Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Laurence Oliphant ... Victorian with a difference

Normally I'd take a cover blurb of ...
Traveller * Writer * Wit * Secret Agent * Diplomat * Mystic * Entrepreneur ... There was no stranger man in the Victorian era
 ... to be an excess of hype, but this introduction to Anne Taylor's 1982 biography of Laurence Oliphant isn't far off the mark. Oliphant (who lived from 1829-1888) divided his life between the highly mainstream (as a novelist and member of parliament), world travel (partly as diplomat, partly ... ostensibly ... dilettante), and religious mysticism (he spent time at the commune of the American prophet Thomas Lake Harris, and was an early strong proponent of Zionism).

Biographies of Oliphant aren't difficult to find. For instance, Electric Scotland quotes the 1895 Dictionary of National Biography. But modern ones such as Taylor's are rather more enlightening in not airbrushing out that his early work was in the capacity of secret agent (his travels and documentation of the local scene, with vague government endorsement, systematically took him to all the world trouble spots of the time). There's also more context about his involvement with Harris, a Swedenborgian: an interest in mysticism (whether Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism, Theosophy, etc) and proto-Socialism in various forms was very common among Victorian liberal reformers. Harris, however, was a charlatan, and Oliphant and his wife took this involvement to a self-destructive extreme.

I first ran into Oliphant in a different context: as a main character in William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's The Difference Engine, an alternate-history SF novel set in a 19th century where Charles Babbage's ideas on computing were fully realised in his lifetime, making mechanical computers as ubiquitous in the mid-1900s as electronic ones are now. The Difference Engine is meticulously researched literary SF, and incorporates many contemporary real and literary figures. Oliphant is there, as are Sybil Gerard and Charles Egremont (both characters from Disraeli's real-world novel Sybil); Disraeli in the book is merely a hack writer, and Keats a 'kinotropist', an operator of mechanical cinema. Events are set against the backdrop of the Great Stink of 1858 London.

There's a nice online concordance, The Difference Dictionary, which
even if you haven't read the book is a good taster of Victorian technical-cultural local colour. The ever-useful Internet Archive finds an interesting essay by Elisabeth Kraus , Gibson and Sterling's Alternative History: The Difference Engine as Radical Rewriting of Disraeli's Sybil, that explores the literary comparisons in depth, and there has been a deal more academic comment on the book: for instance, Herbert Sussman's Cyberpunk Meets Charles Babbage: The Difference Engine as Alternative Victorian History in Victorian Studies, Vol. 38, No. 1, Autumn, 1999 (unfortunately not online). 

The Difference Engine is, incidentally, a good example of the 'steampunk' genre: the Victorian equivalent of 'cyberpunk' (the latter generally concerned with dystopian futures where social breakdown goes hand-in-hand with rapid technological advance). Victorian London was remarkably similar. This was an era of the expansion of a global empire, linked by telegraphy - the 'Victorian Internet' - yet with a level of poverty, as documented by Henry Mayhew, that made London similar to a modern Third World megalopolis.

I had the good fortune to attend the Birmingham launch in 1990, where Gibson and Sterling made the comparison with Victorian times explicit. Sterling said, "The Victorian age was a great, but frightening, period, with the roots of the same ambivalence to technology that we see today". Gibson added: "And it's the only period in history comparable to what we're going through now. The only time that the rate of change was so traumatic". Sterling continued: "The intention of the book is social anaylsis, more or less ... an attempt to look at the roots of the industrial and cybernetic revolution."

Addendum: there's an update at Bessemer Saloon and other experimental ships.

- Ray

Friday, 14 September 2007

Bizarre historical affectations

I filled in at the shop for the end of this afternoon and, glancing at one of several nice books of Edwardian and Victorian photography, was reminded of the strange story of the "Alexandra limp". In the 1860s Alexandra of Denmark (then the Princess of Wales, later Queen Consort of Edward VII) developed a knee problem from rheumatic fever following childbirth. For several years, ladies at court and in high society affected a similar limp. This kind of emulation wasn't uncommon in royal circles: Professor Christie Davies' article Have recent Tory leaders lost elections because they were bald? at the Social Affairs Unit blog mentions various courts that imitated the royal hairstyle. Even more strangely, when Louis XIV had an operation for an anal fistula, courtiers went around with their bottoms bandaged to show sympathy for his pain.

