The Works of Philip Kaveny
A few Essays and Other Works from Janus Magazine thrice nominated by World Science Fiction Convention for the Best Amateur Science Fiction Magazine in 1978, 1979,1980
Philip Kaveny and Dr. Janice Bogstad
These four items two film reviews, a critical article in the form of a thought experiment, and a short story first appeared in Janus Magazine edited by my wife Dr. Janice Bogstad, and Jeanne Gomoll. At the time, these items came out Jan was a starving graduate student and Jeanne was a starving artist in, Madison Wisconsin in the late 1970’s and I was a not starving rather well fed Civil Service Janitor at UW-Madison who had ten years earlier in 1967 flipped the academic world the bird as a graduate student, and was at the time I became involved in Janus, and with Janus I was gazing into the abyss and it was starting to gaze back.
That was a decade before personal computers appeared on the horizon. Each issue Janus represented hundreds of hours of unpaid volunteer labor by a loose collective of about a score of individuals. I would add that both Janice and Jeanne and many others involved in Janus went on to highly successful careers because of the Janus experience
Janus was nominated for three Hugo Awards as best Amateur Science Fiction Magazine 1978-1979-1980. Someone who felt less would probably say more than this about being part of the collective that produced eighteen issues of Janus from 1975 to 1980. But just this one time I will let the material speak for itself.
Though I will say that Having Dr. Janice Bogstad as girlfriend a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, my significant other not so long after that and my wife since 1987 is like having caught the brass ring on the carrousel of life and then never letting go.
If you follow this link you can read the complete contents of all the issues http://sf3.org/history/janus-aurora-covers/ . I would add many thanks Mike Glyer and many others who have devoted unmeasurable hours to digitize and make these magazines available online
Review of a Boy and His Dog
by Phil Kaveny
Originally published in Janus, Vol. 1, #2, Dec. 1975
After seeing the movie “Boy and His Dog,” I found myself in a bad, almost surly mood. What was it about the film that spoiled my day? I concluded that the film was structured in such a way to not allow any sort of interhuman relationships to develop.
In summary, the film is about a triangle between Albert (Blood’s nickname for Vic), a young fellow, Quilla June, a girl he meets, and Blood. Blood is a dog, well …, not exactly … What is Blood? I’ll get to that later. The story is set in 2024, after the fourth world war. Life exists in two places which are inhabited by people, ‘Aboveground’ and ‘Downunder.’ ‘Aboveground’ is a sort of post-Armageddon garbage dump. Life ‘Aboveground’ is, to quote Hobbs: “Nasty, brutish, mean and short.” Dogs have become telepathic and can communicate with man, plus being a lot more intelligent than man. In the film, this is presented as being gratuitous. Dogs have lost the ability to hunt and fend for themselves. This is supposed to somehow be a result of their development of other powers. Man’s mental powers have not increased and he has thus not lost his ability to hunt. The usual roles of man and dog have been reversed. In the case of Albert and Blood, a trade is made with Blood using his ESP to present Albert with ‘cunt’ and Albert making sure that Blood gets fed. As the film starts, Albert is a little miffed. Blood has been eating more often than he has been fucking.
Albert and Blood go to a movie house. Yes, there are movies even after Armageddon … and the quality of these movies is about the same. Blood smells some ‘pussy’ in the movie house, Quilla June who is disguised in a fatigue hat and outfit. And the, by now, expected happens. Albert, with Blood’s help, is planning to rape her. Surprise, it turns out that she likes it and lures Albert home with her to the ‘Downunder.’ Against the express wishes of Blood, and without him, he follows her.
‘Downunder’ is where everyone lives who doesn’t like the disorder and danger of ‘Aboveground.’ ‘Downunder’ is just like a small pre-WWI Western town might have been. It is run by a committee of three people who have the power to grant life or death to the other inhabitants of ‘Downunder.’ Well, … it seems that everyone has been downunder too long. One of the ruling committee members breaks it to Albert that: “Our girls have been underground too long and they can’t get pregnant anymore.” (Or rather, the men are unable to impregnate them …) Guess where Albert fits into all this? Too bad that wasn’t the end of the movie.
