Zenna Henderson’s ‘Pilgrimage’ – A Review

Zenna Henderson was not your typical sci-fi writer, and that is saying something for a genre positively gushing with eccentrics and standout personalities, even in its early years.  Or rather, especially in its early years.  For one thing, she was a transitional writer, beginning her career right at the tail end of science fiction’s Golden Age but prior to the New Wave (which didn’t properly begin until about the early 60s).  The New Wave was marked by the shift of focus away from mankind’s boundless potential, technological achievements and conquering of space and onto more social and political themes and the problems inherent to mankind.  Pilgrimage has some of that, yet it shares more with Golden Age sci-fi’s inexhaustible spirit and sense of wonder.

For another thing, Henderson’s was a thoroughly feminine voice in a time before women really embraced science fiction as their own, and what’s more, she did so without disguising her femaleness in a genre with a predominantly male readership.  Miss Henderson was an elementary school teacher by trade, and the stern but gentle nature she must’ve exhibited as part of her occupation sets the tone for this dainty wisp of a book, which is less a true novel than a collection of short stories stitched together via a framework piece about a depressed, suicidal young woman who meets one of the People by happenstance and is introduced to their group, with their individual stories becoming therapy for her.  In fact, ‘therapeutic’ would be a good way to describe this book, as would ‘pastoral’ and ‘spiritual.’  Those aren’t necessarily compliments, mind you.

The most glaring problem with the book though is that it’s basically plotless.  The connective cartilage of these stories is the so-called Ingathering, the reverse diaspora of an alien population which crashed on Earth sometime in the mid to late 1800s–the exact dates of arrival are not clear. These humanoid aliens, the People, apparently arrived in a series of ships which landed all over the American West and beyond.  For such an intelligent, psychically powerful and technologically advanced society, the People take a godawful long time to find each other.  There’s also a distinctly Christian aura to the spirituality with which the People proudly gird themselves.  Individually, the six stories that make up the meat of the book–Ararat, Gilead, Pottage, Wilderness, Captivity, and Jordan–are moderately good to very good in quality, although none are what I’d consider outstanding.

The first one, Ararat, was originally published in 1952, and in it we learn of the Crossing, the mass exodus of the People from their home world (which is called, get this: Home) after its sudden and unexplained destruction.  Everything about the People is generalized to the point of harmless tepidity.  Their society is made up of isolated pockets of utopia that bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the Mormon faith in which Henderson was raised (but left as a young woman for reasons unknown, even though she technically never renounced membership in the church), and the People are the very embodiment of the ideal 1950s American family, right down to the sexist gender roles and perfectly obedient children–faithful to their God and each other, singularly benign, and ever-optimistic.  Except that they have psychic powers.  Some can read minds, some can heal, some can turn sunlight into a semi-solid substance and scoop it right out of the air.  Most can levitate.

Despite the People’s godlike patience and unshakable cheerfulness, they understandably feel like outsiders in their new home in the American West and tend to keep to themselves, which is really just one big metaphor for Mormonism, isn’t it?  However, the People’s plight is so broadly portrayed that different sorts of folks can relate to it and have, including gays and lesbians, which Henderson’s beloved religion of course shuns.  But by and large the message against oppressing those who are different resounds convincingly through these tales.

Where the book really excels, however, is in the stories set in the classroom, which are the only ones in the book that have any actual drama, to be honest.  Pottage, the single story from Henderson’s saga of the People ever to to be filmed, concerns a young outsider working as a teacher within a People’s community who discovers that the children are joyless and strictly controlled by their elders.  After learning that these amazing kids have powers, she gradually convinces them and their parents that those powers are their birthright and should not be forbidden to them, merely managed.  But the best story here by far is Captivity, about an angry teenage boy of the People, an orphaned troublemaker who is disliked by his classmates and townsfolk alike.  In some ways he’s the archetypal misunderstood sensitive genius, in this case one fascinated with music, but what’s most compelling about him is that his abilities seem to be setting him on a path beyond mere villainy.  With a few minor tweaks, the Francher kid’s fable could be the origin story of a music-themed supervillain–the Maestro, perhaps, or the Conductor–but one that has been narrowly averted just in time by his clever and caring teacher, who sets him on the right path at last by convincing him of his specialness and great potential to help mankind, probably the ultimate fantasy of teachers everywhere with respect to the “bad kid” in their classrooms.

