Troubled but Magnificent Raptor Metaphor as #Review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s THE MARBLE FAUN (1860)

My metaphorical review delivered as a phone text:



Here is (the now-neglected) poet James Russel Lowell’s perspicacious 1860 review in The Atlantic:

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Next on my list, a certain house with a certain number of gables.


Published in: on January 25, 2018 at 1:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

More Wickedness Than Men Can Make Right. #Sciencefiction by Alice Bradley Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.)


Chaucer’s Wife of Bath anticipates that women’s literature would express an inconsolable anger of women toward men.

693       By God, if wommen hadde writen stories,
                By God, if women had written stories,
694       As clerkes han withinne hire oratories,
                As clerks have within their studies,
695       They wolde han writen of men moore wikkednesse
                They would have written of men more wickedness
696       Than al the mark of Adam may redresse.
                Than all the male sex could set right.

James Tiptree Jr. is the most common pen-name for Mary Bradley Sheldon (1915-1987). She is a recognized master of popular science fiction storytelling. I haven’t yet read all of her work. At least a handful of her stories explore gender conflict in dire ways. The best treatments are, in my opinion, the astonishing ones that share a low opinion of men. The others are worthy entertainments that share a low opinion of men. Can you find the common theme? It’s not pleasant for me to share group punishment, but I like these stories. This essay will examine two of her novellas. One describes an Earth without Men. The other describes an Earth without Women. Both are at least sometimes uncomfortable reads, but worth it.

Problem! It’s difficult to discuss The Screwfly Solution and Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and offer full analytic treatment without spoilers. I will restrain myself here with more limitation against spoilers of the better story.

The strongest of the two stories is The Screwfly Solution. It first appeared in Analog magazine, which reached my mailbox as a teenager. It doesn’t just touch the mostly highly sensitive and upsetting problem of gender conflict, male violence against women. Rather, it embraces that violence for larger effect on the reader. The story arms the very idea of “male violence against women” with explosive metaphorical power. For that reason, it is reasonable to join it to the horror genre, as well as science fiction. Its protagonists ask what is causing the disease that weakens the barrier between male desire and male violence? I don’t want to spoil it because the answer is a shocker. The path of the narration toward that conclusion shocks all the way to a world without women. A horror story, horrible also in a common sense, and a powerful story.

If you can grant yourself 55-minutes to listen, this radio play leads to a world without men. The novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” not at Tiptree/Sheldon’s highest level of work. However, it is fun and free to hear as a radio play (link below). Its postulate is a little like Planet of the Apes: Wayward male astronauts return to a changed Earth of women and trans women-to-men. Planet of #TheFutureIsFemale! Some of the sexist things two of the male characters say about the women seem dated, but some do not.

This is important: I’m unable to conclude the authorial intent here… is there something self-consciously sinister in the way the women treat the men? Or does the narrative fabric consider the men to deserve it? There is a scene of sexualized violence, but the women have the power. Arguably, but without full clarity, the women rape one of the men for conspiratorial reasons, although he doesn’t know it. It’s sinister.

Returning to my fundamental unease with the narrative opinion, near the end the women assess the role of men, evolution and civilization in a way that doesn’t bode well for men. Assuming procreation is not a problem, does the human species need men to continue be human? The women of Tiptree/Sheldon’s planet without men have no doubt: Maybe humanity needed men tens of thousands of years ago, but not anymore. And men aren’t worth with risk to preserve. Does the narrative mind consider this sentiment evil, or is it progress, as the women of the future assert? That’s what intrigues me most…


Here (below) is the trailer for the merely adequate televised version of Tiptree/Sheldon’s  novella, The Screwfly Solution. It’s an episode of a TV series called Masters of Horror. Again, Sheldon does not shy away from upsetting ideas. I suppose the written version might be less disturbing than to see them on screen. While I don’t want censorship, I myself sometimes walk out of the room during any kind of murder scene on TV, then rush back. This is no exception, but nonetheless, the story’s weaponizing metaphors of gender conflict are so precise and so chilling.

In The Screwfly Solution, the future is male. In contrast to Houston, Houston, Do You Read? a male-only future unambiguously leads to human extinction.

Both Houston, Houston, Do You Read? and The Screwfly Solution reserve an aggressively misogynist roles for male preachers which sometimes sound like a selectively worst sample of the religious right.

In sum, women’s fear and resentment of men, sometimes rising to hatred, can be more than just a social movement or social media post. It can be the force behind bad, fine, good, even great art, just as any disturbing aesthetic or set of ideas can. In addition to their value as stories, these two Tiptree/Sheldon novellas provide anthropological data points of women’s rising expectations. Revolutions happen when social conditions start to improve. Whether or not revolutions succeed in building a better world is another question. Is gender conflict a zero-sum game? Tiptree/Sheldon’s stories suggest that it is. This could be the author’s opinion, or it could be a way to tighten the conflict. Unlike social movements, it’s not the duty of storytelling to provide solutions. Tellingly, neither of these two Tiptree/Sheldon novellas foresees a solution to gender conflict other than emphatic androcide. If men by their nature can’t make it right, as the Wife of Bath claimed, is it truly even the fault of men?

The wikipedia links below include a couple more descriptions of Tiptree/Sheldon’s science fiction treatment of gender conflict:

The Women Men Don’t See

The Girl Who Was Plugged In

Published in: on December 12, 2017 at 11:53 am  Comments (1)  

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a #Review)

Reader! Don’t ask, what is in the wallpaper? Ask, who:


Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.

Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.

And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern–it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.

They get through, and then the pattern strangles them off and turns them upside down, and makes their eyes white!


“The Yellow Wallpaper” is 6,000 words of striking through the mask. In the quote below, from Ahab’s explanation of his pursuit of the White Whale, I have changed Melville’s word “man” to “woman”:


“Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, woman, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event—in the living act, the undoubted deed—there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If woman will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?”