In the next scene, Albert is gagged and strapped to a hospital bed with a tube attached to his penis. Albert, it seems, is to be the major depositor to the Topeka sperm bank. Whether He Likes It Or Not. Quilla June informs him that he is to be killed after his last deposit, whereupon she helps him to escape. She is hoping to use his manhood and vitality to put herself in charge of the committee.
All Albert wants to do is escape from ‘Downunder.’ Quilla June must leave with him because, having defied the committee, she is now as good as dead underground. They flee up the ventilator shaft (through which he had originally entered). Good ol’ loyal true-blue Blood has been waiting at the shaft entrance for three days. He has not had anything to eat in that time, and he is also badly hurt. He can’t move. There is no food around and no way to get it in time to save him. So, Quilla June ends up being dog food and Blood and Albert lope off into the sunset licking their chops.
Contrary to popular opinion, I found the ending of “A Boy and His Dog” to be in no way a surprise. It follows, from the world presented in the film, that Quilla June must end up as dog food.
Albert and Blood are predators who have formed a pragmatic alliance. It would be impossible to form the super-predator relationship that the boy and dog have without Blood’s superhuman perceptive powers and intellect. The two would, in any other relationship, instantly become the prey of someone else in the Aboveground world.
On a gut level, I resent the film for making inter-human relationships equal to self-destruction. For a brief period of the film, Albert seems capable of having feelings of love for another human being. For a brief period, he assumes a heroic dimension. His life is something more than groveling through gutted National Ten Food Stores, looking for food, alternating with combing the countryside for someone to rape. In one scene, when he and Quilla June hide out in a boiler room, he is starting to sense the unique character of other human beings. These emotions are represented by Blood for what they are: a threat to the rational, logical (for the world presented), hunting, foraging relationship that the two have …
Quilla June is presented as a nasty, selfish, hateful bitch. She is lacking in all attributes of humanity and is a total opposite of Blood. You are supposed to hate her in the context of the film, and yet she does save Albert’s life Downunder, helping him to escape. Even this cannot make her equal to Blood in terms of devotion and desirability. And most important, she does not approach his worth in survival value.
The world presented in the film is, of course, a doomed one. The people Downunder cannot reproduce themselves. Aboveground, there are children present. How did they get there? Within the world of this film, children would logically be nothing but an unnecessary impediment to survival. In forty years all that could be left would be a few old people and a bunch of starving dogs. The only thing that could keep mankind alive in the world of the film would be the impulse to form male-female relationships and these are prevented by definition in that world, as being suicidal.
Samurai of Space
by Jan Bogstad
Originally published in Janus, Vol. 3, #3, Summer 1977
After having seen the movie half a dozen times, I decided to be really conscientious about Star Wars and read the book. It didn’t add much to the movie version, but as I read, I was reminded of a conversation I had had with my sister-in-law. She told me that the Force was what God was called in Star Wars, and for some reason this bothered me. I don’t think she was precisely right, though there is a grain of truth in her statement. Star Wars plays upon a semi-religious definition of the power which motivates its primary characters. Yet it is more akin to the Western popularizations such as we see in the beat generation of poets in America, or Eastern religious ideas.
Now what religious or philosophical tradition includes a tradition of excellence at swordplay and of the warrior-religious devotee in some of its branches? Why, it’s Zen Buddhism, or at least some of the koans of that religion discuss the development of the totally aware swordsman who can conquer all attackers. Zen, the Japanese adaptation of Buddhism, is linked in some ways with the Samurai tradition, and the Force, as it is spoken of and embodied in Luke and in Kenobi, seems to me to be a bastardization of this tradition. It also, as with much SF, involves the combination of several traditions into a melange of characteristics.
