*Surprising not because I didn't expect y'all to be interesting, but because I didn't expect anyone to be interested.
It's a fascinating conversation to have, and half of me wants to run off and look into the history of how what we think of as "The" Bible solidified, but the other half of me thinks that this is, well, only half of the conversation. In what follows please understand that I'm not criticizing anyone who took part in that conversation--quite the contrary!--merely trying to explain what I'm interested in. I'm certainly not comparing anyone to Kingsley Amis.
While I'm (again I vigorously emphasize) not comparing anyone to him, I mention him because I'm indirectly reminded of the bit in his abysmal survey of science fiction, New Maps of Hell, when he decries the state of The Novel in SF as he sees it at the end of the 50s:
An idea that will comfortably fill out a few thousand words will not do for a novel, or rather there will be an attempt to make it do by various kinds of padding. This can happen even when idea is not primary, as in the later episodes of [Pohl and Kornbluth's] The Space Merchants and in Pohl's single novel, Slave Ship, in which what are virtually two short stories, one about animal communication, the other about undersea warfare between 40,000-ton submarines, and both good, are bundled into one frame along with a lot of adventure stuff about a lukewarm war between the United States and the adherents of a new Oriental [sic, sic, a thousand times sic] religion. Similarly, James Blish's A Case of Conscience breaks apart in the middle, and one notes that the first and far superior half, dealing with a literally satanic utopia, was published earlier as a long story complete in itself. The economics of science-fiction writing are obviously important here, demanding as they do a huge output in a medium that calls for a sustained flow of novelties; it is no wonder if some of these get inflated to book-length. One hopes that as the audience for science fiction increases, and with it the author's remunerations, there will be less of this forced expansion, but I cannot foresee any change in the basic fact that this is a short-story or at any rate a long-story mode, with hundreds of successes in these forms as against a bare couple of dozen in the novel.What Amis is describing is what SF people call "fix-ups," and I had a great line about how he doesn't use the word because he doesn't know a single thing about the field he's describing, but Wikipedia tells me that the term supposedly didn't become common until Peter Nicholls used it in 1979, and although I don't quite buy that, it kind of takes the wind out of the sails of my abuse.
Anyway, though Amis is wrong about almost everything else here (my delight in his prediction at the end being utterly wrong wrong wrong is the only reason I've ever found to be happy about the general decline of the short story in SF, and the concomitant rise of the intensely massive novel--which of course is frequently part of a trilogy or septalogy or Ongoing Cycle--but anyway, enough digressions), he is essentially correct in attributing the (real when he wrote) ubiquity of the fix-up primarily to economic concerns. However, his idea that these extensions or compilations are merely "padding," or that the disjunctions created by the process can only ever be "flaws," is silly, and misses out on one of the most beautiful things that happens in classic SF. Because the disjunction is key, regardless of prosaic questions of why it's there.
I haven't (yet) read the Pohl novels he discusses, but I have read the Blish, and it is one of the best novels I have ever read. I find absurd the suggestion that Blish is not a good enough writer to extend a novella into a full-length novel without having it "break apart in the middle."
A Case of Conscience is a very peculiar book, and is the first of a very peculiar set of works that Blish insisted on calling a "trilogy"--which together he referred to as After Such Knowledge. The second book in the trilogy is his novel Doctor Mirabilis, an immaculately researched novelization of the life of Roger Bacon (which I recently attempted and will eventually re-attempt to read), while the "third book" is two fantasy novels, Black Easter and The Day After Judgment. Conscience is the only one of these books I've read as yet, but surely when faced with an author who insists that a novella-turned-novel, a biographical study, and two-novels-considered-as-one, none of which is directly related to the others (and all of which are even in different, though frequently linked, genres), form a "trilogy," we can safely say that this is an author who is interested in disjunctions.