With the husband/doctor’s infantilizing endearments such as “little girl,” the patronizing care of the woman suggests real domestic oppression. Clearly, the woman (sometimes women) in the wallpaper are in a prison:


“She just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.”


At the same time, the source of the narrator’s mental illness arrives ready-made from offstage.  1887 patriarchal oppression has a role here, and this is inescapable. But to limit it to that seems to trivialize the narrator’s humanity. A human being doesn’t need domestic or political oppression to have a problem with reality. Rather, what assumptions do we carry today that sanity is the default point of human equilibrium?

What everyday miracle (or hubris) of civilization helps us to feel that we are, most of the time, living in a shared reality?

This short story doesn’t answer. Instead, it offers delightful creepiness and narrative tricks to bring its full impact:


“Life is very much more exciting now than it used to be. You see I have something more to expect, to look forward to, to watch. I really do eat better, and am more quiet than I was.”


Warning bells go off when I read these assertions. Healthy, unconfined people do not need to offer such reassurance. As a reader I’m not prepared for the wallpaper’s assault on the senses, its unreal behavior, tactile disobedience, and odor. The ragged line of many one-sentence paragraphs at to the experience of unraveling. It also offers a generous readability.

Further claxons roar when the narrator hints that her husband and doctor do not want her to write. My initiation reaction as a reader what this was a male evil inflicted on her. However, after reading Gilman’s 1913 biographical statement about her story, I understand the author references this as part of a prescriptive “rest cure.” It is not simply evil to ask a person suffering a “nervous breakdown” (Gilman’s words) to abstain from work. Arguably, as compulsion, it was an act of medical ignorance. The evil part was to compel her to do so, and with the narrator’s dark liminal resources, it fails to take away her liberty. As the narrator declares from her state of creeping madness:


“I’ve got out at last,” said I, “in spite of you and Jane. And I’ve pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back!”


Even today, there is an ethical question, often heartbreaking, of when compassionate authorities should compel people suffering mental illness to accept treatment. When is a mentally ill person responsible for determining her or his treatment, and when not? Treatment can still be invasive. Common wisdom and law on this question changed in my lifetime toward personal freedom. Relatedly, there are hundreds of mentally ill homeless people camped among garbage not far away as I write this. These are additional realms in which the story touches a discomfort between thresholds.

Gilman makes clear in her 1913 statement about that she needed to work to become healthy again:


“I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the borderline of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

“Then, using the remnants of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work again–work, the normal life of every human being; work, in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite–ultimately recovering some measure of power.”


Who was the “wise friend”? I don’t know.

In the story, the husband’s arrogant, sometimes infuriating good intentions and patriarchal power lead him to override the narrator’s repeated hints and evasions. These evasions turn inward in passive-aggressive rebellion, seeking solitude, locking the door, seeking to enter the wallpaper. Mental illness brings an illusion of freedom.

Maybe the sick woman’s confinement has something in common with modern prison solitary confinement—a condition that induces madness and, in prisons could arguably qualify as a cruel and unusual punishment.

Without intellectual stimulation, there is a fungus of decay. The wallpaper has become her psychic expression, in it, of it, behind it.


“I determine for the thousandth time that I will follow that pointless pattern to some sort of a conclusion.”


We have all seen faces in patterns… The word “pattern” appears 25 times in the story. The human mind is a pattern seeker… how potent the imagery of the wallpaper, its color, weavings, its smell and movement. It’s delightfully creepy, and reminds me of the Lovecraft’s story of an early radio operator who finds a way to make visible the horrible animalculae who inhabit in its waves. There’s the mediocre Twilight Zone’s “Little Girl Lost” who gets lost between walls, with 4th dimension…


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How effective the hint of a creeping woman going round and round her room like Doré‘s image of prisoner exercise, revisited in yellow by Van Gogh in the year of his suicide.


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What is it about the color yellow? Is mental health the baseline state? Or is it an aberration? Is it connected to artistic people like Gilman or Van Gogh? How does the nuclear family, the demands of small children, commodity consumption, relate to mental instability? Is it something about women and modern living? Something about her upper middle class life? Does the narrator’s servant Jennie have the opportunity to succumb to madness? She’d probably die in a wallpaperless ditch, like Bartleby the Scriviner, in a prison yard.

The theme of a woman’s unhealthy descent toward the liminal in “The Yellow Wallpaper” made me think of another character, Beret. She is the wife of the protagonist Per Hansa, in the novel Giants in the Earth (published 1924, set in 1873) by Ole Edvart Rølvaag. Per Hansa is a man of action who thrives in the challenges of homesteading in the north American plains; she, however, suffers from loneliness and desolation. To make her feel more at home, he painted the walls of their half-sunken sod home white. Like the all-too-permeable yellow wallpaper, the white walls pushes the woman’s mental health deeper into depression.


The lime had been mixed according to directions, and spread over the walls–three coats of it, no less; now the sod hut shone so brightly inside that it dazzled the eyes. . . . Before the snow came, Beret thought it delightful to have such walls; but after there was nothing but whiteness outside–pure whiteness as far as the eye could see and the thought could reach–she regretted that he had touched them. Her eyes were blinded wherever she looked, either outdoors or indoors.


She becomes more religious without becoming less melancholic. Unlike the narrator of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” there is no “rest cure” available to a pioneer woman. Unlike the real Gilman, the regime of work does not ease her mental distress of Beret:


Beret went about her work with a greater determination; but her sad mood did not lift.


During a harsh winter, over many days, she wants Per Hansa to make a journey to fetch a minister for a dying neighbor. Over the course of many pages, she pushes and pushes Per Hansa to make a dangerous trip in the cold. She remorselessly threatens to do so herself. Finally he relents, attempts it, and freezes to death.

