Sime~Gen Inc. Presents
"MultiMedia Poetry and Prophecy"
Theodore Bikel on Bainbridge Records - CD format (see your local record store or write for a catalogue to direct-order: Bainbridge Records, 11300 W. Olympic, Los Angeles, CA 90044)
Locus, the Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field - Published Monthly at $3.95/copy. POB 13305, Oakland, CA 94661. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galaxy Magazine - $2.50/copy, $18 subscription, 6 times a year. E-mail: email@example.com or e.gold@ genie.geis.com
Rider at the Gate by C. J. Cherryh, Warner Aspect , August 4th, 1995, $21.95 hardcover.
The science fiction/fantasy world is changing fast, so naturally I'm going to start explaining the most recent changes to you by tracing the evolution of science fiction and fantasy from its origin in the Biblical Old Testament into the MultiMedia Age and by pointing out that the two are identical. This will require touching on televised science fiction, the Internet, telepathic horses, leveraged buyouts, The Bardic Oath and shamanism.
Readers of this magazine, deeply steeped in the principles of magickal technology, will see immediately from my first paragraph, from the title I've used for this column, and from the list of items to be reviewed, that this discussion is about the literacy Implosion. But I needed a better title than "Literacy Implosion" to catch the attention of "Net-surfers" and I figured Prophecy would be more interesting especially to those of you who have been tracking the recently burgeoning Prophecies of Doom.
But I don't like Doom. I'm a futurologist, an imagineer, and an alchemist. When I see a Doom coming, I don't just stand around wringing my hands. I fix it.
"Fix it" means changing your karma. It doesn't mean avoiding pain, and it doesn't mean getting out of the consequences of your prior-life decisions and actions. To fix a Doom you have to get at its origins; understand the connections between the origin and now; get a precise description of the mechanism behind it; and then choose.
I began learning how to do this when I was in college in the early sixties. Most readers of this magazine are old enough to regard lessons of the sixties as Ancient Wisdom.
One of the most important sources of lessons that have stayed with me and upon which I have built has been the work of Theodore Bikel, actor, internationally acclaimed multi-lingual folk singer, guitarist, linguistic scholar, dialectician, raconteur, writer, and master showman a Galactic Class performing artist. He is perhaps best known to you for his portrayal of Worf's human father on Star Trek: The Next Generation or perhaps for his role on Babylon 5 as Ivanova's rabbi and uncle who comes to help her mourn when her father dies.
He is excruciatingly famous for his theater role as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof and has appeared in a long, long, long list of movies. Well, even longer than that.
One could profitably spend a lifetime studying this man as a person and as a phenomenon. (What do you mean could? I have. I know performers who get most of their material from studying his folk music. I've written several novels based on his collections of folk songs. You want to learn Tarot; then study Bikel's folk music.)
Today, Bikel's folk music records are being re-issued on CD. His very first album, Folk Songs of Israel was recorded in 1955 on monaural. When stereo became possible, Bikel re-recorded that album, creating a whole new performance. Today, the high-quality masters made then can be digitized and cleaned up by computers, then remastered. Folk music, like the Bardic renditions of historical sagas, is meant to be ephemeral, made new (like the FX Channel's "Television Made Fresh Daily") for each audience. Technology has made possible the preservation of this most ephemeral of all art forms (other than ice sculpture for a banquet).
For a bard, the story he learned to recite is just a template upon which to construct a message very much like presiding over a Passover Seder, one of the oldest known Warding Ceremonies. The Bard injects whatever Ancient Wisdom he/she can into the construction. The Wisdom does not come from the template any more than this column comes from the WinWord 6.0 template I use to write the column. Thus the re-mastered recordings don't just preserve the cultural treasures Bikel has collected, they don't just display his professional and scholarly acumen; they also bespeak the Group Mind of the world at the time of his performance, the Mind he was addressing.
Look up Ethnography and Folklore at a good university library and see the size of the collection. Most of the practicing occultists and mystics I know have degrees in these fields or closely related anthropology, psychology and sociology.
Although folk music has fallen off the "pop" charts, it is still being created. Almost every science fiction convention has a program track for folksingers (called Filksingers after a famous typo) who create and perform songs about science fiction and fantasy themes such as communication with nonhumans. Many of these creative singers are meticulous students of Bikel's work.
