Bowie Fiction

There was a time during the twentieth century when the position of the greatest science fiction author was officially split into three. The greatest authors were considered to be Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, and Isaac Asimov.

Of the three, the latter two came to an official accord on how to respond to questions of who was the better writer. While sharing a cab ride in New York, Asimov and Clarke drafted The Clarke-Asimov Treaty of Park Avenue.

This agreement stated that when asked who was best, Clarke was to refer to Asimov as the best science writer, and Asimov was to refer to Clarke as the best science fiction writer. Each was to claim to be second-best in the other’s field.

The only written evidence of this treaty appeared in the dedication of Clarke’s novel Report on Planet Three:

“In accordance with the terms of the Clarke-Asimov Treaty, the second-best science writer dedicates this book to the second-best science fiction writer.”

Why am I talking about this? Because it helps to establish my point: that there are many different moving parts of the speculative genre. There are science writers, science fiction writers, science fiction artists, and filmmakers. But there is one mode of science fiction we seem to often overlook: the science fiction poet. The Spectatorial is incredibly cool to have published a selection of speculative poetry in every issue.

The speculative has pervaded every form of storytelling we have to offer, so why don’t we recognize any great science fiction poets the same way we recognize the writers and the filmmakers? In the tradition of the Clarke-Asimov treaty, who should I name the greatest science fiction poet of their time? That’s easy.

David Bowie.

France David Bowie
Image from chartattack.com

Now hang on, don’t shout me down right away. Let me make it clear that, yes, I know Bowie was a musician/songwriter, but hell, isn’t a good lyrical song just a poem with some groove to it? I know there are people who write actual science fiction poems, but hear me out. David Bowie had a long and illustrious career. Not all of his work was science fiction, but so much of it was, and it made for some of the best and most memorable science fiction poetry of his generation.

The obvious and easy place to start is Space Oddity. It’s a famous song: the tragedy of Bowie’s fictional astronaut, Major Tom, who breaks free from earth and becomes lost in the depths of space. This is a character Bowie would revisit throughout his career, writing and expanding upon the story until Major Tom became a permanent fixture of our pop culture. Sure, Space Oddity is a great song, but it also doubles as Bowie’s earliest science fiction poem to pervade our imaginations.

rocktrain.net
Image from rocktrain.net

Next, I want to talk about Bowie’s great concept album, which for the sake of this article I’m going to call an audio-epic poem. It’s a majestic tragedy of a bisexual rock star who becomes the prophet of a race of god-like aliens. This character prepares the world for the coming of the messianic extra-terrestrial beings of infinity, but is tragically deceived: he is consumed by the Starman, so it could take physical form, and the aliens he convinced humanity were coming to save them end up destroying the world instead.

Does all that sound familiar? Because it should. That is the story of what the Rolling Stones Magazine ranked the 35th greatest album of all time, and I would argue one of the greatest epic poems ever written:

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

The story begins in the song/poem Five Years, in which the narrator ominously proclaims that there are only five years left until the end of the world. The panicked reaction of the human race is juxtaposed with the narrator’s love interest calmly getting ice cream. Powerful themes of chaos, death, unity, and acceptance run throughout the album, through songs like Moonage Daydream and Lady Stardust. Songs like Starman reveal that perhaps some otherworldly beings might come to save us, but first humanity must prepare to receive them by learning to love rock and roll:

There’s a Starman waiting in the sky,

He’d like to come and meet us

But he thinks he’d blow our minds”

highsnobiety
Image from highsnobiety.com

Even the tragic death of Ziggy Stardust in the finale of Rock and Roll Suicide reads like poetry. Ziggy being destroyed by the Starman he worked so hard to bring to earth seems like something we should have seen coming, with Ziggy’s name literally being Stardust.

Time takes a cigarette, puts it in your mouth,

You pull on your finger, then another finger, then your cigarette

The wall-to-wall is calling, it lingers, and then you forget ohhh you’re a rock’n’ roll suicide”

Really, the tragedy of Ziggy Stardust reads like anything Clarke, Asimov, or Heinlein might have written. Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is a long narrative piece of science fiction poetry about unity and self-destruction. It’s got aliens and world-ending prophecies and cool guitar solos. I’m not sure about you, but that’s good enough for me. If you choose to disagree with my interpretation, that’s also okay.