I bring this up because I want mention that Gilman’s story recognizes that the suffering of women impacts the suffering of men. As Gilman points out, there is a liminal issue, a trap door of our shared problem with the fragility of the relation between our self and our reality. “The Yellow Wallpaper” ends with ghoulish, wink of misunderstanding of the man’s utter horror, or possibly worse:


Now why should that man have fainted? But he did, and right across my path by the wall, so that I had to creep over him every time!


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As a helpless kid in the 60s-70s, I grew up hearing of how much women hated being housewives, of the lurking option of putting their heads in the oven. Without claiming expertise on the genre, you could put “The Yellow Wallpaper” on the unhappy shelf with Diary of a Mad Housewife, and The Bell Jar. There are others, old and new; let’s not forget Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Since rumor has it, women even with careers continue to be unhappy, there may be further such works. Alternatively, you could frame this story in a way that emphasizes our shared suffering (7 out of 10 suicides in the USA 2015 were white men). You could place “The Yellow Wallpaper” among categories of human literature among those that poke reality and find it more fragile than we might have otherwise assumed.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is a much stronger work than Gilman’s Herland. It’s more interesting to explore problems than perfection. From the first paragraph to the last, this is highly effective, creepy, feminist gothic. “The paper stains everything it touches.”

You can read “The Yellow Wallpaper” here for free.

You can listen to The Yellow Wallpaper here for free.

You can read Gilman’s 1913 statement “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” here.

Published in: on December 6, 2017 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

#Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a #review)

To prepare for #theFutureIsFemale, I thought I’d read the 1915 utopian novel Herland. As seems fitting, it offers both more and less what, I guess, Gilman details in the story. A land of women without the influence of men is a fun concept that fits in the fecund genre of that time concerning the discovery of lost worlds. In short, three men find the hidden land and, with some trials, learn their ways. The men leave with some companions who want to learn about our world in Gilman’s sequel novels.


Is there an earnest, non-humorous, non-satiric utopian story anywhere that succeeds? Yes, most people want to live in a beautiful place. But that’s only part of utopia. Who wants to live in a place that purports to have solved all problems? Without problems, is the human experience reduced to that of a beautiful machine?

The women of Herland treat the captive men well, and with patience. They are physical, aesthetic, intellectual superiors, though not god-like. They agree with each other. Herland once had men, but lost them all through war and the natural disaster that sealed the land from the rest of the world. Herland has replanted all of its forests with fruit and nut trees, a gesture toward permaculture at the expense of wilderness. Herland has many cats bred to lose their meow and ability to hunt birds. Yes, like a late 1990s Internet email, Herland takes time to discuss the idea that women prefer cats, men prefer dogs. Herland educates its young through play, the USA does not—well, a man remembers, there is the Montessori method. Herland raises its children apart from the biological mother.

Is this engaging reading? Meanwhile, there are references to drama, dance, music, religion, and education. I don’t want to shock you, but all of these are superlative accomplishments. They also don’t have disease: apparently, all it took was 2,000 years without unsanitary men, and there you go, cured. I don’t recall seeing any reference to politics, industry, economic classes, money, energy sources. The Herland guards pick up the men and drive them in electric motors (cars), which, unless I missed it, they never mention again. Herland references communications system that are different but equivalent to USA’s, but does not explain.


The female utopia Gilman envision is a realm of mutants. These women reproduce by parthenogenesis. Individuals have some control over self-pregnancy through will and diet. A reader could question, then, to what extent they are human. If they are not human, is this even a utopian novel, or a novel about a visit to female elf-land? I believe most human women would say their reproductive system is important to their experience in life. However, a most generous gesture as a reader I think would be to accept the parthenogenesis as an ultimate form of birth control. It’s also a way of avoiding social censure of a disreputable concept.

My guess is that Gilman did not intend the following interpretation, but she does anticipate the future. We already are see trans-human intersections of our birthed selves with technological implants and genetic medicine. I assume without particular knowledge that in my lifetime, real human women will be able to reproduce without any kind of male contribution. Then what happens? Does this novel lend insight?


Unfortunately, by literary standards, the only real characters in the book are the men. Characterization of the three men show them as three individuals, with different values, different personalities. They even disagree with each other. In their relations with women, one is a chauvinist cad, one puts women on a pedestal, and one is moderate.

There are pale hints of differences between the women of Herland, their size, age, intellect. In one part of the book, the women differentiate themselves in reaction to the three male types. Herland fails the Bechdal test.

For the most part, the women are not even mutant humans. They are cardboard cutouts of Gilman’s ideology. They are smart, beautiful, poetic, unconvincing, polemic machines. Once in a while they rise from one dimension to two. Sometimes their combination of strength and kindness hints of a richness to them that the text never fully realizes.

I think the novel might have been stronger (and less predictable) if three women of USA 1915 visited Herland and brought different opinions in argument with each other and the women of Herland.


Herland over and over asserts ways, specific and general, the way woman is a social construct. Herland smashes restrictive roles for women that the men describe. When Herland is not making those strong arguments, it is asserting Motherhood as essential to womanhood. It often does so with quasi-religious feeling.


As I was reading this, I felt an urge to stop reading it and instead meta-read it. Instead of taking the words as Gilman wrote them, I sometimes wanted to find the shadow of Gilman’s personal life and world, its restrictions, prejudices, and privileges. I heard some hints about her life that I wondered about as I read. I don’t know if this is fair, but it might be a more generous way for a modern reader to plow through the preachy passages of the text. I don’t think Gilman would have liked this anthropological attitude, though. Of course, readers will bring their own non-literary motivation to the reading, and that might suffice.


As a reader, I don’t understand why the three Herland women marry the three men. It happens in the context of their curiosity of the outside world, and urge to explore. I have the impression that it happens for no reason other than narrative necessity, to bring the utopians into 1915 USA for their critique in the next novel, which I haven’t read. If this was an opportunity to draw lines of, perhaps, females struggling with conflicted human complexity, the novel avoided such messiness. Was it just too much to imagine independent women carrying their ideas across international borders of propriety?

