1.29.2004

Fear of Science, Fear of Reason

Mike Allen may be the embodiment of genre, which is the reason why I am examining him here in detail.

When I read his magazine, Mythic Delirium, I immediately noted that Allen took science fiction poetry literatim, however it's parsed--speculative, fiction, science: idea made manifest in words--including variations that do not stray from the use of such a term.

His own poetry is much the same. As I was rereading the poems and contemplating Derrida, Genre and Movements (Interstitiality and Mundane*, in particular), I uncovered the structural key that unlocked the whole book.

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But first let me give lip-service to a review since I promised. This is where I say all the mean stuff because afterwards I’ll dive into all the fun interpretation stuff that I’ve only begun to tap into. I’ll leave the rest for an academic to unpack in its full glorious detail.

The material in Defacing the Moon covers the first seven years of his publication history; hence, the writing can on occasion be over-wrought as early poetry (and especially SF poetry) can be. “Defacing the Moon” and “Planeta do Favela” are lushly written without giving into the grotesque sentimentality that some employ in the interest of sounding “poetic” (although he does give into this impulse when writing about the Romantic writers). All of the experimental poems are interesting but some actually work quite well in their design: “Momentum” and “Phase Shift.” Often in the genre, individual SF poems tend to suffer from banality, but when they rub together, they create a spark of artistic inspiration. One must take these poems as a whole--and as a whole, I’ve never seen so many sparks fly.

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During WWII, Americans trusted their government to do the people’s best interest even though the people were unaware of what specifically the government did in their best interest. Read the fiction of the era (see Theodore Sturgeon if you need a particular), watch the movies (I recently found it in Bela Lugosi’s Phantom Creeps). Whatever government did had to be done with the utmost secrecy lest loose lips sink ships.

Science was king. Logic was queen. We looked forward to a happier future of space-age gadgetry and comforts that they provided their subject with. But faith in these monarchs eroded when we learned what men did in the name of our rulers.

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The aforementioned blink of history is to show I don’t think Allen intentionally set out to instill this in his work. Probably a good deal of genre digestion has reemerged in his own work. Keep in mind that at times, the intent of pain-inflicting science is somehow played (paradoxically) as a good thing. No doubt, Allen fancies himself a pro-science fanatic as the rest of us do. But how do we really see science? This will become more apparent in a subsequent post as I move on to the topics I spoke of above. If I chide Allen, I chide us all -- even myself -- for, despite my enthusiasm for science and reason, I had a blast uncovering all these anti-science connections!

Once you see the first instance, you cannot fail to see it emerge throughout: most obviously in the second poem: “Munchausen vs. the Aliens.” Who else should these aliens represent as they attempt to dissect Munchausen and “imprison” his body parts in specimen jars--unsuccessfully?

So we return to the first and title poem “Defacing the Moon” in which an astronomical object’s “face” of science is removed so that “you” can be on there “to catch winds of your whimsy.” What is whimsy but flight of fancy or fantasy? Taking down the moon’s science isn’t enough. for you must also “stare down the sun.”

The poem most popular among reviewers appears to be “Disaster at the BrainBank ATM” in which not only does technology fail, but it penalizes the users for its failure. How interesting that this should be the most popular.

In “Watching the Pot” a scientist is listening for signs of alien signals but fears he won’t be there when the signal comes--as though the aliens were impish and their imaginary description is ominous with its mysteriously silent intent: “Yet you can’t help / imagining that compound or cat-like / alien eye, leaning down on its stalk / to look around every time you turn away.”

The “Universal Night-Life” of an alien bar allows primitive cavegirl’s to be turned on by “[c]old phantoms” but the princesses have “to beware the lonely lobster-men,” the “Space spiders” have “unearthly legs in wanton grind,” and fairies of fantasy are scorched by that mutant of science, Godzilla.

The “Sojourn on Barsoom” tells us that “Asimovian robot[s]” are “forged in man’s self-centered image” and that “All Golden Age pomp and circumstance” is “sifting mindlessly for ghosts in dust.”