This association is also a convenient plot element vital to the smooth progression of the adventure story which forms the core of Star Wars. The appearance of such a combination in this very popular movie, one which fulfills all the clichés that non-SF enthusiasts choose to look at as the whole of science fiction, brings to light the fact that SF often calls upon complicated theories, be they economic, philosophical, linguistic, sociological, or even historical. This rendition of theory in order to explain the effects that advanced technology might have on people of the future is an important element in all SF, although it is more convincingly rendered in some stories than in others.
SF is not only speculation about the future of technology. No technological development could take place in a vacuum. It is also often about the new and different ways that people might evolve to deal with one another and relate to the world around them in the far distant future. Much science fiction seems to fall into two categories with regard to this method of developing the implications of a theory. There is SF that, like Star Wars, uses some bits of several systems of thought or theories to shore up a story that might otherwise have a halting and even unreasonable plot. The prevalence of this sort of science fiction within the literature as a whole doesn’t mask its close relationship to fantasy. Much of it is a flight of fancy that happens to include gadgets and people in funny clothes. Perhaps that’s why the term “space opera” has been thought so applicable to it. This is also how SF got its start and it is a mainstream form of the literature.
In recent years, however, and in some important older examples of SF, one can see the emergence of another approach to the translation of non-fictional theory into fiction, a way that I believe turns fiction into a form of philosophical investigation in its own right. Fiction, to my taste, is important to the development of theories for two reasons. First, it brings certain theories to the attention of people who might not otherwise be interested in them. Second, it allows a writer to play around with the implications that some theories might have for people who live in a culture where the theories have been implemented. A piece of science fiction can easily trace the development of a theory, which may have been suggested only as a possibility, into a major societal force.
Let me here emphasize the difference between the two fictional inclusions of non-fictional or theoretical speculation by restating the dichotomy. One kind of SF uses an often simplified conception of a theory or philosophy as a clever device to keep the story moving. A second method takes some body of theory and explores it in the fictional mode, examining its implications by creating a context in which it comes to have power over characters. Now let me explain the importance and the difficulty of investigating this distinction by looking at specific works of science fiction.
Contrast the Zen Buddhist overtones in Star Wars with a novel which concerns itself more with the philosophy of Buddhism than with its cleverly suitable attributes. Star Wars doesn’t really go into the reasons that a Zen Buddhist master of swordplay could anticipate his enemy’s strike — Luke’s source of success in the story. One is supposed to take it for granted that this is how the religion works. There is another book that not only alludes to the philosophy in a more complete fashion, but also embodies the entirely different world outlook that it involves for the central figure of the novel: And Chaos Died, by Joanna Russ. The first time I read this book, I could make little sense out of it — the same trouble I had with The Female Man. But I found that, with a second reading, the structure of the novel, the weird convolutions of character and plot, and the inner and outer confusion of the story were admirably suited to the character’s confusion as he looked at a world extrapolated from the Western model of reality from an altered time-sense. And Chaos Died is motivated by an exploration of human perception of how the world is put together. Thus it portrays a conception of Buddhism which might really give a Western reader the flavor of what altered perception might be. This must be distinguished from intimations of Buddhism that are just excuses for some bit of action in a swashbuckling plot.