Conscience does indeed "break apart in the middle"--the first half concerns a Jesuit priest who is part of a research mission on another planet, studying the intelligent aliens who live there, at first delighted with them, eventually deciding that they are the work of Satan. The second half concerns a member of the alien race, transported to Earth as an egg and hatched here, who through a series of bizarre, occasionally comic events, becomes a media celebrity along the lines of a Howard Beale, only more, I guess you could say, successful. The halves share characters, to be sure, and the Jesuit's story is a through-line that leads the book to its horrific, inconclusive ending, but the feel and focus of the two halves are completely different, enough so to make the reader quite uncomfortable.
This I think is Amis's problem, for it is abundantly clear that there is nothing he hates more than to be made uncomfortable. A Case of Conscience, as indicated by the name of the trilogy of which it is a part, and like much of the best SF, is to me about the problems caused by accumulating knowledge, and particularly about the problems caused by our inability to be sure if our knowledge is "true," is objective (or, to look at it another way, the problems caused by our insistence on believing, on subjective faith alone, that our knowledge is objective). To examine this concept in the falsely objective medium of the (heavily and coherently plotted) standard novel would be ineffective at best, and, worse, an inexcusably disingenuous bit of hypocrisy. And so Blish does not give us a standard, plotty novel, he gives us this disjunctive work, whose "break apart in the middle" is but one of many cues telling us that organizing our knowledge into the appearance of objective truth doesn't work.
I didn't intend for this post to be an analysis of A Case of Conscience. It was supposed to be an explanation of my attitude that, faced with a perplexing text, such as a James Blish novel or a book of The Bible, it can be fascinating and useful to examine the real-world reasons--historical, economic, whatever--that contributed to its being so perplexing, but what I tend to be more interested in is how the reader, faced with this text right now, deals with their perplexity.
Coming back to The Bible, millions and millions and millions of people care deeply about what it has to say, and I imagine only a small proportion of them care (or know) that the reason it says what it says the way it says it has this and that historical explanation--and even of those who do care (or know), only a small proportion stops there. These words mean something to people here and now, and while examining the history of The Bible is as genuinely fascinating as examining any other sedimentary deposits,* for me, it's not the primary interest.
*And I'm not being remotely sarcastic, no matter how much the thick layer of apparent sarcasm the internet lays over everything may make it seem like I am. And oh, how I wish that that disclaimer weren't itself so very ironic in the context of this post. Just trust me, I'm being sincere.
"for it is abundantly clear that there is nothing he hates more than to be made uncomfortable"
hahahaha! unless it's because he fell down the stairs stinking drunk and is "uncomfortable" lying in a heap on the floor....
re: Genesis, this may be of interest:
The Space Merchants is great fun & focuses a lot on Future Food: There's this engineered consumption cycle of potato chips and cigarettes and some kind of fizzy soda, a giant chicken blob called Chicken Little that constantly grows and its flesh is harvested by laser-wielding robots, and chlorella is grown on a vast scale in skyscrapers. Those guys' collabs are all rad, and Pohl has an SF history book The Way the Future Was which looks interesting.
my own theory on how the bible was written involves a massive conspiracy spanning centuries that includes periodic intrigues like torture, assassination, and corruption. I admit that it's pretty far out there, even for conspiracy theories.
,ethan, ..of the pohl ,on animal communications .. .hmmm..i'll have to take a look at that.. . ..are there any others of sf that you can think of dealing with this . ..? i read this this morning..and i had to come back and ask..
Richard--ha! And thanks for that link--some fascinating thoughts there, definitely the kind of thing I'm talking about. And the Robert Alter translations he mentions in comments definitely look interesting...
Sorry--Pohl is one of a handful of the Big Names that I've for whatever reason neglected...I really should remedy that. I've added both Space Merchants and The Way the Future Was to my (already lengthy) read-soon list.
Justin--that cracked me up.
anne--That's a good question! Um...by which I mean I don't have a very good answer. I feel like I should be able to think of more than I am right now. Clifford Simak's A Choice of Gods involves communication with non-human persons, including, if I remember right, squirrels and trees, though it's not a main focus. There's a beautiful Ursula Le Guin story which pretends to be an analytical essay on the literature of animals (ants, penguins, some others), I can't remember what it's called but it's the first story in her (excellent) collection The Compass Rose. There's the David Brin Uplift series, but that's more about genetically engineering animals until they're basically humans, and is probably not what you're looking for. Hm...I think that's all I've got for now, but I'll keep thinking.
what I tend to be more interested in is how the reader, faced with this text right now, deals with their perplexity.
