little blurring of the lines, there.

    I just looked up ‘somatic’–not that I didn’t know the word, but the only meaning that came to my mind was the one that said, when your wizard is casting a spell that has a somatic component, that means he has to wave his hands around. Where does the association of ‘soma’ with ‘somatic’ get us–soma is like a communion wafer? Or did you have some other soma allusion in mind?

    I don’t seem to be responding to your post in any particular order…

    Well, we do know more: we know things that are experiential, rather than theoretical.

    Yes, of course. But we don’t know anything experiential about the SF setting of a novel.

    And, I certainly do assume that political SF’s job (note I omit the “only”…but not by much) is to throw light on our own politics. After all, there are no politics but ours!

    All the more reason to make up another one for us to read about!

    Maybe we can still argue about something else, though: for example, I think SF’s “extrapolative” quality is really not extrapolative at all, but reflective — as I said, the dislocation of present into future just makes it easier to talk about Our Times without making it look like that’s what you’re doing. You say that SF’s cautionary political tales are warnings about what might happen — I say they are wake-up calls about what is happening. Which of course is sort of like saying the same thing, but not quite…because I’m also saying, how does the extrapolation get justified? Some extrapolations must be less convincing than others — just read The Economist’s annual Science And Technology Supplement to see a good example of this — and usually it’s because the extrapolation isn’t “realistic”.

    Well, yes, okay. In fact straight-line extrapolation is probably the least realistic thing you can do when projecting any trend, because that line will always find a way to curve one way or the other in about twenty years. And it’s true that such an extrapolation is typically a criticism of the present. I’d still say that such a story is in a different category from an allegory.

  31. I’ll say that it doesn’t have to be an allegory, for sure — otherwise, everything would be one. However…must it be, for example, people and places that fit in even a complicated A-to-A mapping, for you? “The United States of Jupiter”, and stuff like that? A far-future Joey Smallwood? Or John the Baptist? Or can the mapping be (for example) between a concept and its embodiment. I really do suspect that among geeks like us “allegory” has somehow gotten to be a dirty word, but that we never think about that…not that I’m saying you’re a good example of that, Matthew, but I think we’re the only ones still here…

    “Yes, of course. But we don’t know anything experiential about the SF setting of a novel.”

    We could, though; and to my mind, that’s really where the pseudo-extrapolative aspect of SF shines, not in producing future “histories” but in producing experiential details to reside within them. I think of that as the “hard” stuff: the encounter of character with futurity, as evidenced in the nuts-and-bolts reality of, say, what it’s like to live on the Moon (I’m in the middle of writing a story on this, actually — about what it would be like for near-future people to live on the Moon we know now, instead of the Moon we knew in the early 70s — hint: it would not be the same). To go back to Kim Stanley Robinson: as I said, though you could do some pretty neat mapping of Green Mars and Blue Mars to the early days of the American republic (if you wanted to), Red Mars is much more concerned with the Martian expedition as, well, a Martian expedition…and the mapping’s just the slightest bit more difficult (though not impossible) to pull off, because there is more in there that isn’t about the allegorical “us” as much as it’s about the real “us”. Robinson excels at “chaptering” his Mars trilogy just as much as he did at chaptering his Orange County trilogy, and so his “hard” stuff in the first volume kind of works a bit like “Rendezvous With Rama” — detail-heavy, more textural than annunciative (boy, I’m making up words at a great clip, aren’t I?). Why there’s even a little bit of botany in Red Mars! And so it feels a bit more like Mars and Pittsburgh, as I said before, are on a continuum. But how they got there is all bullshit, mind! And a lot of what happens afterward is pretty well impossible! But for a brief moment…there’s botany.

    That’s a new politics, if you like, or kind of: when the plot and the characters truly absorb a fresh site and situation, at least as much as they can. But then it’s still just our old politics again too: only written more thoughtfully.

    Need coffee! Or, no, wait: a beer.

  32. However…must it be, for example, people and places that fit in even a complicated A-to-A mapping, for you?

    Doesn’t have to be, although obviously that’s easiest.

    I think we’re the only ones still here…

    I was wondering about that. That’d be a shame.

    to my mind, that’s really where the pseudo-extrapolative aspect of SF shines, not in producing future “histories” but in producing experiential details to reside within them. I think of that as the “hard” stuff: the encounter of character with futurity, as evidenced in the nuts-and-bolts reality of, say, what it’s like to live on the Moon

    There you go; that’s something besides allegory for SF to be good at.

    you could do some pretty neat mapping of Green Mars and Blue Mars to the early days of the American republic

    Yeah. The independence-from-Earth stuff fits in okay, but if there’s an American analogue to the terraforming-vs-leave-it-intact conflict, I’m not sure what it would be.

    That’s a new politics, if you like, or kind of: when the plot and the characters truly absorb a fresh site and situation, at least as much as they can. But then it’s still just our old politics again too: only written more thoughtfully.

    And what I say is, not necessarily.

  33. “Doesn’t have to be, although obviously that’s easiest.”

    Matthew! But where is the line? Stop being so cagey, please, and hand over your criteria. What, in your opinion, is a story that is an allegory. How does it differ from BNW. That kind of thing. Is Candide an allegory? If so, what does Candide have, or lack, that BNW doesn’t? A whole other level of disagreement awaits us, if you can show me your work on this. Possibly I am just being obtuse, so kindly give me a hand with that. For instance, what about Green Mars, does the failure of the terraforming issue to “map” (I’m not so sure it doesn’t, by the way) disqualify it even though there’s a Constitutional Convention in there, etc. etc.?