I could make a few more comparisons of deep and superficial treatments of what I consider to be fascinating and interesting philosophical concepts. For example, Freudian psychology has been much bantered about. Now, many people presume they know what the Oedipus and Electra complexes are all about. I myself thought as much before I actually read Freud’s words. I took the word of people who took the word of other people that all of Freud’s work was sexist, unintelligent, and worthless. Then something got me interested in looking further into the philosophy. (Incidentally, that impetus was neither the monsters from the id of Forbidden Planet nor the trick ending of Tanith Lee’s novel, The Birthgrave. In both of these cases, simplified versions of Freudian terminology is used as the excuse for an adventure-oriented plot line.) Freud never separated the id, ego, and superego as elements of human psychology that could function at times independently of each other. In fact, he very rarely writes of one of them alone at all, and then only as a discussion of the way that humans develop mechanisms to adjust to the societal pressures of late 19th and early 20th Century Western culture. Nor does he speculate that a person could thrust her psychological difficulties onto the real world, causing certain persons to be attracted to her as does Lee’s character in The Birthgrave. I will admit that, in his book Beyond the Pleasure Principle, he touches on the possible psychological reasons for the repetition of a potentially destructive act on the part of a person whose psychological developnment was damaged in childhood, a phenomenon that I think Ms. Lee was alluding to in her novel. It should have been sufficient for her to let the obvious pattern of repetition in her character’s behavior speak for itself without the explanatory ending. Now Piers Anthony’s Chthon, on the other hand, is, to me, adequate to the task of embodying aspects of the Freudian model of human psychology in a believable characterization of a truly anguished person. As you probably could tell if you read my review of Chthon in Janus, Vol. 2 No. 1, I didn’t like or understand that book the first time I read it. Slowly, however, I began to realize that the core of the novel involved a twist of the classical Oedipus complex involving inverted masochism. I’m still not sure that masochism works that way, but the story was very thought-provoking. It certainly explores the implications for individuals of that theoretical attitude towards human psychology.
While I’m on the subject of the complexity of human psychology, let me relate to you a conversation between me and four others at SunCon which prompted me to look with new eyes at the story “Bicentennial Man” and my understanding of human psychology. If I try to categorize that story according to my outlines, I run into the difficulty of having to make a judgement as to whether a robot could ever be built to imitate humankind in both body and mind. I believe that “Bicentennial Man” is an exploration of what it means to be human. In that sense it fits into the category of exploration of a complicated philosophical position, one that has been written about in poetry and suggested in Freud’s writings on thanatos in human development.
Yet I find myself unconvinced. Part of the way that any human being relates to the world, the way we communicate, react to others, and see ourselves, is formed in our early childhood, in our relationship with our parents and our attempts to integrate visual and tactile impressions of the outside world. I don’t believe that a robot could be created by the hands of humankind that would have the requisite human make-up necessary to act as Asimov’s robot did. I guess this problem with the SF exploration of the implications of creating robots has always bothered me. So, this is a case where I believe that a story explores an idea in some depth, but I don’t like the story because I’m not convinced that it displays a probably future. I think Asimov has simplified the problem of a robot’s possible mental development in order to foreground the truly and uniquely human problem of being an outsider. Now a robot can solve this problem by agreeing to die as people do, but for humans who are outsiders, who somehow cannot find a position where they can attain self-respect because of the imperfections of society, the problem is not that easily solved. So while I see this story as exploring a complicated sociological and philosophical problem, I see it also as a falsification of that problem in two senses. First, it intimates that robots can be made to imitate people, and, second, it discusses the problem of societal oppression in simplistic terms.
Of course, the choice par excellence of SF novels as philosophical exploration would lead us to the work of Ursula LeGuin. Taoistic philiosophy in The Left Hand of Darkness becomes the basis not only for a future religion but also for an embodiment of some of the principles of Taoism in the characters of Genly Ai and Estraven. And, anyone who has ever read about anarcho-syndicalism cannot help but appreciate some of the insights into its effects on the characters of people, male and female, and the comparable negative effects of capitalism that are made in the context of Shevek’s voyage from one society to the other in The Dispossessed.
Recently, however, I have discovered two novelists who seem to get even closer to the heart of the philosophical and psychological bases of political change. This is perhaps a more accurate description of the novels of Ian Watson than those of Ian Wallace. It is at least more obvious in the work of the former.