One of the most impressive Bikel recordings has no singing on it at all. It is a dramatic reading titled The Poetry and Prophecy of the Old Testament and was his first non-singing recording. Bainbridge hasn't done that one yet, but they have some other, newer readings.
Which brings us back to the title of this month's column. I chose "Poetry" because for the last two months I've been discussing Poetic Justice (i.e., karma) in fiction, and "Prophecy" because this month we have to talk about the future of the sf/f field, which is definitely "multi-media." The Prophets of Old were mainly Divine Messengers of Doom. Prophets are mostly laughed at today because their predicted Dooms didn't happen. Which of course misses the point completely.
People operating on either the Hellenistic philosophy of reality (a primarily mechanistic vision with an occasional Divine Whim messing up human plans) or the Scientific Philosophy which is mostly derived Hellenism, generally assume there exists such a thing as an immutable fate, and no matter how you try, you can't get out of meeting it. Thus a scientific theory is validated if it accurately predicts what will happen when someone does a certain thing. If that thing is accurately repeated by anyone at all, then the result must be identical.
Of course, any practicing Magician knows that's silly.
Adepts know that the actual results of what you do are largely a function of who you are, and your identity is very much a matter of choice. The larger the factor of random chance, the more dependent the outcome on the identity of the operator.
The prophets of the Old Testament did not address individuals. They addressed the prevailing group mind of a town, a nation or All Israel. Group minds also have karma, and can change their identities and thus alter what happens as a result of what they do; being massive, they develop a lot of momentum and can't turn on a dime.
A prophet who cries Doom and lives to see himself humiliated by being wrong is a very successful prophet. A note of warning: check out the definition and penalty for false prophecy (Hanged Man Reversed in the Tarot.) It's a lot worse than Fundamentalists think it is.
There are moments I am very thankful I'm a futurologist not a prophet.
With that in mind, let us examine macro-economic trends affecting the sf/f field, the fiction delivery system, and what poetry you will be permitted to read for fun next year.
Last month I traced the effect on sf/f that I foresee as a result of the skyrocketing price of paper. I left out a few things, such as the speed with which the paper price increases are shattering the industry.
Last year, I sold a vampire story to Galaxy Magazine, a sequel to one they'd serialized the previous January. It was scheduled for January '95, got put off until May, and they just called to re-negotiate the contract for that second story because it won't be published in print but will be in the first issue of Galaxy that will go to Internet and CD-Rom Only publication format because of the paper price increase. The whole industry is changing under our feet faster than we can adjust.
This magazine has been paper & Internet for some time now. The May '95 issue of Locus answers readers' demands for an electronic edition on WWW by explaining that the computer literate people at Locus are "Internet-challenged". They are waiting to see if Omni can survive as at least a partly electronic magazine. The Wall Street Journal is madly publicizing its electronic edition while it carries articles explaining the problems that publications are having trying to go electronic. Meanwhile, TV Guide is soliciting for people to test its new electronic edition.
And recently, I've been hearing stories on the writers' grapevine of long established writers whose books are magnificently publicized while their current titles aren't even selling enough copies to earn out their advances, writers who routinely get multi-city publicity tours. Large numbers of well known and established writers have ceased going to sf/f conventions. Editors and agents are telling me sales-figures horror stories. Independent book dealers are starving or abandoning the business.
People aren't buying books. It's not this book or that book, or this genre or that. It's books.
Robert Heinlein's famous rules about how to write and sell science fiction included the admonition that a writer must always remember that he's competing for the reader's beer money. Leisure time and money go to television, cable, satellite, rented videos, video-games, e-mail, sigs and surfing the Net. Now, suddenly, within the last 18 months, multi-media has brought all of these electronic competitors together to deliver fiction cheaper because of paper prices, squeezing the printed book out of the fiction delivery system.
At this country's beginning, the advent of the dime novel fostered literacy, and delivered massive amounts of entertainment, kindling ambitions that built this country into a world power. It worked because it was cheap. Today a minimum wage worker works almost an hour and a half to buy a typical paperback (not counting taxes.) And there are cheaper sources of fiction.
Consider this item from Locus's May issue: St. Martin's and its subsidiary, Tor (which publishes sf), have been sold as part of the sale of parent company Macmillan UK to the Holtzbrinck Publishing Group of Stutgart, Germany. (Consider the shifting value of the dollar relative to the Deutschmark.) Holtzbrinck already owns at least two other U.S. publishers and a good stake in the multi-media field.