    “There you go; that’s something besides allegory for SF to be good at.”

    Yes, certainly; except it isn’t, because allegory is such a convenience of political SF that nobody bothers to try doing without it.

    “And what I say is, not necessarily.”>/i> But on what grounds do you say that? Where in any fiction can you find a politics that isn’t a mirror of our own? Let alone SF, with its endless hidebound religious hierarchies and bottomless cup of geniuses who challenge them…

  34. Matthew! But where is the line? Stop being so cagey, please, and hand over your criteria.

    Sorry; I answered that way because, to me, the issue of *what* is being symbolized isn’t controversial. Obviously it’s a fairly simple trick for an author to have characters representing real people and settings representing real places. I was just saying that that’s not the only choice; an author could have, say, a place that represented death, and a character that symbolized a place, or something, and that could still be an allegory.

    I could regard ‘Lord of the Rings’ as an allegory for World War II – the One Ring is the atomic bomb, Gondor is Britain, Rohan is America, et cetera – quite easily if I hadn’t read Tolkien’s insistences that no such thing was intended. The comparison does hold water, though, pretty much.

    The difference between LotR and BNW, in this case, is that with LotR I can not only draw out the mapping, but I can follow the story along on both levels and it’s still consistent on its symbolic level. With BNW, I must admit that I’m not particularly sure just what the correspondences are or what the events of the story are supposed to represent.

    (I seem to have introduced a new idea here suddenly: it’s not just the static story elements, but also the story events, that are important for allegory. Until I typed this I hadn’t known that I thought that.)

    I don’t think you’re being obtuse; I think that this is stuff that I haven’t fully thought out and am still working out the implications and my assumptions.

    One thing I wonder about is the purpose of allegory. I guess in my mind, one writes an allegory when one wants to write a story about something in the real world, but, for whatever reason, finds it more amiable to do so symbolically via some story-premise that at first glance has nothing to do with the real stuff. Nevertheless, the point of an allegory is that it’s the real stuff that’s important and the made-up stuff is just an interface. But maybe I have that wrong, or incomplete. What’s allegory for?

    on what grounds do you say that? Where in any fiction can you find a politics that isn’t a mirror of our own? Let alone SF, with its endless hidebound religious hierarchies and bottomless cup of geniuses who challenge them…

    I was wondering if you were going to ask that. And my (somewhat weak) answer is, maybe nowhere. Maybe there are no examples of it. But it’s still theoretically possible, and it’s exactly the kind of thing I’d like to write someday.

  35. Well, I don’t know if I think it theoretically possible, but more power to you!

    Stealing a minute from work, here, but as far as your developing definition of allegory goes…might it be that to you (as probably to many) the idea of a galerie/picaresque is essential to allegory? It’s in Candide and Gulliver’s Travels and Pilgrim’s Progress and Utopia — dude goes out and visits a whole bunch of highly-symbolic places and people. Could that be a stricter way of saying that the events of plot have to have real-world analogues too?

    On the idea that you could have a guy who represents a place, a place that represents Death, etc. etc…you can see that a little ways down that road you could end up in a situation where it’s hard to make your events of plot “allegorical”…just a little bit further than that, possibly, you end up being able to do no allegorical plotting at all, only myth-making — by which I mean, when Coyote goes to the land of the dead, it isn’t an allegory, is it? Also hard for me to see, at least just now, how any creation myth could be considered allegory — rather putting the cart before the horse, there, it’s like what Bloom said about Freudian analyses of Shakespeare, Freud got all his stuff from Shakespeare…

    Okay, back to work!

  36. Oh, and isn’t LOTR just fabulously boring as a WWII allegory? Maybe proportions ought to count for something, too — Tolkien is loaded up with so much stuff that’s just straight out of left field that the stuff you can call allegorical seems in relatively short supply, to me. Then again I confess I’ve never given it very much thought…

    Tree And Leaf, on the other hand: definitely allegory. Although I’m not sure Tolkien would like me saying that, but c’mon.

    Smith Of Wootton Major I haven’t read in quite some time…gotta check that one out again OH NO OH MY GOD WHERE IS IT? Sooooo hard for me to get in the first place, I searched and searxhed, and it turned out pretty awesome when I finally did locate it…

    Okay, now I’m really procrastinating…

  37. might it be that to you (as probably to many) the idea of a galerie/picaresque is essential to allegory? It’s in Candide and Gulliver’s Travels and Pilgrim’s Progress and Utopia — dude goes out and visits a whole bunch of highly-symbolic places and people.

    I don’t think my concept of an allegory is so restrictive–I have room for LotR in it, after all, and I’d only call that picaresque if you made me (what does ‘galerie’ mean in this context?)–but that is clearly one way of doing it.

    Oh, and isn’t LOTR just fabulously boring as a WWII allegory?

    Yeah, actually. Fortunately, not only isn’t it one, but if we are to believe Tolkien, and I do, it isn’t one at all.

    I’ll take Tree and Leaf out for a spin myself and let you know my reactions. I think I’ve got it upstairs.

    On the idea that you could have a guy who represents a place, a place that represents Death, etc. etc…you can see that a little ways down that road you could end up in a situation where it’s hard to make your events of plot “allegorical”…just a little bit further than that, possibly, you end up being able to do no allegorical plotting at all, only myth-making — by which I mean, when Coyote goes to the land of the dead, it isn’t an allegory, is it?

    Not sure I follow you. Why couldn’t it be, if you set out to write it that way?

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