Another highlight of the book is the sheer beauty of Henderson’s writing.  Her style is unique and poetic, if occasionally oblique.  The People, despite their insipid docility and frustratingly conformist nature, are so warm, close and well-drawn that you can almost reach out and touch them.  These are aliens that most people wouldn’t mind an invasion from.  They’re the ideal neighbors: peaceful, friendly and fiercely private.

The final story in this collection, Jordan, is the most “science fiction-y” of the bunch, in that an actual spaceship has arrived to pick up some of the People and carry them to their newly founded Home (redux).  The ship hovers languidly above a farm for days as the People decide who will go to the new Home and who will stay on Earth.  This is quite reasonable, as it’s no small decision.  Some of the People, despite the mistrust of the humans, have come to love their adopted planet; for those born here, it’s all they’ve ever known.  And, of course, being unregistered aliens, they are not legally Americans, and yet America is decidedly better off for having them.  It’s an allegory I imagine many of the current illegals in the U.S. might relate to.

This story also has the most explicitly drawn character studies and world-building; one can see how Henderson’s vision solidified a bit over the years that she produced the individual pieces, and how the characters became more nuanced and defined, though it may be too little too late for those readers who prefer hard details over the hazy background sketches Henderson offers.  The heart of this piece is a budding romance between an adolescent boy of Earth’s People and a girl who comes along for the ride on the rescue ship with one of her parents.  It’s a good one to round out the collection because there is a certain crowning quality to it, as the People’s odyssey finally reaches closure.

If you’re into intense action and swiftly moving plots, don’t even look in this book’s direction because I promise you’ll be sorely disappointed.  However, if you prefer your stories to be more laid back and contemplative and don’t mind the religious implications, this may be for you.  It’s also a valuable look into the mind of a prominent female science fiction writer from a time when that was a bona fide anomaly, even as first-wave feminism was well-established.  That doesn’t mean you will find much speculative feminist thought here though; Henderson’s work fits plainly into patriarchal traditions.  But somewhere in these odd little bonbons, buried beneath all the niceties, is an angry feminist voice crying to get out.  Maybe we’ll find it in the stories from her later compilations.

Grade: B- 

Remember . . .

Remember, remember, the 5th of November, the Gunpowder Treason and Plot.  I see no reason why the Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot!  And to commemorate Guy Fawkes Day this year, I’m posting some of the most amazing V for Vendetta art I could scrounge up.  Now V for Vendetta-themed artworks on the web are about a dime a dozen, but there are some really fantastic pieces out there, and here are just a few.

First, here is art from the original source, David Lloyd.  This is cover art for the collected miniseries (graphic novel) created and written by the brilliant Alan Moore:

David Lloyd - V for Vendetta (graphic novel cover)
David Lloyd – V for Vendetta (graphic novel cover)

L for Lloyd

Wikipedia: David Lloyd

There were several official posters released for the film, but I quite like this one, which has a classic political propaganda poster feel to it.  Actually, a lot of these posters do, which makes perfect sense.

Artist Unknown - V for Vendetta (2006) (1)
Artist Unknown – V for Vendetta (2006) (1)

Another sweet poster design for the film.  This one emphasizes the mysterious nature of V himself.

Artist Unknown - V for Vendetta (2006) (2)
Artist Unknown – V for Vendetta (2006) (2)

Alejandro Fernandez’s poster again utilizes old political propaganda art to great effect.  You can really see the influence of Constructivism here.

Alejandro Fernandez - V for Vendetta
Alejandro Fernandez – V for Vendetta
César Moreno - V for Vendetta
César Moreno – V for Vendetta

DeviantArt: PincheMoreno

Dewdrop - V for Vendetta
Dewdr0p – V for Vendetta

Society6: Maʁϟ (Dewdr0p)

This poster by Marko Manev may possibly be my favorite.  I say possibly because there are so many good ones I just can’t decide.  But this is seriously gorgeous and definitely in my top five.