Spiders (who isn’t creeped-out a little by spiders?) are once again the manifestation of science as they are now part of the “Third Shift at the Plasteel Spider Factory.” Science, as we shall see multiply, causes pain: “her breath is a hiss of steam / as she vents the pain of her contractions.... // venom [presumably from the spider’s children] leaks between my fingers; / [the children] seethe up my arms, wailing, scratching; / their spinnerets spit out hot-melt threads, / silver strands of web that sear my skin.”

The astronomical sun in “The Ungrateful Son” empties the narrator to a husk, and the Earth breaks his body, burns him to ashes in her molten mouth and “always she draws my screaming soul... // to endure for eternity / the agony of a mother’s immortal love.” The death wish appears again in “Shadow’s Solstice” where “[v]oices raised to darkness praise, eclipse the starshine from the sky,” which is mirrored in the love of darkness over enlightenment found in “Phase Shift” [see below].

In “Host,” “Three Meditations” and “Momentum” is the recurring motif of the opening mouth as an entry and exit for pain and parasitism, for the narrator to “shout, / scream,/ inhale atoms, exhale fusion [which is what suns do]” and again he screaming as all the cold science is too much, “overload[ing] / my synapses, / icy knives / shave skin... // compelled / by my masters / to bear their / meaningless / cargos.” For whatever reason (though probably not reason), science is seen is random, without meaning and substance as three narrators plunge into the “void” highlighted in bold typeface. The same “meaningless[ness]” appears in “Moment” as a squiggles on a white screen “that conceal / strange knowledge.”

“Phase Shift” continues the “plunge through / cold blue radiance / diving toward / bright freezing white” -- again this view of science as cold and freezing and light. The narrator fears losing himself as his “body dissolves / into this essence / of everything; / all universes / converge / at the freezing point / of light.” But darkness (or unen-light-enment?) is a “warm blue dusk” that the narrator “soar[s] through.”

The poem “Gears” shows its technology in disarray, breaking down: “interlocked in tarnished idiot grins...// loosened axles, / crunch all their crumbling prongs... // corroded... / radioactive fusion bile.../ spit slow atomic fire // and unholy glow... / out into infinite empty Cosmos // clanking. Crushing. Cracking. Groaning.... // pain of decay; / strange echoes bear words of fear.” Ah. The word I’ve been waiting for. (The word appears a second time in the anti-science-implied title of “Prophecy: a fragment” where “his fear-filled mind[’s].../ tortured scream [is].../ used to bind / his sleeping soul against the light [of enlightenment].”) The poetic hero, whose aim is “to stop the clockwork” of gears, is again the victim of science as it damages “his skin / consumed and seared / burned.” “[W]ith glee” he successfully dismantles science.

Science burns the retinas and neurons in “Starpunk,” through attacks of “brain-shattering solar flare[s].” Science is a destructive predatory monster in “Planet from the Black Lagoon.” Men of science do their raping and pillaging of the natives’ home in “Planeta do Favela” and put the natives in slums.

Pre-science myth of “celestial spheres” was the only thing preventing “the impending battle between Universe and Man” in “On the Brink of Hyperspace,” which is a misnomer since the intrepid astronauts plan to plunge possibly to their deaths apparently before they’ve used the scientific method to test the safety of doing so. Similarly, hackers dive virtually into a “Cyberspace Singularity” but still die.

Then a set of four poems deal with love--a stark contrast to all the pain and suffering in the prior poems. But what do these poems concern? “The Romantic Age,” of course--the age that rebelled against the Age of Reason.

As I said before, there’s much more to unpack, but this is plenty to demonstrate our unconscious fear of Science and its lover, Reason. But more of that later.

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*You haven’t heard of the Mundane movement in SF since we’ve been working out the theory in private for the past year. Its ideology, however, is stamped all over this piece and others to come. I’d publish our manifesto here, but it’s been promised elsewhere. Yes, it’s another new movement, but it’s pretty fucking cool. Suffice it to say for now, that we seek a return to Science and Reason, but in a way that has not consciously been attempted before to our knowledge. Will it ever get off the ground? We do have two well-known SF writers in our projected anthology. If you're interested, may be able to help sell the book, and are politically committed to at least a moderately left of center ideology, let me know:

blzblack[at]yahoo.com

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