Creeping to royalty is one thing, but many such affectations seem to have had little reason but fashion. The forward-stooping Grecian Bend in women is well-known, if only because it gave rise to the term "the bends" for decompression sickness (the connection being that the stooping pained posture of 19th century caisson workers - "sandhogs" - resembled that fashion).

There are many lesser-known ones. The Roman Fall of the late 1860s (satirised in a music hall song) was a pseudo-military stance in men, with shoulders thrown back; it was especially popular in England, apparently borrowed from a compulsory stance required of French military officers (see Passing Passing English of the Victorian Era, James Redding Ware, E. P. Dutton & Co, 1909). The "kangaroo droop" (or kangaroo drop) in women, apparently a consequence of straight-front corsets, involved holding your hands and arms like those of a kangaroo (see A Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English, John Stephen Farmer, E.P. Dutton & Co., 1921). Slang dictionaries of the time also mention the "Italian wriggle", though they don't explain this one.

Is there some reason for it all? Maybe. Posture gives a message. George Bush, for instance, has attracted attention for his "power walk", copied by Tony Blair, with its unnatural knuckles-forward stance that purportedly conveys some kind of alpha male status. Ultimately, postural fashions may come down to our chimpy side: see Primate Gestures May Be Clue to Human Language, which reports "In the chimpanzees, we have one group, just one group, where the chimpanzees hold hands together above their heads when they groom each other with the other hand," de Waal says. "It's a very strange posture. It was developed by one female named Georgia, and she introduced her family members to it, and now all the chimps in the group are doing it". It's not so different from limping because the Queen does.

- Ray

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Keith Laumer ... and Oz

Rather on the topic of the rights and wrongs of copying books, Baen Books has an interesting publication strategy. Its Baen Free Library makes available online selected works on its lists, primarily SF, arguing that the advantage of publicity for lesser-known authors more than offsets any loss from giving away the text free.

Keith Laumer (1925-1993) is one example. A writer who brought to his work an interesting background, an academic career followed by military and diplomatic service, he's little read these days. He wrote fast-moving SF stories and novels, in a hardboiled but, at its best, elegant style reminiscent of Raymond Chandler. The end of his life was unfortunately marred by a stroke that left him physically incapacitated as well as impairing his writing abilities (in which state -presumably his judgement was affected too - he insisted on reediting many of his works, to their detriment).

The Baen Free Library Keith Laumer section has several of his novels and short story compilations. Odyssey is typical in tone, featuring among other works the picaresque Galactic Odyssey (whose down-and-out hero shelters from a storm in what he takes to be a grain silo, only to find he has stowed away on a spacecraft). Laumer did humour too, satire on bureaucracy being a strong theme, as in In the Queue, Placement Test and the stories of the galactic diplomat Retief.

I was reminded of Laumer from running into the website of his brother, the late March Laumer (Wikipedia link - I won't link direct to his site, as it throws up popup ads). March Laumer wrote largely self-published reinterpretations of the Wizard of Oz mythos, some recycling characters and scenarios from Volkov's Russified versions. His novels were controversial for introducing adult themes such as the sexuality of Oz characters, thus taking them out of the genre of children's fiction.
      Neverthless, other authors have done similarly: Philip José Farmer's A Barnstormer in Oz introduces Hank Stover, Dorothy's son, who flies his Jenny biplane into a green cloud and arrives in Oz to find some surprises. One is that it exists; another is that Baum bowdlerized its culture, not merely for sexuality but also for its social and political complexity. The book is discussed at the Reviews Page at the official Philip José Farmer site.