Marko Manev - V for Vendetta
Marko Manev – V for Vendetta

Marko Manev’s Portfolio

The weathered look and the simplicity of this poster design by Edward Julian Moran II work well together.

Edward J. Moran II - They Should Be Afraid - V for Vendetta
Edward J. Moran II – They Should Be Afraid – V for Vendetta

DeviantArt: DisgorgeApocalypse

Here’s another minimalist design that was well executed.

Chungkong Art - V for Vendetta
Chungkong Art – V for Vendetta

Chungkong Art

Blues and browns are often a good color combo, and this piece by Stephanie Zuppo is no exception on that count.

Stephanie Zuppo - V for Vendetta
Stephanie Zuppo – V for Vendetta

DeviantArt: TasmanianTiger

Finally, this piece by Shepard Fairey, the king of Neo-Constructivism, is not about V for Vendetta itself, but it uses the V mask to excellent effect nonetheless while riffing on Obama’s famous “Hope” presidential campaign artwork.

Shepard Fairey - Occupy Hope
Shepard Fairey – Occupy Hope

Obey Giant

Happy Guy Fawkes Day, people!

Happy Halloween!

Yes, folks, it’s my favorite holiday again–the one where everything gets spooky!  And in honor of this most diabolical of holidays, here’s some badass Bernie Wrightson art featuring the walking head horror from the John Carpenter film The Thing.  Enjoy!  Mwah ha ha ha . . .

Bernie Wrightson - The Thing
Bernie Wrightson – The Thing

And also, here’s your Halloween song, possibly the creepiest song in creation.  Let’s just say, Annabelle has nothing on the doll in Christine.  Nothing at all.

Tarnation – Christine

Song/Video of the Day (10-21-14)

Communist Daughter – Ghosts

So, I clearly missed a few days of posting the Song of the Day.  Sorry about that, but I had a lot going on at the time.  Anyway, I’m back on track, at least until the next mini-crisis or whatever.  Today’s selection is from Communist Daughter and is simply titled Ghosts.  I had not seen the music video for the song until today, and now I’m sharing it.

Communist Daughter – Ghosts (Youtube)

Song of the Day (10-15-14)

Floater – Ghost in the Making

I missed the Song of the Day post yesterday, but now I’m back on track.  Continuing with our theme of songs about ghosts and hauntings this month, here’s one from one of my favorite bands, Floater, who reside in Portland, Oregon.  It’s a shame this band isn’t bigger than they are; they’re just a good solid hard rock band, though more intelligent and interesting than most, I think.  This song isn’t really about ghosts in the traditional sense; thematically it has much in common with Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd, particularly Have a Cigar.  Enjoy!

Floater – Ghost in the Making (YouTube)

Song of the Day (10-13-14)

Ulver – Can You Travel in the Dark Alone

This comes from Ulver’s fantastic album Childhood’s End, the cover of which features one of Nick Ut’s photographs of little Kim Phuc running through the streets after being burned with napalm in Vietnam, a perfect symbol of lost innocence if ever there was one.  The cover image is posted below; it also features some amazing design work.  Can You Travel in the Dark Alone is song written and originally performed by the band Gandalf; it’s not the creepiest song on the album–that would Bracelets of Fingers (which I’ve already mentioned and linked to in this post)–but it’s possibly a close second.  In fact, the entire album is a covers album of obscure early psychedelic rock, and I love it!

Ulver – Can You Travel in the Dark Alone (YouTube)

Ulver - Childhood's End (cover)
Ulver – Childhood’s End (cover)

Song of the Day (10-12-14)

Brothertiger – A House of Many Ghosts

I’m starting something new, posting a song and/or music video of the day.  Note that I may not always post a Song of the Day, but most days I likely will, at least for awhile.  Anyway, I am extremely eclectic when it comes to music, so you never know what you might get.  I’m keeping it seasonal the rest of this month and posting creepy songs.  And here’s a good one to kick things off with:

Brothertiger – A House of Many Ghosts (Youtube)