Watson’s The Embedding concerns itself with the relationship between the structure of the human mind and the structure of the sentence in any language. Watson explores the threshhold of comprehension in several ways within the book. First, he portrays a man, Chris Sole, who is involved in some experiments with the relationship between perception and the creation of language in children. The theory that these experiments with three sets of children in their environments is that the kinds of things that children perceive in the world outside them will affect their structuring of language. And the factors which create the chaos in this project are very similar to the factors that cause political chaos in the society depicted outside this little experimental station in Brazil. The problem? Perhaps the human mind has already reached its organic threshhold, so that any attempts to, say, increase the perceptual chunk that a mind can deal with will cause it to lapse into chaos. While Sole’s children are battling with a lack of outside reference to deal with their inner syntactical proclivities, another exploration of the same nature, and of equally frightening consequences, is taking place. A group of Brazilian Indians is faced with extinction when the land which forms the context for their expanded and drug-induced conceptual framework is threatened by the damming of a river. Again, a repetition or a doubling of the mind/environment/conceptual structure of the language theme. The third significant element in creating a vision of the socio-economic whole which influences all of these people is the appearance of aliens who talk of suns as if they are sentient beings. These beings require the exchange of a few human brains for their advanced form of space travel. Thus the idea of language and the perceptual capabilities of the peculiarly human mind, the theories of such people as Noam Chomsky and Lilly, are embodied in three different groups of people who function within an explosive political situation which really finally does explode. The connection to the political realm? That the society of the late 20th Century is not ready to deal with the kinds of perception needed to deal with alien beings.
Why do I think that Watson’s approach to the complicated linguistic and psychological theories his story dabbles in are superior to so much other SF that I read? Because, as with And Chaos Died, his story is structured around an embodiment of those theories of how the human mind works rather than using the theories as a pretext for a lot of action and an improbable plot line. This is not to say that his plot lines, in either The Embedding or The Martian Inca, are terribly probable, but they do outline the sort of action that one would expect the CIA, the FBI, and various super-powers throughout the world to take towards primitive or Third World countries. So he has interjected the political into his story, suggesting, as Russ does, that the Western, analytical model of reality may not be adequate to evaluate all aspects of the universe in which we live, and showing the limitations of certain theories of the mind by embodying them and taking them to their logical limits in the persons of characters with whom we can identify and sympathize.
I want to call attention to the later writings of Ian Wallace, for they also have the sort of complexity which for me makes a good story great — a characteristic they share with the works of LeGuin, Russ, Watson, E. M. Forster, and a few others. In The Sign of the Mute Medusa and World Asunder, Wallace narrates twists of plot which depend on the intuition of his characters. They also continue the cult of super-hero that has been so often denigrated in SF. I admit that the idea of a superhuman character does not seem too productive to me, but it does serve a purpose in terms of the ideal it sets up. I do not feel inferior to or defeated by the characters in these two stories. They seem to me to be very human people as well as to possess powers which I do not yet have. What is so fascinating about these books by Wallace is the world-wide scale in which they take place. The writer does not ignore the fact that dealing with world politics is a very complicated process, though I do not believe that he displays the complexities as well as LeGuin and Watson. Still, his works hold a fascination for me, and this is why my two categories will never be either proscriptive or exclusive.
I am very aware of the fact that my personal preference in SF is not everyone’s; I am not trying to tell anyone that SF should be rejected because it does not go into enough depth on the subject of the system of thought or theory to which it alludes. Rather, I want to turn the focus from the technical or scientific in science fiction to an element that has always been there: the embodiment of theory. In this process, I am outlining two ways in which such systems of thought or theories are realized in SF novels.
I think that this can be a fruitful way to take another look at science fiction, not because I hope to categorize each story and each novel as falling into one category or the other. Just as a piece of poetry never has a single “right” interpretation, so no work of SF falls wholly into either of my two categories. Just as I would never condemn a realistic or a surrealistic novel for not being what they never intended to be, so I would not condemn an SF novel for falling into one category more than the other.
I do say that we should look at the way that fiction can become a kind of practice, a practice in which ideas are tried on for size, just as Ms. LeGuin alludes to it being an experimental laboratory to her. I cannot make the experiments, but I can point out that they are there, either as devices to smooth the way of a story or as the motivation for the story itself.
I guess I have come to think of sociological, psychological, linguistic, etc. theories just as some people think of scientific theories. After all, they have the same substance — they are thoughts in the minds of people — and can be communicated in fiction at least as easily as, and perhaps more effectively than, in any other medium.