But for the sake of my argument and my own sanity, let’s just say I’m right. Let’s all congratulate David Bowie for making a hugely accessible collection of science fiction poetry available to the world forever. In the spirit of the Clark-Asimov treaty, and by the power and authority vested in me—meaning that I’ve read all of Asimov’s Foundation, keep a copy of The City and the Stars under my pillow, and have Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars playing as I type thisI hereby give the title of “best science fiction poet of a generation” to Mr. Bowie.

RIP Starman.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan

An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion

wordsonpagespress2Poetry has comfortably slipped into its current position as the most honest medium of writing. It allows the poet to play with images, scenarios, and characters that may not necessarily be personal, but, at the same time, inject their words with a truth serum of sorts. There is a certain naked honesty to the medium regardless of how fancy a dress it chooses to don, with however many layers of taffeta and crinoline.

In her 2012 collection Love, an Index, poet Rebecca Lindenberg wrote: “Poetry/ how thought feels”, while James Dickey defines a poet as “someone who stands outside in the rain hoping to be struck by lightning.” Some subgenres of poetry can be considered more “naked” than others: one would understand, for example, why Emily Dickinson or William Blake are not necessarily the go-to for young audiences (unless they are trying to woo someone with romantic poetry). There is, however, one genre that I’d argue captures this wild spirit best: the surrealist genre.

When presented with the term, most people will proceed to recount the fantastical paintings of Salvador Dalí or René Magritte. Few will think of literature. Even fewer will be able to identify French writer André Breton as the “father” of the movement.

Perhaps it is no great surprise that the genre is not popular with the masses, though that is not to say that there are few writers who choose to work in the genre. This is why, if one is searching for contemporary surrealist poetry, it is best to turn to the smaller indie presses and poetry chapbooks. Pearl Pirie’s An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion is a fine example. Released in April 2016 from words(on)pages press, a Toronto-based publisher, this poetry chapbook not only demonstrates that the genre is alive and kicking, but that it is conscious of and adapting to current events.

The poems of An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion never stray too far from the reality of everyday life. Rather, they are gently planted amid a sea of turbulent self-reflection. Take the poem “Under the Tongues of Thunder”, which instantly won me over with its wise flying hippos, stating: “you can only fly/ for as long, as well, as I can, if you train for years/ by carrying hearses of friends.” That is not to say that one needs a red flying hippo in order to understand the beautifully dark reality of these words (although if you’re like me, the fantastical imagery does stimulate an otherwise drowsy mind). The balance and subtlety of the real and slightly ridiculous is so fine in these poems that moving in and out of them not only becomes natural, but one also begins to realize that our routine lives are not much different.

The true tour de force, however, is the poem “The Procedures for Filing Claims for Refugee Status.” If the exploration of the self is a topic that has existed—and will likely continue to exist—until the end of mankind, then the issue of the Syrian refugee crisis is more immediate. The poem approaches the subject with the same level of ridiculousness as the accusations government officials have been making; which is why the lines: “you can’t be too careful about who/ may carry disease or dis-ease” read so pointedly. Yet there is something about the images of tiny insect visas and the frisking of butterflies that makes it impossible to focus solely on the magical nature of the images. If anything, surrealism is the very thing that brings one’s focus to reality.

It’s a rather sad fact that one must often resort to shock value in order to get mass attention on an important issue. Luckily for literature, the genre of surrealism is still alive and kicking. An Ongoing Lack of Spontaneous Combustion covers the realms of self-exploration and social justice, finally leaving the reader with “Poet’s Guide to Buildings on Fire”, which is impossible to do justice via explanation—one simply has to read it for oneself to appreciate the wit and honesty. It is like a modern-day companion to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

Surrealism is more than melted clocks and heads instead of flowers, despite what much of modern day culture tries to convince us. True surrealism is conscious not only of the subconscious realm, but more importantly, it strives to address the ailments that plague it, presenting them in an unfiltered and moving manner—and Pearl Pirie’s chapbook does exactly that.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

The “M” Word: Looking At the Intersection of Myth and Modernity

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the-m-word
Illustrated by Mia Carnevale

There always seems to be some sort of mysticism surrounding the notion of “myths”. Often, they can seem inaccessible. They’re something of the past, locked away in a box only Classics majors have the keys to, and not really something you think about on a day-to-day basis.