Corporations and Politicians, Get Over Yourselves

There are many flaws with the conservative political philosophy, and authors David Armitage and Jo Guldi shed light on one of the big ones in their book The History Manifesto.  You’d think that history-informed planning and policy-making would be a major part of the conservative agenda, and at one time it may have been.  But then Reagan happened, and the “greed is good” era, which paved the way for the Neocons to move in and undo Glass-Steagall.  Anyway, The History Manifesto points out a major problem with losing focus on the importance of historical precedent in determining policy: when we stop thinking about the big picture in social philosophy, we fall prey to thinking in terms of the problems of the day, which are mostly concerned with economic upturns and downturns.  And all that concentration on economics tends to make people’s ethics shift from social justice to money.  Our government has now become money-oriented rather than people-oriented.  And what are the consequences of this shift?

In the old days the purchasing power of money was much higher, and so it was less of a day-to-day concern, freeing people’s time up for other things.  This is not to say that the era was some economic ideal; of course it wasn’t.  But there was a time when a person working a single minimum wage job could support an entire modest-sized family on his or her income.  That is no longer the case.  There was also a time when corporations paid their fair share in taxes, but that too is no longer the case.  Corporations in America have, on average, never been more profitable than they are today; and yet, their tax payments have sunk to pre-WWI (that’s World War One) rates.  Corporate tax rates were at their highest during the 1950s and early 1960s, which also coincides with our greatest period of prosperity since the enactment of viable corporate taxation in 1909.  You do the math.

These are just some of the manifestations of a political culture that has become obsessed with putting profits over people.  The conservatives in power like to bitch about the lazy poor, citing too-high unemployment rates to argue that so-called “entitlement” programs have damaged the economy by allowing the poor to mooch off the government while the rich do all the work to keep everything afloat.  But all it takes is a little context to understand why unemployment rates remain high: if employers aren’t willing to pay people living wages, why should they expect the poor to be champing at the bit to work for them?  Personally, I think the poor should refuse en masse to work for piss-poor wages.  They should grind the service and retail industries to a halt until they get a $15 or $20 minimum wage.  But they’re afraid to do that.  Fear is the oil the powerful use to grease the wheels of industry.  They keep us divided and preoccupied with terrorism and other abstract horrors while they amass monstrous fortunes that will mostly rot in banks, barely a fraction of it ever used.

So, the burden to stimulate the economy is not on the rich, since they horde more wealth than they will ever spend, keeping it dormant rather than active.  No, that burden lies with the lower classes, who have no choice but to spend whatever they make.  By and large, it is the poor, therefore, who keep the economy rolling and buoyant.   The rich and powerful disdain us, and yet they couldn’t have gotten where they are (nor could they stay there) without us.  They have the nerve to call us leeches and freeloaders even while they torque the system to squeeze every last bit of dignity and self-sufficiency from us, and force us to keep carrying them on our backs.

The rich point out that in the global economy America is falling behind because other countries aren’t putting all those stifling regulations on businesses . . . like, you know, paying people decent wages, making sure they have a safe environment to work in, providing health care for them and all that jazz.  So, yeah, our politicians and corporate leaders want to turn America into a Third World country so they can become mega-billionaires instead of just mega-millionaires.  They gripe about us abusing the system when they themselves have arranged the system to serve their interests, not ours.  Sorry, corporate America, but you are NOT oppressed.  Try again.  Take your focus off serving money and put it back onto serving the people, and maybe you’ll get back the respect you squandered years ago.  Maybe.

How History Forgot Its Role in Public Debate

China Miéville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ – A Review (and an Illustration)

I read The Scar several years before tackling Perdido Street Station, and although I enjoyed it immensely, I always felt I was missing something essential about the series by starting with the second volume.  Not that it’s necessary to read the books in order, but clearly it helps.  When I finally got around to the first volume in the trilogy, I realized almost immediately upon beginning it why I should’ve read them in order: because, no matter how far they get away from it geographically, the heart of these books has always been the port city of New Crobuzon, a kind of magically-poisoned Victorian London.  In Perdido Street Station this great city is front and center, and it’s an unrivaled destination in the history of fantastic literary metropolises.