Also in Locus, right next to the extensive and detailed item on Tor/St. Martin's, there is an item on the sale of Putnam Berkley. "An 80% share of MCA, parent company of G. P. Putnam Sons, Berkley, and Grosset & Dunlap, has been sold by Japanese consumer electronics giant Matsushita to Canadian beverage company Seagram." I had to quote that because it's so complicated, but think about it. I mean really think. Who provides your fiction and how much are they charging per entertainment-hour?
In previous months, I have revealed the secret of buying good sf. It's simple. Notice the publisher's logo on the spine and get more of what you like. Editors often have very little latitude in what they buy because a publisher establishes a "line" or a logo to produce a uniform product pitched at a certain reader, just so you can buy by label.
One fan was shocked when I revealed how books are chosen for publication something every consumer must understand. Books are not chosen for publication on the merit of their content. A writer can't get a book published by just writing it well or by saying anything important or original. A book is chosen for publication by the decision of a committee of businessmen who haven't read it, won't read it, wouldn't want to read it, and probably hold it and its potential fans in utter contempt.
A book is pitched at this committee by an editor who chose the book because he/she can see a market niche for it, because it could be packaged as if it was just like some other book that sold well. The editor will lose his/her job over a series of wrong pitches. An editor with a mortgage and children can't afford to back books he/she likes. An editor feels lucky if books he/she likes just happen to sell well, sometimes. Committees turn down books an editor pitches, not because of the content of the book but because of the language the editor uses in the pitch. Random chance is a very large factor indeed in deciding what you will be allowed to read next year.
In the last 36 months book sales have dropped dramatically. The sudden paper price increase of the last nine months is going to increase the rate of drop in sales as book prices go up. Editors are losing jobs faster than ever, and now conglomerates are fast ridding themselves of the unprofitable publishing companies which have always been marginal profit makers at best.
Prophets of Doom would eagerly predict the end of my profession. I, however, take a longer view.
From the study of Theodore Bikel's work, I learned about ethnography, linguistics and folklore, and promptly took courses in same. From reading fantasy, especially Marion Zimmer Bradley, I learned about the sacred Bardic traditions and about shamanism and the role of storytelling in shamanism, and promptly began studying them in earnest. Through Star Trek I stumbled on Tarot while Marion was dropping tantalizing hints into my writing lessons that I needed to learn something of astrology or I'd never learn to characterize. From the writer Alma Hill in an sf fan organization called N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation), I learned that writing is a performing Art. From filksingers at sf/f conventions who sang about my own characters I learned that novelists are nothing more nor less than shamans telling campfire stories sometimes as a traveling newspaper and sometimes for sacred purposes and sometimes there's no difference.
Consider those who bemoan in agony the literacy implosion caused by video games and television. What they're bemoaning is the rate of change in the delivery system due to economic and demographic factors. Their anguish is caused by a state of mind represented in Tarot by 6-cups reversed being stuck in an emotional loop, a habit that prevents you from thinking your way out of a damp paper bag.
When you're stuck in this state, any change is felt as a loss that needs to be resisted at all costs. Humans often regard the loss of access as the loss of the thing. If the delivery system is lost, the thing is lost - therefore resist the loss of the delivery system as if it were the loss of the thing.
Folks, we're running out of trees, thus paper. We've got to change the fiction delivery system's medium again. Some people are in a panic thinking that the cognitive skills and Wisdom that come from fiction imbibing are going to be lost along with paperback books because the cheapest medium, (the dime novel of today) television, doesn't foster those skills or encode that Wisdom.
Literacy does not mean facility with translating little black squiggles into spoken words. Literacy is the set of cognitive skills I've been demonstrating in this column for more than two years now the ability to project yourself into a hypothetical situation and emotional state and live through a vicarious experience feeling emotions alien to your identity, then return to normal waking consciousness and consider what you've learned.
This set of skills is the set needed to understand why your spouse is screaming at you and what you ought to do about it. It's the set needed to understand how to apply your newly acquired grasp of magick to deal with a noisy upstairs neighbor. It's the set needed to understand how to change your karma.