But that’s wrong, because myths are hauntingly transcendent and say a giant “fuck you” to time, place, and language. Don’t be disillusioned—myths are as contemporary as “Harry Potter”, and just as relevant.

We live in a world so saturated with myths, both new and old, that we often don’t recognize mythology for what it is: a primordial truth about humanity. However, that definition sounds awfully lofty and pompous, so it is super cool for twenty-first  century authors to incorporate myths into fiction.

Averno by Louise Glück is a poetry collection that uses the myth of Persephone and Hades as a point of reference to explore larger-than-life topics like death, the soul, and the breakdown of a relationship. It offers unconventional takes on the kidnapping of Persephone by Hades, telling the story both from the kidnapper’s perspective and, refreshingly, from Persephone’s.

Glück’s poetry feels personal and domestic, concentrating on scenes of nature, which adds to the borderless aspect of her writing. She switches between the first and second person with ease, inviting you into her narrative that seems to draw on her own life and experiences. She makes myths feel intimate, by grounding her collection in a central household myth that is able to translate perfectly from an ancient Greek context into a very tangible contemporary one.

When you first read Anne Carson’s Antigonick, it seems a little strange to see seemingly unrelated pen and watercolour drawings printed on vellum in the middle of a modern translation of Sophocles’ tragedy “Antigone”. But the more you think about it, the more it makes sense in an abstract, magical-realism sort of way. When Haimon and Kreon are arguing, we see birds exploding out of a chimney, signifying conflict within the household. Some drawings are more abstract than others, composed of watercolour lines and blurs that remind me of Chinese ink paintings, while others are simply absurd (a horse knocking over a dining table), yet all of them connect to the tragedy in some inexplicable way.

Another point of note in Antigonick is the lack of punctuation. Carson’s prose seems poetic in form, using the spacing and positioning of words on the page to signify starts and stops. The main themes and conflicts of the play are clearly presented in a poetic form, and although there is a distinct archaic taste to the text (“thou, thee”), there is also displacement through the insertion of modern concepts and turns of phrases.

As someone who has studied the Fagles translation of the play last year, I thoroughly enjoyed Carson’s take, which presents the text graphically and bluntly. You are no longer required to parse through the text to get to the themes, and in a sense this work is an English lecture in and of itself.

If you are a first time reader of Sophocles, however, I would recommend a more literal translation of the play, as Antigonick is a piece of art that requires foreknowledge of the source material.

Mythology is awesome, which is great because it’s everywhere. Really, read The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell if you don’t believe me. But mythology is also varied, and is definitely not limited to the Greek canon. So after you check out these two beautiful works of fiction, be sure to branch out. Maybe you’ll have an epiphany somewhere along the way.

-Contributed by Stephanie Gao

Dreams are Made in the Trenches

anzac-poppy
photo by Deb Robertson

In November, it’s hard to forget. Now I don’t mean your keys or your economics quiz; those still slip our minds with regularity. No, as any human being in the Western World who doesn’t currently take up residence under a large rock will tell you, November, at least the beginning of it, is marked by the remembrance of war.

This time of year is one to remember those who fought and those who died so that we might live in a free nation, or as close to it as we can get. This time of year is one to remember the death and pain and huge cost of the many, many wars that have so badly pockmarked our earth and scarred our memories. This time of year is a time to remember, and to be solemn in our remembrance.

But—does that mean we have to be sad?

It’s really hard not to be, when the blood-red poppies we see on the breasts of each passerby remind us of awkwardly staccato recitations of “In Flanders Fields”, which only remind us of crosses row on row and larks above the guns below, which only remind us of the countless images of lurid trenches and wounded men lying feebly on stretchers.

And while it’s very important to be sad about these things, some of these same wounded men would have liked sadness to not be your only emotion at this time of year.

I recently had the good fortune of stumbling upon a book entitled Made in the Trenches, a fitting read for Remembrance Day, one would assume. However, contrary to popular assumption, this book is a comedy.