Surprise! Men bring mess and conflict to the utopia. It’s sometimes difficult to pin down the evasive language, but I think the utopian women of Herland have no sexual desire. The male narrator patiently and ethereally accepts his bride’s request to wait before intercourse, and it never happens in the book.

The only sexual intercourse that may or may not happen is the chauvinist cad’s attempt of marital rape. This upset is the part of the book that feels the most real. The women who fight him off even kick him in his private parts, the book makes clear. So urgent is the narrative feeling against this male violence that the sanitized curtain rents apart. Aside from that, Gilman’s female utopia conceives no sexual happiness, only relations as cloud-tripping with Oos and Ahhs.

The other two times the men bring conflict is their attempt to escape, which never had a chance to succeed, and introducing harsh ideas from human history. It turns out that all of Herland is like a North American university of 2017, one big safe space. When the narrator vaguely explains concepts of Damnation and Hell, she runs “blinded and screaming” to a temple to have the idea removed:

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Although #theFutureIsFemale excludes me, still, I am not comfortable with this novel’s connection between an uber-female’s sanity and the sanitization of ideas. How does Gilman intend the reader to interpret this utopian female weakness? Is it a hint that the utopia harbors a stagnancy? Or is the book merely trying to offer the isolated mutant woman’s reaction as an objective assessment of dark human history? That’s probably too generous, because the utopia has such a ready way to remove unpleasant ideas. This may be an unintended hint of the cost to our human natures to establish and hold on to a state of perfection (even if only brain-suffocating, mutant perfection). The idea that the unsanitary is “male” continues, however. Some of my female friends who attend the Michigan Womyn’s Festival tell me that the only men allowed in are the ones who clean the portable toilets. A google search today offers 2,460,000 results to the term “toxic masculinity,” part of the ready vocabulary of the current androphobic sex panic.

Listen to Herland for free here.

Read Herland for free here.

Published in: on December 4, 2017 at 2:35 pm  Leave a Comment  

The #mysterious #fever & gloom-inspired #origins of ISLAND OF THE MOTHS #graphicnovel #comic @NSkorpen

Here are the first four screen shots from the Afterward to the new ebook edition of ISLAND OF THE MOTHS (art by the pen-wielding bon vivant Neal Skorpen). These are excerpts from our email correspondence in 2006. As you can see, I suggested we stop a current project (which I was writing as he drew, a bit like trapeze artists). And not just stop that project and go home crying, as usual, but start a new one. This one would take a different artistic approach on the same grimace-faced Urge and grumpy, brooding Irritation (“that the girls love”) that motivated me (I think Neal too in his individual, cryptic, thousand-mile-stare way). And I would complete writing the text before asking him to draw… But first, he had to agree with the proposal! Would he?  Tremble, tremble….





Ha! I read that I had the flu when writing that email…. so it all started with a fever dream. At this moment, October 2015, I’m getting over the flu again, so there is something going on here.

The Plume references are the project we halted to begin… ISLAND OF THE MOTHS (which I request you say in a certain ominous and intriguing  tone of voice).  What I called in the 2006 email “the Zonny project” is happily now finally available for you as a quite inexpensive ebook, DANGEROUS BICYCLE MYSTERY QUEST, available in popular eBook formats around the world, and will be available as a paperback in a few months.

How did that curious twinkle-eyed fellow and martial arts board-chopper Mr. Skorpen reply, back in that primitive year, 2006? Between “hiiiii-YAAA” cracks of his steely metacarpus against birch and pine blocks, which I assume supplemented his living, did he agree or decline? Well I can’t tell you, for it’s in the book; but okay, yes I can at least tell you that Neal replied with style ideas and specific graphic novel examples. You can read his actual historically-inscribed words through the dust of time, and see ACTUAL ARTISTIC EXAMPLES (don’t call them scribbles please) of his initial probing, experimental drawings, along with the rest of our first correspondence, in the ISLAND OF THE MOTHS ebook Afterward.

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This is how the cover looks on the iPad. Curmudgeonly face optional!

The stunning and surprising ISLAND OF THE MOTHS ebook is available here in radiant pixels on Kindle …. as well asNook.

It’s also available on your local non-USA websites, as well as other ebook distributors such as KoboScribd, Tolino, and Page Foundry. At this time the price is quite cheap! 

The large paper version is available here (glorious large paper-from-willing-trees format with rich black–and whites at no extra cost, but without the new Afterward). 


This is an example of Neal Skorpen’s exploratory artwork before starting ISLAND OF THE MOTHS. I love the fat cumbersome suite, the enormous helmet with lantern… must weight about eighty pounds. I don’t see a breathing tube but….

Neal Skorpen’s colorful website of comics ferment is . Check out his new project, AETHERNAUT.

Published in: on October 8, 2015 at 3:45 pm  Leave a Comment  

#Book Talk… Philip K. Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, the Embarcadero Freeway, #Portland’s Marquam Bridge, & Automobile Culture as Dystopia

In his blog, Professor DG Meyers reviews PK Dick’s THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. If you don’t know, in this novel, Japan and Germany won World War II, but characters in it discover, through a book within the book called the Grasshopper Lies Heavy, that their world is a fiction. I have a different opinion that Meyers about a key part of the book. Meyers writes:

The Grasshopper Lies Heavy is not alternate history, after all. It is the true history no one is willing to face. The United States won the war, and yet capitulated to the Axis, acquiesced to partition and foreign occupation, nevertheless.

Dick’s political message has become something of a thematic commonplace in alternate history: even if the events had been different, the outcome would have been the same. War may decide the occupier, but not the sequel of occupation. If the U.S. had not developed the atomic bomb, another country would have—and would still have threatened Japan with it!


I think this navigates the wrong slice of understanding. It misses some meta-magic that the book offers. My opinion is that The Grasshopper Lies Heavy isn’t telling the characters that the USA really won the alternate history war. The fictional USA didn’t win the war, then capitulate. The fictional USA lost the fictional war in the most straightforward sense.