This column is about literacy, not reading. That's why it covers TV, movies, and as soon as I get the equipment, CD-Rom and on-line novels. And that's why this column does not consist of boldfaced headers over little square paragraphs describing books using the publisher's cover-copy, and ending with a one-sentence opinion. I expect readers of this column to find some of the books, read them, then reread the column and mentally argue the points I've made connecting the stories discussed.
I expect readers of this column to be exercising and maintaining literacy and establishing community and group minds by sharing these universes, no matter the medium. And now I will demonstrate what I mean by literacy having little to do with deciphering squiggles and everything to do with cognitive skills necessary to every occult discipline.
This is a rare treat, a book I can recommend at the very moment when it's first appearing on the stands. Jimmy Franco at Warner's Aspect line sent me a pre-publication copy of C. J. Cherryh's new novel, Rider at the Gate. It's due out August 4th, which means the very first hardcover copies may appear in bookstores at the end of July. Reserve it at your library now and make them buy several copies so lots of people can read it.
Rider is set in a new Cherryh universe, is written in the same style as the Chanur novels, but is about the kind of material she tackled in Foreigner and its sequel Invader which I discussed last month. The Chanur novels are about a tangled interstellar political crisis precipitated by the arrival of one lone human into a multi-species society. The central theme of all Cherryh's work is the communication problem between human and nonhuman intelligences. In Rider, communication is complicated by telepathy.
Cherryh invents a world which humans have colonized with difficulty because the local animals are telepathic predators. The colony survives only because some humans can make friends with the most powerful of the predators a creature shaped mostly like a horse, except it's omnivorous and telepathic as well as intelligent, but not in the way humans are; they can't hypothesize or abstract.
Other humans hate, despise and reject those few humans, called Riders, who befriend these "nighthorses," convincing them to protect the walled towns.
Last month I used Cherryh's novels to discuss some of the tricks writers use to seduce readers into identifying with characters and their plights. Like K. D. Wentworth's House of Moons (Del Rey Science Fiction, May '95 also discussed last month) Rider shifts point of view among characters pursuing a collision course with each other, but unlike Moons, does so with notable clarity.
In Rider, each of the point of view characters is presented as exemplifying a different aspect of the overall theme communication across a gulf. Like House of Moons, Rider also deals with telepathy. Unlike House of Moons, Rider integrates the theme, the "device" (i.e., telepathy), the plot, the technique (i.e., shifting pov) and the conflicts all into a single, clear, artistic whole.
The use of "device" is difficult for new writers to learn because whether a device is artistically appropriate or not depends on the theme. In Rider, the main theme is communication, and telepathy is about communication. In Moons, the themes compete, no particular one dominates, and the lesser themes don't illustrate or elaborate on the main theme as the writer articulated it.
In Rider, the "Rider" (riding is about communication with the animal that carries you, and about travel, which is a form of communication) comes to the "gate" (which is a portal through which communication between inside and outside happens) with a message that is communicated by alien telepathy powered by human emotions. Everything that happens to the characters after that is a direct result of the manner in which that communication was done, and that manner is a result of the internal conflicts driving the communicators and the recipient of the message who is also a Rider.
The recipient's internal conflict is due to a miscommunication with his lover. In fact, the recipient is there and the lover dead because of lack of communication between them on a matter of professional ethics.
The recipient's possible responses to the message are limited by the manner in which it is delivered, and the information withheld at the time. The response he chooses (the honorable response, the professionally proper response) thereafter limits his future choices in this chain of events. Other viewpoint characters we pick up as the story unfolds are muddling through the turbulence created in the recipient's wake as he deals with the result of his telepathically amplified anguish which disrupts communication among those within the town's gates.
The choices of the other viewpoint characters in dealing with the fallout from the Rider's wake are dictated by their own personal internal conflicts which are all variations on the problem of communicating internal needs and desires to the external world. All of these characters are fighting the recipient's own internal conflict, externalized. And that's karmically poetic because they all have the same problem.
The plot action is generated by the need to shoot down a rogue nighthorse whose powerful telepathic transmissions of wanting and needing cause riots and suicide/murder, wiping out a whole town. A nighthorse goes rogue when it loses communication with its human. The damage it does is very much like a terrorist bombing. Terrorists are rogue humans estranged and unable to communicate with human society in any way other than violence.