Written by (primarily) the men of the “Star and Garter” Home for totally disabled soldiers, this anthology of poetry and short stories is anything but what one would expect from such a group of men. Additionally, given the oh-so-comforting words of the preface, “In the aftermath of this grievous war there is no more lamentable and pathetic figure than the soldier who, by reason of his wounds, is paralysed and left utterly helpless”, you can’t help but go into the book with a lump in your throat and a chip on your shoulder.

What these veterans show the reader in the pages post-preface serve to smooth and brush these away, respectively. From the first story—a jolly tale of a hearty, albeit not spectacularly bright, group of soldiers blissfully daydreaming of the home they shall soon return to as bullets fly over their heads—to the last, a theme is obvious: war is hell, but life is not.

Or at least it doesn’t have to be.

There is no real value in actually critiquing such a work; the most I could say is that there is some awkward phrasing and the occasional unnecessary plot point in a few of the stories. No, the true value of this book is in its message, and how it can be applied to our lives, here and now.

By now you may have wondered how this book fits under the umbrella of speculative fiction, and you’re right to wonder. At face value, while the poetry, though sometimes a little crude, can be seen as speculative, the prose is historical fiction through and through. However, the same thing that makes this book so relevant today is also what makes it speculative.

As I’ve already gestured at several times now, this is a funny view of a time that was most decidedly not funny. The idea itself, even on paper, seems absurd, and yet it is this absurdity that makes the point so strong.

In and of itself, the book, its settings, and its content provide a window into a strange and different world—one that many, especially most Westerners, have never experienced, and will hopefully never have to. In all fairness, the world of war is as alien to the average person sitting at their laptop as that of a galaxy far, far away. For one who has never experienced warfare, writing on this topic could almost be seen as speculative itself.

However, this is not the case for the men of the “Star and Garter”. They lived through the horrors of war firsthand, and saw some of their friends and allies die as a result. For them, this was life, no speculation needed.

Where the book’s speculation and modern meaning intersect is in the wonders of the world that these men imagine outside of their place in it. Beyond the battlefield and above the muck of their painful, everyday existences, they were able to see the oft-quoted, seldom-fulfilled silver lining. In a strange and hostile universe where there really was no light over the horizon—at least none that made it through the barbed wire—they made their own.

In each of these stories and poems, whether they be about going home to see loving nurses, finding a long sought-after oasis, or merely the Shakespearian beauty in the twisted environment around, there beats a heart yearning for more than reality. Throughout the tales and odes there is a soul that realizes the value of a lie, if only in that repeating one long enough makes it a hope.

Today, we may not huddle for days on end in endless filth, but we still have our own trenches. We may not plod on with a pack on our back and a rifle in our arms, but we have our own marches. We may not live in perpetual fear of death, but we have our own wars.

There is something that we can definitely learn from these brave individuals who sacrificed so much and gained so little, but it will not only be found in the solemn blare of a trumpet. If Made in the Trenches is any testament, what we should remember this season is that when reality pins you down, it is the dreamers who push back.

-Contributed by Stephan Goslinski

CRINGEFEST Will be Bringing the (Literary) Pain!

Cringefest poster

CALLING ALL WRITERS AND CREATIVE MINDED PEOPLE! Ever felt excluded from the high brow poetry slam crowd in your hip local coffee shops? The Spectatorial presents a FUN-draising event with entertainment for all, as we celebrate the trials and tribulations to becoming the artists you are today.

We invite you to dredge up your most embarrassing past writing: your angsty break-up poetry, your deep teenage thoughts, your fan-fiction starring you and Harry Potter, and share it in front of a bunch of people who have definitely also been there. Don’t worry, there will be booze.

We will also be having baked goods and other cool stuff for sale as part of fundraising for our next issue. The madness takes place Thursday March 19th in the Cat’s Eye (downstairs inside the Goldring Student Centre) starting at 8pm. Suggested donation $2-5.

Please send us a message on our Facebook page or find Brenda in the comment section and message her in order to get a spot on the list of readers for the night.

Hosted and presented by The Spectatorial. Sponsored by The Victoriad.

Infinity, Ineffability, and Loss in Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph”

First published in 1945, “The Aleph” became one of Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges’s most beloved stories. Like many of Borges’s works, “The Aleph” is concerned with the nature of infinity and the illusion of reality. It gleefully traverses multiple genres and modes of fiction, including fantasy, satire, allegory, memoir, epistolary fiction, and voyage narrative.

