Hang on to your Golden Boughs, kids: It's going to be a bumpy night.
Your editor, Ms. Gunn, has asked me to be utility outfield columnist for a space here, and I'll try to ease you into this without scaring the horses.
A couple of weeks ago it suddenly occurred to me that Mr. Roberts by Thomas Heggen was a dying-and-reviving god vegetation myth, right up there with Tammuz and Osiris and so on an so forth....
You got your guy in a stultified culture (cargo ship in the backwater of the Pacific in WWII) looked up to by the faithful (the bored crew). You got your vengeful god (captain, in the Set role), a hardass disciplinarian whose rule is symbolized by the palm-tree given him, which he tends. When things reach such a pass the faithful can't stand it any more, Roberts throws the Captain's palm tree into the ocean.
Okay, you say, there's some parallel. What makes this a dying and reviving god myth?
After this act of rebellion, and further trials, Roberts finally gets his transfer to the Big War on a fighting ship and the Captain gets a new palm-tree and is as much as a hardass as he was before, without the ameliorating influence of a Roberts.
Here's what makes the myth. Ensign Pulver has been a trickster character, so afraid of the Captain that he hasn't let himself be seen in six months of duty. He's devoted his whole career to not being noticed. There's been no one to go to bat for the crew since Roberts left. They despair, like the people in the drought in the Fisher King's Lands, right out of Jesse Weston's From Ritual to Romance.
The Captain announces there will be no movie because of some infraction. At the same time a letter comes telling of Roberts' death (a kamikaze hit his ship while he was getting a cup of coffee, another vegetation reference). Pulver, the former trickster character, gets transmogrified, throws the second palm-tree overboard and steps into the Roberts role of defiance, revived godling against the authority-god...
At least that's the way Haggen (and Joshua Logan, co-author and director of the stage play and movie) did it. Did they know what they were doing? I don't care. These things happen whether the authors realize it or not.
Which isn't what this column's going to be about.
Some years ago, Robert Silverberg said there were three stories he'd thought of but would probably never write. I, for the love of god, can't remember what the first one was.
The second, however, was "describing a trip by rowboat between Mars and Venus."
And the third was "turning a mushroom into a gorilla by the application of powerful electro-magnetic forces."
Well. I can see why even a Silverberg wouldn't want to write those -- they seem on the face of it to be concepts that lend themselves to joke-stories. Knowing Silverberg: If he did write them they wouldn't be, and even that is daunting -- he'd have gone so deep into the concept he would have come out the other side; the joke would be laughing at itself, and we'd get some kind of deep resonance within the (admittedly) casual, almost-wild concept that fueled them.
Or maybe not.
Whatever; if Silverberg knows enough by now to leave some of his own ideas alone, that should be warning enough for the rest of us.
Ah! But fools rush in (he said, getting down, finally, to the subject of this frothy bricollage).
I just finished reading Rudy Rucker's Seek! Selected Nonfiction, which came out in 1999 from Four Walls, Eight Windows, and which contains (among much other neat stuff) the essay "What is Cyberpunk?," written in 1986.
Besides the subject in the essay, there appears a long sentence about what was happening in SF at the time. "Still, I do think there's something to this -- to the Garage Music notion of SF, if you will -- the basic thesis being that right now a good way to be writing SF is to keep going back to the beat old cliché, back to the robots and brain-eaters and the starships, and reinvent the field just from that, by thinking harder and harder about what it can do."
Robots. Brain-eaters. Starships.
As was given by Montgomery Clift in Judgment at Nuremberg (he played a mental defective who'd been castrated by the Nazis), there was a test for reasoning: the subject was given the words: Hare, hunter, field. "The hunter shot the hare in the field" could have been one result to show logical reasoning.
Let's give me that test: Robots, brain-eaters, starships (elements I rarely use in my work.)
"The robot grabs people for the brain-eaters in the starship" could be one result.
We'll see where this goes next week.
I C London, I C France, which may be the Web's most technologically primitive blog, is brought to you through the typing, proofreading, editorial, and coding efforts of Team Waldrop, also known as Mary Kay Kare (proudly reality-based) and L. Blunt Jackson (Seattle, Philadelphia, Tau Ceti), and via the steadfast couriers of the United States Postal Service. Much thanks to all involved!
Howard Waldrop is a legend in his own time. He writes, he fishes, he builds bookcases. He does not have a cellphone, a computer, or an email account.
For someone who is about as wired as an echidna, Howard has a pretty substantial online career. He has had a website since 1997. You can read The Ugly Chickens, The Other Real World, Winter Quarters, D = R x T, and his collaboration with Leigh Kennedy, One Horse Town, on SciFiction. Mary Margaret Roadgrader is available on the excellent Strange Horizons. He has an occasional column, Crimea River, on Electric Story. And now he has a blog. Go figure.
For additional embellishments of the Waldrop legend, see Who Is Howard Waldrop, Anyway? For extravagant lies about Howard, see Alternate Waldrops, on Strange Horizons. Howard's most recent books are Custer's Last Jump and Other Collaborations and Dream Factories and Radio Pictures. Buy 'em.