No, the fictional novel Grasshopper Lies Heavy is telling the characters that the alternate history is fiction, that the reader’s USA really won WWII in the true reality of the reader’s world. That is what is so wonderfully shocking–not just telling the fictional characters, but the writer’s respect it shows to the fictional character’s reality. The novel gives further clues to this interpretation, but take note, it is aesthetic talismans that make this possible, those of beauty and ugliness.


Examine the middle part of chapter 14. There, after viewing “the imperishable seeds. Of Beauty” of Mr. Childan’s silver work, Mr. Tagami shudders into crisis and epiphany. Among several pages of wonderful probing upon the artifact, he willfully staggers through a different reality (“The veil of maya will fall more if I–” The light disappeared.) Here a Yank policeman breaks his reverie, but a page later Mr. Tagami realizes he already crossed the barrier. The barrier to what? “God, what is that? He stopped, gaped at hideous misshapen thing on skyline, like nightmare of roller coaster suspected…” A man tells him, “Awful ain’t it? That’s the Embarcadero Freeway. A lot of people think it stinks up the view.” And it certain did.


The Embarcadero Freeway existed in PK Dick’s world, the reader’s world, not the character’s. It was an emotional issue at the time for people who lived in the area (and still is). Throughout US cities, such highway monstrosities have brutal effect on their neighborhoods. (It is its own symbol of brutality, helping Mr. Tagami confront the Germans later that chapter.)

Powered by the sublime talisman of Childan’s silver work, and its connection to the ugly talisman of the Embarcadero Freeway, Mr. Tagami has painfully traveled across realities. This is similar to the way fictional novel The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, powered by the oracle I-ching, connects the fiction to the reader’s real world. Side note, I think PKD uses some of the same language of permeability between worlds in UBIK.

I do think there is another meaning to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy conclusion about the war. Childan’s silver artifact with its beauty/truth sublime power, and artifacts like it that Childan sells, conveys some hyper sense of the “real” reality to the fictional world. And that has some kind of impact to the sense of sensitive people in the fictional novel that there is some kind of way in which truth/beauty can win in that fictional world. This would only be a victory for the fictional USA, and a loss for the fictional Japan/German axis, to the extent that the book is fiction and thus their victory is not truth. I think it is, roughly, a mystical, poetic, philosophic or aesthetic victory, though, something invisible and in its way unstoppable. Transformative aesthetics gives the fictional world a change to stop the nuclear war. –What magic do we have to help our real world? Sadly, Childan’s sublime silver work is fictional, whereas we had the Embarcadero Freeway as our talisman… The fictional world with a nightmarish Japan/German control yet has the beauty that Childan discovered that our real world does not. Because we have the triumph of the Embarcadero Freeway aesthetic.

I am hardly an expert in Bay Area infrastructure and its history, but I have lived in San Francisco, and I do still visit the area frequently (including a few weeks ago). In the 1980s, various San Francisco leadership entities proposed tearing down the Embarcadero Freeway, but afraid of change, the voters, lead by local merchants, voted to preserve it. After the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake damaged it, Bay Area authorities just barely managed the political will to tear it down. Now it’s a boulevard lined by palm trees and supported by the Muni light rail. So much better!

In the 1990s, I wrote bicycle journalism. I attended civic meetings in Portland for the opening of the Eastbank Esplanade, which is not too far from where I live. Not just an eastside park, the Esplanade reflected a kind of technological update of urban infrastructure. The designers spoke not just of joining the west side river park with the east side, but of integrating the citizens with the river, making citizens see and feel the river ecology, understand the fish as part of the city.


The designers consciously conceived and advocated the Eastbank Esplanade as a natural and pleasant advocate for change. They recognized a problem, however, which is Interstate Highway 5. It crosses the Willamette River from the west side to the east and then parallels the river headed north. It is adjacent a large part of Esplanade. Despite the high concrete walls, it is painfully loud and impacts conversation of people walking along the Esplanade.


I suspect that Portland’s Esplanade is on this stretch an unpleasant advocate for change, by exposing pedestrian citizens to the aesthetic violence of the highway. The Esplanade even includes a sculpture, the Echo Gate, that portrays an act of trying to hear the river despite the authoritarian, ugly noise of the freeway:


Former Mayor Katz (whose statue sits in the Esplanade) spoke of removing the Marquam Bride which carries the I-5, and moving it underground. We can dream that someday it will happen, and I would support that. But think also what it means to need an infrastructure so aesthetically violent that it “rips the veil of maya”? That we need to bury it not for practical reasons but because it is so ugly and awful? What are the engineering coefficients for livability? Of “the imperishable seeds. Of Beauty”?


Highway infrastructure demands a brutal aesthetic. This is one reason why I remember that passage in PK Dick’s novel so well: the vision of the real Embarcadero Freeway is such an embodiment of ugliness, it helps give the sensitive fictional character a heart attack.

Our automobile madness seems like a 1930s utopian vision of the future that of course did not turn out the way its advocates expected. Master builder and urban planner Robert Moses didn’t even want to drive a car on his own freeways. This says something about human limits being separate from engineering limits, doesn’t it?





So what if these cars and trucks control themselves? Google’s self-driving cars seem to me misguided application of genius to an outdated form of transportation, like putting google glasses on the faces of oxen pulling canal barges. Highways driven by robots will still be brutal and degrading. There is a popular feeling that automobile culture is more of a cowboy thing than mass transit, but it mass transit; serviced by big government, automobiles moves the masses. Unfortunately it serves rural communities more efficiently and more pleasantly, subsidized by city dollars, and the USA’s political structure deliberately gives rural citizens disproportionate power, which itself is shrinking under the global corporate hydrocarbon economy.

What would happen if the hydrocarbons were suddenly not available?


