Aliens, Robots, and VR Idols

Full disclosure: I tried reading some of HP Lovecraft’s fiction when I was in grammar school — a collection of short stories that included “The Call of Cthulhu,” if I remember correctly — but I found it fairly alienating and also kind of depressing. Similarly, I never really got into Isaac Asimov (despite Will Smith’s best efforts), and though I vaguely recall reading and mostly enjoying William Gibson’s Neuromancer as a graduate student in the late 1990s, I failed to finish reading a subsequent Gibson novel, All Tomorrow’s Parties, because I didn’t know what was going on and didn’t especially care to find out.

None of this is to disparage any of the above writers. I’m told by several friends and colleagues — and now by John L. Steadman, author of Aliens, Robots, and Virtual Reality Idols in the Science Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Isaac Asimov and William Gibson — that their works are classics not only within their genre but of literature in English more broadly. Likewise, the profusion of Cthulhu-themed bumper stickers and tee shirts among steampunk hipsters alone has, over the past decade or so, made me wonder whether I am, in fact, missing out on something. Fortunately for me and others of my ilk, Steadman’s book does an excellent job of summarizing much if not all of each author’s oeuvre in loving detail. Think of it as the Rough Guide to Lovecraft, Asimov and Gibson Countries.

While much of the volume is given over to valuable summary, Steadman’s larger purpose is to explore, in his words, “the interrelationship between alien and humankind.” This examination reveals the limits and limitations of what Steadman describes as “the belief that humankind is at the center of the cosmos — the most important element in the cosmos, in fact.” This critique of what might broadly be described as Humanism resonates with the Inhumanism or Antihumanism of figures like Robinson Jeffers, whose poetry does much to undermine the notions that humans are the center of existence, and it also calls to mind the Tralfamadorians of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, who look upon humanity with a mix of curiosity and bemusement.

One question that Steadman returns to repeatedly is that of motive: What do the aliens in the authors’ works want? Curiously, the question itself reveals the limits of humanity’s ability to conceive of and understand the fully alien insofar as asking what aliens want assumes that they do, in fact, want as humans do. Perhaps this explains Steadman’s conclusion that “our understanding of the alien is, at best, imperfect and minimal” and that “when the alien withdraws from the stage, as it does in the works of all three writers,” we are left with the disturbing vision of “humankind, short-lived and insignificant, alone in a vast, indifferent cosmos.”

Believe It or Not…

A number of years ago — four? five? — I submitted a review of The Year of No Mistakes by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz to the venerable Believer magazine. Much to my delight, they accepted the review and planned to run it in a forthcoming issue. Then, much to my dismay, the magazine folded, and my review never saw the light of day. In the intervening years, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz went on to write a bestselling work of nonfiction titled Dr. Mutter’s Marvels while my review languished on a hard drive somewhere. But then I learned that the Believer was coming back, and now, years after I wrote the review, it’s finally up on the magazine’s web page: A Review of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s The Year of No Mistakes by Marc Schuster

Not That I Really Care…

Not that I really care, but I was buying a copy of my recent Beach Boys book for a friend when I spotted the sole customer review: “Not an informative write. Just personal opinions of the author. A more subjective review of the fairy tale would have been more interesting.”

Of course, I’m glad someone bought the book. I’m also happy with the three-star rating the reviewer gave it. Nonetheless, I’m having trouble reconciling a) the critique that the book consists only of the “personal opinions of the author” with b) the reviewer’s opinion that a “more subjective review” would have been “more interesting.” So the problem is that the book is both too subjective and not subjective enough? That there’s too much opinion and not enough opinion?

It’s also worth noting that although I do voice opinions and offer analysis throughout the book, I also include loads of facts — names, dates, quotes, historical context, and geographical details chief among them. So to describe it as an “uninformative write” (whatever that means) and nothing more than “personal opinions of the author,” I would argue, is inaccurate.

Again, not that I really care.