“The Aleph” is narrated by a fictionalized version of Borges who recounts his experience of the Aleph, a point in space that contains all other points in the world. The insistence upon the conflation of the author Borges with the character Borges destabilizes and distorts the demarcation between fiction and reality.

The story opens with Borges mourning the death of his beloved, Beatriz Viterbo. Borges recounts how he visits the house of Beatriz’s family on the anniversary of her death each year for several years, gradually becoming acquainted with Beatriz’s first cousin, Carlos Argentino Daneri.

A mediocre poet with delusions of grandeur, Daneri has made it his lifelong ambition to write an epic poem that will describe every location on the planet in ultra-precise detail. In his poem, aptly titled The Earth, Daneri substitutes mundane words like milky for luminous words like lactescent. Unsurprisingly, his poem is terrible.

When a business on the same street attempts to tear down Daneri’s house in order to expand, Daneri confides in Borges that he cannot lose his house because there is an Aleph in his basement, and he needs it to complete his poem.

Though Borges believes Daneri to be insane, he asks to see the Aleph for himself. Unbelievably, the Aleph is real, and with it Borges is able to see every place on the planet instantaneously and simultaneously. But Borges denies seeing anything to Daneri in an attempt to make him question his sanity out of an immature hate for him.

In a postscript to the events, Borges writes that Daneri let his house be demolished, but that he went on to have the first part of his epic poem published and won second place in the Argentine National Prize for Poetry. Borges also asserts that he believes that another Aleph, the real Aleph, is located in a stone pillar in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Cairo. This Aleph is believed to contain the entire universe, not merely the earth, within it. And though it cannot be seen, if one places one’s ear to the pillar, one can supposedly hear it.

The Aleph (א) is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet (think aleph-bet). It symbolizes the wind, the air, and the sacred breath of life. In Kabbalistic tradition, the Aleph signifies the Ein Soph, the divine origin of all existence. The Aleph is seen as the spiritual source of all letters, speech, and language.

Though it is the origin of language, the Aleph cannot be contained by language because it comprises infinity and is therefore ineffable.

It is this failure to articulate the spectacle of the Aleph—the failure to represent it using language—that is at the heart of Borges’s story. When trying to describe the Aleph, Borges repeats the phrase “I saw” almost forty times in a single paragraph, as if through anaphora and the accumulation of details he can capture the wonder of the Aleph and thereby confirm the truth of his experience.

Yet Borges’s endeavor to convey what he saw in the Aleph is futile, for language is a medium that progresses. Words follow words and sentences follow sentences, and the reader can only read about one subject at a time. The Aleph, however, shows every place in the world at once; there is no progression from image to image or from place to place—everything is seen at the same time. Language may be asynchronous, but the Aleph is synchronous.

Because of the restrictions of language, Daneri’s poem will be a failure, and Borges’s own attempt to describe the wonders of the Aleph will be barely the shadow of the echo of the real thing. The limits of language mean that Borges cannot ever overcome the distance between signifier and signified. He cannot accurately convey his experience in words.

Just as the Aleph cannot be contained by language, it cannot be retained by memory either.

After seeing the Aleph, Borges feels certain that he will never again relate to other people or exist in the world in the same way that they do. But after a few restless nights, forgetfulness gnaws away his memories, and he returns to normality even though he does not want to.

Reflecting on his experience, one question remains to haunt Borges: did he see the real Aleph in the mosque in Cairo when he looked into Daneri’s Aleph, or was it his imagination? He realizes that he can no longer remember what he saw in the Aleph, just as he can no longer clearly remember Beatriz’s features.

In comparing these two fading memories, Borges returns to the problem of the limits of language. Just as Borges cannot articulate the world he saw in the Aleph, he cannot articulate the pain of loss.

But that is not the only meaning behind this comparison. The progression of time is inexorable, and as the bodies of our loved ones decay, our memories fade. Against out will, life goes on and balance is restored—yet nothing is ever quite the same. Ultimately, for Borges, the loss of a loved one is the loss of a world.

-contributed by Alex De Pompa