My novel DANGEROUS BICYCLE MYSTERY QUEST is an adventure story that explores the role of energy by removing most of it. Not only does this oil shock shut down economies, it reveals cracks in the social order that cheap energy obscured. The character use bicycles to find out what happened and to try to help Portland survive. But things do not turn out as they intend.

It’s available as an eBook in popular formats around the world. Here’s a review.

Kindle USA (also available from your non-USA )



Also available on Kobo, Inktera, Scribd, Tolino, and Oyster.

I’ve priced my novel cheap for now… but soon the price will go up. This is a good time to check it out.

It will be available as a paper book around September, 2015. [Update: The publisher and I have delayed the paper book version of DANGEROUS BICYCLE MYSTERY QUEST as  I prepare the e-Book version of the graphic novel ISLAND OF THE MOTHS.]


Note: Wikipedia is the source for the pictures above, except for my book cover.

Published in: on June 30, 2015 at 12:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tortoise & the Hare: A Novel in a Race with Technology

You know that you can’t step in the same river twice, right? Well how can you write a novel set “now” when “now” is rushing ahead of your typing fingers?

Has technology been good for the novel? So far, I think so. Starting with the printing press and moving to desktop computers and eBooks, the mechanics of writing for publication are easier than ever, I think. (In my case, I’m relieved to have no more clothes ruined by White Out, after the typewriter drum slams into that corrective fluid.) True, some writers complain there are too many writers and not enough readers. Well, I think that is a symptom of larger changes. Let’s talk about smaller changes–the words we need to use.

Technology and the now-cliche rapid pace of change poses word choice problems for the literary “now”. Because machines are increasingly integrated in our lives, and the machines themselves evolve rapidly, the names for the machines also changes rapidly. So any pretense of writing about “now” needs to be extra cagey about referring to these types of objects and their associated venues.

In my case, i wrote a bicycle adventure novella in 2000 for publication in a small bike magazine. I rewrote it over the last year for publication as a novel this week, 2015. Fifteen years and so much has changed… Now if I started writing the novella in 1810 and rewrote it as a novel in 1825, a letter would still be a letter, a candle would still be a candle. If I didn’t mention the experimental railroads in England, I don’t think it would ruin the feeling of “now”. I would merely need to be careful about my references to Napoleon.

In a novel set “now”, meaning “around the year 2000” when I started, and meaning “around the year 2015+” when I finished, it seems reasonable that a character would want to use technology to talk to another character remotely, both spoken and typed electronically. So what words should a writer choose to express this?

Between 2000 and 2015, email became less a part of popular life. It’s still important for office work. But in private life, it seems more old-timey, something older people are more likely to cling to than the young. In private life, has mostly usurped the role of email. People still talk on the phone, but are more likely to text. The subculture of texting has even established its own form of English, with abbreviations, acronyms and symbols.

In 2000, many people used mobile phones in the USA and called them “cell phones” or might say “my cell”. But then the brains in these devices became as sophisticated as desktop computers (another term prone to expiration). iPhone came out in 2007, an Android phone in 2008. Use of “cell” declined, while people identified their phones by brand, or called them “mobile phones”. Apart from use, people writing about the technology used the term “smartphone”, but few people use that in average discussions, so far. And all the while, many Americans were giving up their landline. Children growing up now may be flummoxed how to use a landline. And recently video chatting has become practical with Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, and so on… I use these myself with ease. While video chatting sounds science fictional, what about Twitter and all the social media platforms clamoring for our attention? These weird new forms of social display, group communication, new forms of obnoxiousness, commercialization, self-promotion, entertainment, togetherness? Fictional characters might use these, but certainly some of them will not last long. Even a strong brand might transform the way it functions and change its name.

In this case, I think a writer is safe for a temporary, moveable sense of “now” to just use the term “phone” and to consider them mobile and smart. I did feel I needed to update references to email, and avoid references to brands. Since my characters are mostly active, away from home, bicycling, and sometimes in peril, it was easy to avoid social media references. But I think a novelist trying to write the about normal life of “now” would have more difficulty. It might be unnatural to avoid references to technology that are a big part of many people’s lives, yet will soon change again. Therefore it might be best to give up the “moveable now” and fix the time, or find some other compelling, creative solution.


My novel, Dangerous Bicycle Mystery Quest is available now in popular eBook formats around the world (#kindle / #nook / #iBook / and more). It will be available as a paper book around September, 2015.

Published in: on June 3, 2015 at 4:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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ROLLING A ROCK INTO THE CLOUDS: Revising a Long Manuscript via Kindle & Desktop Computer

Relentless Need to Edit…

The proof and revision of a 85K word novel (as I’m doing now) means what? It means reading it over and over again and marking it up. A relentless approach seems to be best for me, but it is quite a bit of work. I can understand why some publishers don’t want to do it anymore. Sorry, someone must do it! I guess that means me.

I hope I don’t shock or upset you. I have found it easier to do this work without paper–without repeated printing out and fumbling through a stack of 300-400-500 pages. Forget the menace of too many trees! But don’t forget the part about grumbling to the store for more ink. Don’t forget the need to gently remove the helpful four-legged office assistant who is attacking the printer. The towering stack of pages… a breeze gathering…

Send to Kindle!

Here’s what I do. I take the latest copy and send it to my Kindle account. (More about Send to Kindle here.)

I wait a few minutes. This is a good time to pour another cup of coffee. Then, coffee cup in hand, stare out the window. There is usually a helpful squirrel available to keep me entertained. Suddenly, time’s up. Now view it on my Kindle, either the iPad software version, or my actual Kindle device.

These devices have survived Luddite rages intact and proved their worth. Have I proved my worth to them? I believe I have until my next OS update to do so.

Kindle Markup, Notes, & Robot Voice

On the iPad, I use Kindle’s good markup and highlight capabilities to make edit notes.

Sometimes I have the Kindle device’s robot narrator read along as I read and make notes.