In New Crobuzon life is hell even before the monsters which serve as the central antagonists arrive there.  Unlike with most fantasy series, magic (or thaumaturgy as it’s called here) is not something awe-inducing and esoteric but rather just another natural resource to be exploited by the greedy and powerful, and it’s uses (and misuses) lead to new complex and horrific social problems.  Magic is often used hand-in-hand with the crude Industrial Age technology of New Crobuzon, creating weird physical/metaphysical amalgamations.  For example, a part of the continent was once devastated by a kind of thaumaturgic atomic bomb, leaving the land mutated in unthinkable ways that leak into both planes of existence.  And that’s just a minor background detail to this story, which deals with a plague of giant multidimensional moths accidentally set loose in the city that feed on the thoughts and dreams of sentient beings.  Okay, plague is a bit of an exaggeration: there are only five of them, but that’s enough to bring the city to its knees.  Trust me, these things are very bad news.

The central character of Perdido Street Station is Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, an aging, overweight scientist.  Isaac is approached early on by a garuda, a birdlike humanoid whose wings have been severed from his back by his tribe as a punishment for the vague crime of ‘choice-theft’, which turns out to be much worse than it sounds, incidentally.  Every character of consequence in the story is broken or misshaped somehow, or will be by story’s end, and this keys into one of the book’s major themes: metastasis, upheaval, that point at which someone or something is in a state of in-betweenness or incompleteness.  All of the major species of Bas-Lag are viewed through this filter of transitionality, including humans (khepri–the beetle-headed species Isaac’s girlfriend Lin belongs to–see humans as half-khepri, half-ape).  Then there are the Remades, people who have been magically augmented with animal or machine parts or the parts of other sentient species.  The psychivorous slake-moths and the Weavers, the latter a race of gigantic, intelligent but insane spiders, reside in multiple levels of reality and are constantly moving in and out of them.  And, of course, New Crobuzon is a city consistently caught up in crisis.

Isaac’s life’s work is even about channeling something called crisis energy, which places Perdido Street Station in the realm of metafiction similar to the way The NeverEnding Story does, though not quite as overtly.  For crisis energy is really the power of impossibility, the life juice of fantasy fiction itself, and by figuring out a way to tap into it (as he eventually does), Isaac is consciously engaging in the task of reinvigorating the very genre to which he is relegated.

Meanwhile, an artificial intelligence has spontaneously manifested in a scrapyard in the city, a gangster who has become the ultimate Remade haunts New Crobuzon’s underworld, and the monstrous slake-moths terrorize the entire city’s dreams.  None of these horrors would be half as effective, though, if not for New Crobuzon’s devious and incompetent government officials, reminding us that even in the realms of fantasy the corruption, apathy and cruelty of government is inescapable, and that’s what grounds Miéville’s work and keeps it from becoming too alien.  Despite their exoticness, the characters still deal with real-world problems on top of the strange and magical ones that arise.

The book was originally released in 2000–a transitional year, I might add–and it was nothing short of groundbreaking.  I reread it just recently; fourteen years later it still feels fresh and innovative, though my impressions of it are more nuanced now.  While the sheer number of ideas stuffed into the book threaten to push it into overkill territory, somehow Miéville manages to make all of it work as a sort of salmagundi of the fantastic.  And like all great works of urban fantasy, Perdido Street Station takes the reader on a grand tour of its city, including the titular station itself, but the setting rarely becomes obtrusive.  And when it does, the cleverness behind it renders all such breaches forgivable.  In fact, even at those points when the book doesn’t manage to make suspension of disbelief effortless (and there are a few of them), the cognitive estrangement that arises can be treated as a guideline of what is possible within the fantasy genre.  In that sense it should be regarded as required reading by anyone who wishes to write fantasy fiction, especially dark fantasy.  But really anyone who is interested in the literature of the fantastic must read this novel.  I promise you won’t regret it.

Grade: A+

And just for the hell of it, here’s my take on the slake-moths.  This is actually my second version of the moths, as the first had some deviations from the way the creatures were described in the book.  I liked this one better in the end.  It’s a bird’s-eye view of the moth with the smoke-laden skies of the city provided as a vague backdrop.  The wings of the moths are described as multidimensional and ever-changing, and the moths use them as a tool to mesmerize their victims.  This was all rendered in Photoshop.