Different in tone, but equally mature in its themes, Gregory Maguire's Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, takes a revisionist slant on the Oz mythos, telling of Elphaba, a green-skinned political activist who is ultimately murdered by the alien girl, Dorothy. Maguire goes into detail on the moral and political themes: for instance, the rights problems raised by the co-existence in Oz of animals (the ordinary kind) and Animals (ones with human intelligence). I read it a while back and thought it took itself a little too seriously, coming with its own Study Guide to the moral issues, but it's still an intriguing take on the mythos.

The Royal Timeline of Oz has an extensive collection relating to the literary history of Oz and its various spinoffs, both faithful and revisionist: see, for instance, The Dark Side of Oz and Beyond the Deadly Desert.

- Ray

Saturday, 8 September 2007

More Russification / Wind Done Gone

I recently mentioned Tanya Grotter, Dmitri Yemets' Russian "cultural reply" to Harry Potter. I've been reading Wikipedia on the subject, and was interested to find behind this a long-running story of Russian adaptations of classic Western literature - not mere translations but Russification to adapt to local cultural flavour. We have Tolstoy's Buratino (based on Pinocchio); The Wizard of Emerald City, Alexander Volkov's adaptation of L. Frank Baum's Oz mythos; Nabokov's Anya in Wonderland (see Nabokov as Translator for background); and Boriz Zahoder's adaptation of Winnie the Pooh (see the Zahoder page at the Russian State Children's Library). These works have acquired classic status within their genre: the Volkov adaptations have even come back into English and inspired the works of March Laumer (brother of SF author Keith Laumer - more about him soon). I find it hard to conclude JK Rowling's successful litigation to prevent Western publication of Tanya Grotter to be of long-term benefit to literature; Tanya Grotter and the Magical Double Bass looks an interesting book that could enlighten Western readers about Russian mythology and life in modern Russia.

You can, incidentally, with a little Google-Fu, find a detailed English-language analysis of the the first three Grotter books in Tanya Grotter: a Russian Harry Potter Knock-Off or Parody?, Mark Hooker's conference address reprinted in Selected Papers from Nimbus-2003 Compendium. If you go to the link above and search the book internally for "Tanya Grotter" (use the Google Books "search in this book", in the right-hand sidebar) you can track through the article page by page (ie pp75-104).

Hooker ultimately concludes that the relationship between Harry Potter and Tanya Grotter is akin to that of Gone with the Wind and Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone, a retelling from a slave perspective (marketed and legally defended as a parody, though it obviously isn't one in the usual comic sense of the word). A legal dispute on very similar grounds to that of Emets vs Rowling concluded as an out-of-court settlement - Settlement reached over 'Wind Done Gone' - enabling the book to be published. The US climate and scenario is, however, rather different, in that The Wind Done Gone was "home-grown" and had strong expert support for its cultural perspective; also, a block on publication raised First Amendment issues of "unlawful prior restraint".

Addendum, 12 Oct 2008: I just ran into another example of a retelling of a novel still in copyright, Pia Pera's Lo's Diary 2001 , Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita retold from the point of Lolita herself, portraying her as a sadistic monster: see Salon Books' The Nymphet Strikes Back and Nerve.com's On a Book Entitled Lo's Diary (Dmitri Nabokov's commentary). Despite considerable legal wrangling, a settlement was reached between Pera and Nabokov's estate - Pact Reached on U.S. Edition of 'Lolita' Retelling (Peter Applebone, New York Times, June 17, 1999). It shows that such accommodations are perfectly feasible.

- Ray

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

50 underrated novels

Interesting list from this Sunday's Guardian: How did we miss these? (see also Part 2). Fifty contemporary writers recommend "brilliant but underrated novels that deserve a second chance to shine". I'm pleased to see that two I recommended here are on the list: Alasdair Gray's Lanark and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. But I'm ashamed to admit that I only recognised about six of the remaining titles, and three of those because they'd been adapted for film or TV.

- Ray