The robotic voice is an old friend by now. He sounds like a robot version of a Ken Burns documentary narrator. There is a twang in his voice that tells me he has attended a robot game of night baseball in robot Kansas. Where are my real friends? Why don’t they volunteer to take on this job? No, Sisyphus rolls his rock alone.

That issue aside, the steady robot voice keeps me moving along, not too fast and not too slow. Hearing and seeing the words gives me two ways of noticing things I want to change.

“Need more adverbs and adjectives,” that’s usually what I think, adding several in a row. “Less words with common letters like that strumpet vowel ‘e’.”

Kindle highlighting ability allows 4 different colors and a note-taking in the form of an annotation attached to a little blue icon in the text.


“Needs more Adverbs”

You can use colors as “tags” for type of problem. Perhaps every reference to a geographic feature I wanted to confirm on a map I could tag yellow with a swipe of my thumb. I could tag repeated words in a paragraph blue, typos red, prose that needs revision orange. The colors are a quick and simple way to remind myself what I need to address when I come back to it. But typically it is enough to simply highlight the area for fixing.

A Question of Tools & Morality

This is easier and more convenient than leafing through a stack of loose papers printed in water-soluble ink, trying to decipher my cuneiform symbols.

The new tools help. Do I need to apologize to those who still prefer a quill pen, and grind their own ink in mortar and pestle? As they write their olde time long “s” with the antique calligraphy of an exuberant “F”, do they not realize the damage they do? Does not the “s” written as a wild “F” render the foundational Bill of Rights of the USA overly stimulating to schoolchildren and encourage their disobedience? I do not want that on my conscience.

Rolling up the Rock of Sisyphus

Moving on, we see that time has trundled forward, the sundial itself is exhausted, yet I am still editing… Yes, on and on the relentless and painful editing goes on and on…

Ugh! It is not the joyous life of a lawyer, running from lunch to courtroom in pleated suits and fancy briefcases with glamorous she-lawyers.

It is not the glamorous life of a scientific researcher, who at this moment is telling the NPR intern, “That didn’t work so let’s try this. I never said it would work the first time. In fact it proves me right.”

And yet! By jove! Somehow the lowly writer is making progress! I am adding a note and typing, “More like this.”

Rolling down the Rock of Sisyphus

If I had a particular idea to revise a sentence, I could use my thumb (and indeed would, regardless of the luddite controversy) to add it as a note. Perhaps my note is asking me to check to make sure the color of the character’s pants does not change between chapters. Usually I only need to type in a few key words (or less) I need to remember the idea.

“This is good stuff, man! Bret Easton Ellis would never think of this.”

Editing the Master Draft

Once I complete the Kindle editing of my manuscript, I heave myself up on hind legs. Then shuffle in my torn neolithic slippers back to the kitchen. I drink more coffee, staring out the window, measuring the progress of the arboreal rodent fellows.

Then I shuffle with bulging eyes to the chrome hyberbaric chamber where my writing desk lurks, blinking and humming in a wreath of steam. The four legged office assistances spring and leap into their dutiful positions! They lift their heads a little in greeting.

I prop my iPad beside my iMac and coordinate my views on the manuscript.

Location, Location, Location

This is not the type to think “Needs more adverbs, more gerunds.” Discipline! Find your notes. Coordinate your documents.

Here’s where a good “Find” feature helps in the software editor. The Kindle app does as well. In fact, when click the search icon, it will show you a separate list of all your notes and highlights.

Again, Rolling up the Rock of Sisyphus

Edits done, I do not relax. No, I must roll my rock up the hill again.

I drop the manuscript on the “Send to Kindle” icon, then climb uphill from my desk to my couch. Then I manfully lie on my couch and read. Hey, I’m working!

I read it again. Let’s hope the errors are fewer!  I try not to change the color of the character’ pants, but sometimes, the muse calls. The muse calls.

What is the next step? Alas, Sisyphus, you must repeat.

Dip Your Generous Eyes

This was my first use of the maturing Cloud technology as part of a unified writing effort over multiple devices. Sure, it was a consumer app triangulation in the cozy form of documents in my Kindle library. Yet the use of multiple devices this way lead me easily to see the stunning joy and glory of syncing work between them, using iCloud and Dropbox, and not admitting one more thing which is so shocking and disturbing that I dread to mention it…

But no, I shall mention it! Starting to let go of Microsoft Word as a primary tool! And moving to Plain Text with something called Markdown.

That is a vast topic which I will try to examine in a future posting.

A Mayakovsky poem asks heaven,

“Isn’t it tedious

To dip your generous eyes into clouds

Every day, every evening?”

Me, I don’t speak for heaven, but for earthly writing work the answer is: not at all.

Published in: on June 25, 2013 at 3:26 pm  Leave a Comment  

BEAUTIFUL SHIVERING DOOM & HOPELESSNESS: The Million-Year-Stare in Victorian & Edwardian Fiction & Poetry

I just finished reading THE NIGHT LAND by William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918). The novel’s astonishing vision seems unique to me—and not just unique but boldly so. Unfortunately he confounds the modern reader’s experience with his choice of pseudo-antique poetic language. Nonetheless, the work’s haunting panorama, and strange framing, seems so idiosyncratic to me, and in that way, fresh and powerful. However, it does have similarities with other works, sharing the sublime Million-Year Stare.

THE NIGHT LAND describes the last humans on Earth after the sun dies living in a colossal pyramid, filled with cities. Many vivid physical and spiritual terrors besiege it, such as strange, evil heads tall as mountains, alive but frozen and staring. The physical terrors are one thing, but the spiritual threats to the humans are worse. A kind of spiritual electricity of goodness, the Earth Current, powers and protects the Great Redoubt. Further forces of good sometimes appear in the form of circles of light, or light beams, halting the advance of shuddering terrors. Hodgson frames and weaves into it a love story that, by some kind of transmigration, spans his own time with that millions of years in the future. This love story leads the narrator to find his transmuted eternal lover in a newly discovered Lesser Redoubt, which is failing.