Telepathy is the "device"; communication is the theme; and the plot is generated by a conflict between lack of communication and a too-loud communication an either-or choice. Aristotelian logic, the foundation of all our science and of the mechanism of computers, is an either/or system, and this is a science fiction novel. Artistically, it all fits together. A musician would call this a chord because all the notes are on key and they harmonize; a poet would call its rhyme and meter perfected.
Now look at the setting of Rider and consider how each element in that setting exemplifies an aspect of the theme. The colony is apparently out of touch with the galaxy, isolated, without communication. The colony consists of a cluster of towns, isolated from each other except by crude roads and a single fragile telephone wire, maybe one or two phones in each town. Each town has a double-walled stockade that isolates the town from the telepathic predators. Between the two outer walls of the stockade is a camp of telepathic humans and their nighthorses, isolated from the town and from the environment. The nighthorses, as the dominant predator on this world are the only telepaths strong enough to protect the town from the ambient thoughts of the telepathic predator wildlife. Again, a chord and one in the same key as the previous one.
The town and the entire society survives isolation from the galaxy by isolating itself from the world. Each of the characters is suffering the typical human psychological ills resulting from inability to communicate with other humans. Two come from dysfunctional families.
The purity of the art underlying this novel is overwhelming to contemplate. Most of the books I've recommended in this column have exactly this type of artistic purity, this Perfect Pitch Harmony, this poetic justice.
The ability to consume a piece of fiction and then understand the relationship among its components, decipher its internal message and restate it as I have done here is what I call Literacy. In this column, I recommend stories that will help you master this cognitive function so it becomes easier to fly a light-year in a character's spaceship and learn his lessons. As a teacher of writing, I see many manuscripts that fit these criteria but can't get through that committee mentioned above, even in the ultra-cheap medium of paper-printed books. I've even written a few.
Put Rider together with my observations about the overwhelming changes in our world, our culture, and the effects these changes are having on the fiction industry and you will be even more overwhelmed by the art behind this book. Communication breakdown is the source of the problem.
In the fifties, sf produced mutation and after-the-bomb stories about survival because we were afraid people would use the new nuclear technology to destroy the world overnight. Now we know it's going to take longer than that, and we have a chance to avoid that Doom if we can only communicate. But we're terrified of communicating. And sf is producing TV shows about inter-species love affairs.
Theodore Bikel's whole career is about communication across time, language, politics and religion. Most of C. J. Cherryh's award winning novels are about communication.
And just when we need communication stories the most, the skyrocketing price of paper is triggering a frantic, mad, disorganized, lemmings-to-the-sea dash from the printing press to the Internet long before the techno-infrastructure is available.
This will trigger a catastrophic schism between the "haves" and "have-nots" because right now only a fraction of the very most affluent households have a computer, and few of those have a modem, nevermind can afford on-line service fees on top of cable fees. Yet it's those affluents who are the book-buyers, and it's the individual book-buyers who supply the sales-base that allows publishing to exist and produce books for libraries where the rest of us get books free. If they start lending CD-ROM books, libraries will serve only the most affluent homes.
Television, being much more capital intensive than publishing, is too expensive to serve a minority taste, which is the niche the dime novel filled minority taste. It was a small minority of inspired entrepreneurs who tamed the west and built the industrial and scientific base of this country. Minorities, such as sf/f fans, are important. We've got a lot of sf on TV now. Will we coalesce into a majority? Or become leaders and arbiters of taste? Somehow, I doubt it. So our fiction options are apt to be limited until we all have electronic media. Meanwhile, the Doom-criers are right, we are in danger of a literacy implosion because commercial television can't provide anything but the most elementary level of literacy exercise suitable for the majority.
We need more bards, more folksingers, street shamans, and storytellers like Theodore Bikel to crystallize a new culture, one that can encompass Poetry and Prophecy, and the Internet, so the Group Mind won't fear communicating. As I said, to fix a Doom you have to get at its origins, understand the connections between the origin and now, get a precise description of the mechanism behind it, and then choose.
Rider, as with much of C. J. Cherryh's work, offers us an artistic vision that could help fix this Doom. But seeing is one thing. Doing is another. Cherryh sees; Bikel does. Go. Read. Listen. Do.
Send books for review in this column to: Jacqueline Lichtenberg, POB 290, Monsey, N.Y. 10952
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