If by "the reader" you specifically mean the devout reader, in my personal experience I've found that the Bible - or really, any religious text complex enough to contain confusing and contradictory ideas - acts as an ink blot test for the reader/believer, who inevitably picks out the material which speaks to their preexisting beliefs and biases and ignores the stuff that contradicts them. Even people like my parents, who make a big deal of reading the whole fucking thing on a regular basis, clearly skim over and shrug past the parts that bother them and focus on the passages that resonate with what they believe.
Atheists sometimes make the mistake of acting like religious texts are somehow magical, exerting some special brainwashy pull on the minds of their readers, but really, no one comes to something like the Bible - or any text, for that matter - as a blank slate; it's going to act as a filter for what you've already been set to believe. Once I was no longer a Christian, it was obvious to me - painfully obvious, in fact - that there were gaps and spaces and holes all throughout the text... I'd never seen them before because why would I be looking for them? I already believed that this was the divine word of God before I'd ever picked the thing up - that didn't come from the book itself, that came from my family and the way I was raised.
Christopher--that is one way of dealing with it, and honestly I'm not sure I have any objection to it. If you can get something meaningful out of the book by ignoring other parts, then more power to you. Of course, a lot of people only get crappy things out of it and ignore the good things, but that's more on the context you're talking about than on the book or on the strategy itself, even.
ethan ,... . is chris m. really suggesting that one should read that way .. .he seems to be only saying that people do .. not that they should.. ,hold on i'll read it again.. sometime today ..wander .. /. ..i was saying something to abonilox a few days ago related to this .. ..i was going to say something related seeing the start of what your post here was about .. but i got distracted by the animals..
ethan, do you like russell hoban at all.. ..did you ever read the bk marzipan pig as a kid .. .?
Hi anne, sorry I left you hanging there for so long (I've been mostly away from the computer). If you're still reading...
I didn't mean to suggest that Christopher was saying that the Bible should be read that way--actually I thought he was saying it shouldn't, and was kinda-halfway-wafflingly-maybe disagreeing. My sloppiness, sorry.
I don't know anything about Russell Hoban--should I?
Another animal communication story occurred to me--Cordwainer Smith's short story "The Game of Rat and Dragon," I think it's been pretty frequently anthologized so it should be findable. It's a very peculiar story, and not without its major flaws, but it's pretty interesting--it's about psychic links between humans and cats, in space, for practical purposes.
ethan ,..i've left something of this..of my comment ..in a post over at john's ( 'lox)today.. ..i was going to get back to you on this .. but i made some comments also over there last week.. and he wrote to me by mail..and we have been talking at some length daily since .. on something that my mind needs to focus on that isn't of animals and hoban's use of language ..and i wanted to compare also my schooling in child lit to your interest in sf in some way ..
also..i've noticed that you are the only one from the off from the whois' galley ..that has the bldgblog (and pruned) at your side there ..? / ..i grew up the daughter of an architectural draftsman ..seeing some lovely in the making scapes as he took me along to drop of the drawings ..in the late 60s early 70s..
anne--Don't worry about it! Continue the conversation when and if you feel like it/have time to. I haven't been diligent about it myself, so...
I don't know who else reads BLDGBLOG or Pruned...usually I'm more of a skim/look at the pictures guy with those than a read 'em carefully guy, but every once in a while they'll have some killer writing. My mother actually introduced me to them, she's a landscape architect and thought that my interest in SF and speculative alternatives would make Pruned (through which I later found BLDGBLOG) interesting to me...and she was right!
(By the way, The Baronette just picked up Slave Ship from a used bookstore, so I might be reading it before too long...if I do, there might be further talkin's. We'll see!)
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