These elements add up to a work full of strata, with depth, and breadth, which give a richness and an aesthetic validity to simply jaw-dropping visions and concepts.

The pseudo-antique heightened prose does feel consistent to me with the spiritual effort to the novel. As a style it contrasts with Hodgson’s more clear efforts in his other fine works. So I think it has a purpose. Unfortunately, I think the prose style is burden that confounds the artistic success.

James Stoddard recently rewrote the prose to fit modern tastes (THE NIGHT LAND, A STORY RETOLD, 2011). I read both versions and thought Stoddard did a good job. In addition to taming the prose, he added a lot of dialog. This improves the “showing not telling” of the story development, and includes new details to do so. I think this should be controversial. However, I appreciate that he did it, and enjoyed his revision–and I’m glad the original is easily available to readers.

Are you familiar with the literary concept of the sublime? As usual there are a lot of interpretations and examples. Mostly simply, I’d say it is the thrill we feel when we read or see a work of art that successfully combined beauty with terror (such as standing before Niagara Falls) . Samuel Taylor Coleridge specified another element, that the sublime element includes a sense of eternity. I think THE NIGHT LAND exemplifies both.

English literary visions of a dark Earth proceed THE NIGHT LAND– consider this example of the Million-Year Stare:

George Gorden, Lord Byron: Darkness (1816)

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light:

In Mary Shelly’s THE LAST MAN (1828), not exactly a dead sun but a black sun signals a plague that kills all of 21st century humanity except the narrator. This makes most of the novel’s political wrangling — the newly established English republic, the Greco-Turkish war, and a false messiah in France — futile, pointless before eternity. The novel ends with solitary narrator’s terrible grief.

As well, Arnold named the spiritual element in his pessimistic landscape of the dying earth:

Mathew Arnold: Dover Beach (~1851)

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Of course there’s the wonderfully pessimistic vision of the devolved (de- evolved) earthly landscape the end of THE TIME MACHINE (1895). You no doubt remember the Time Traveller’s visit to the future earth with its decaying sun:

*** ‘”A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun. I got off the machine to recover myself. I felt giddy and incapable of facing the return journey. As I stood sick and confused I saw again the moving thing upon the shoal—there was no mistake now that it was a moving thing—against the red water of the sea. It was a round thing, the size of a football perhaps, or, it may be, bigger, and tentacles trailed down from it; it seemed black against the weltering blood-red water, and it was hopping fitfully about. Then I felt I was fainting. But a terrible dread of lying helpless in that remote and awful twilight sustained me while I clambered upon the saddle.” ***

Cut from that novel was another Time Traveller voyage. He leapt to a time after the Morlocks, but not as far to the dying earth, to a time when humans had degenerated to rabbit-like human things. (These creatures are a gentle form of some of the brutal sub-humans in THE NIGHT LAND.)

I don’t wish to try to pin down one specific inspiration for the individual works. It may be possible; for example, the ash from a volcanic eruption may be a specific contributor to Byron’s poem “Darkness”. I wish to consider it in a broader sense… These ideas are part of the zeitgeist of the era… Do they have something to do with artists feeling the cultural shock of revolutionary scientific discoveries at the same time as a limitation to the increasing freedoms and liberties? Intimations of the limits of both religion and progress?

Is the spiritual optimism in THE NIGHT LAND a kind of Edwardian “Great Redoubt” of resistance?

Well, I think I can only make the suggestion as I did, softened in the form of a question.

The million-year-stare in literature continued after Hodgson—certainly Olaf Stapleton (such as STAR MAKER) comes to mind. But I would like to strike a redoubt of framing these considerations before the French Revolution and after World War I (which killed Hodgson, at the age of 40). After that, well, changes happened faster and faster, and we reached the point where we discuss the possibility of the end of history.

Fortunately, whether history has ended or not, the sun is bright and cheerful as I write. I will go out now and plant tomatoes.

PS: Hodgsen wrote a lot of wonderful weird stories. I enjoyed his sea stories very much. (Happily, he used a clear prose style for them.) I read them all on Kindle.



Victorian pessimism, Spenglerian pessimism


Byron’s poem “Darkness”

Mary Shelly’s THE LAST MAN:

Arnold’s poem Dover Beach:

Olaf Stapleton:

Stapleton’s STAR MAKER

Dying Earth genre:

Montaigne (1533-92), Skeptic & Ruminator: The Proto-Blogger! (with links to 7 BBC Programs on that Writer)

A pioneer of short essays! with inward ruminations… “I am my own subject.” and “What do I know?” Observations and opinions… This is before blog ads, mind you.

Here is a sample where he contrasts Friendship and Marriage:

“As concerning marriage, besides that it is a covenant, the entrance into which only is free, but the continuance in it forced and compulsory, having another dependence than that of our own free will, and a bargain commonly contracted to other ends, there almost always happens a thousand intricacies in it to unravel, enough to break the thread and to divert the current of a lively affection: whereas friendship has no manner of business or traffic with aught but itself.”

As a child, his father arranged that people only speak Latin with him, so it would be his first language. (Try that with your kids?)

Want to learn more? A friendly place to start is a recent episode on Melvin Bragg’s BBC show In Our Time, which gives an overview of the man:

Here’s a 25 minute Channel 4 (UK) youtube documentary on Montaigne (part of a series on Philosophy & Happiness):
(I hope you like harpsichord music.)

Wikipedia on Montaigne:

A gold mine of opinions on the original man with opinions! A series of 5 BBC radio programs… 5 writers/ thinkers consider Montaigne:

Plutarch inspired Montaigne… (Plutarch inspires the main character in my novel Mysterious Matters of Max Metters… this is what brought me to Montaigne.)

His essays in translation at Project Gutenberg:

Published in: on May 2, 2013 at 9:28 am  Comments (1)