The OF Blog: 2009 in Review: Non-Fictions and Critical Studies

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

2009 in Review: Non-Fictions and Critical Studies

In another lifetime, in another century, I was studying to be a historian.  In hindsight, I perhaps should have taken a few years off from my studies, but I was determined to earn my MA in European Cultural and Religious History before I was 24.  I did so, graduating in May 1998 from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with my MA, but I was so burned out my 18 months of grad school that I have had little desire to read non-fiction, much less critical studies of historical periods, until recently.  While I highly doubt that I'll ever return to grad school to earn my Ph.D. in History, at least the lessons I learned during that time have been applied to the evaluation of various non-fictions released this year, most of them related in some form or fashion to speculative works.

However, the nature of these year-end review essays precludes me from going into depth with any of these works, much as I might like to, so below will just be a bare-bones synopsis of each of the books read this year.  Of the five 2009 non-fictions that I think are worthy of consideration, one is a Spanish-language history of the ancient Greeks, another is an illustrated essay concerning lists past and present, another focuses on depictions of monsters throughout Western history, a fourth is concerned with reconciling SF with Marxism and the final book aims to give a short overview of the development of this marketed genre called "Fantasy."

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

From my original review:

Things that go bump in the night.  Caterwaulings that chill the hearts and souls of those that hear them.  Asymmetrical oddities that skew the "right" and "normal" perspectives of what constitutes "normal."  Cold-heart, murderous sons-of-bitches whose thought patterns seem so alien to us.  These and more are frequently labeled as being "monstrous," but whence comes these fears and revulsions?  Columbia College Chicago Philosophy Professor Stephen T. Asma approaches this often morbidly-fascinating topic from multiple approaches.  Dividing his recently-released On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears into four parts (primal fear, theological, scientific/rationalist, and psychological) that roughly correspond with distinct Western historical periods (prehistory/antiquity, medieval, Age of Reason, 20th century), Asma presents a history of monsters in a well-written, concise fashion that raises almost as many questions as it presumes to address.

On Monsters, published by Oxford University Press, is one of those books that contains a bit of something for most everyone.  For those with a training in academic (especially cultural history, philosophy, and psychology) disciplines, the copious footnotes found in Asma's book are a treasure trove of information that allows the curious reader to wander further down any rabbit holes that reader might want to explore.  For those readers who want an interesting survey of monsterology, this book also serves as an excellent introduction to this topic.  Asma's use of personal stories (from his son's alternating fear/fascination with a mendicant hydrocephalic woman in Shanghai to stories that his brother, a public defender for Cook County, Illinois) helps make this text about the inhuman more personal, easier to relate to, or dare I say it, more "human."

Asma approaches the issue of monsters and how our concepts of them in various ways. In his first section, he concentrates on "natural" monsters, creatures whose appearance and sounds may spark evolutionary fight-or-flight responses in us.  He opens with the apocryphal letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle detailing his men's fight against successive waves of monsters by a lake in India.  He uses this story to highlight how imagination and ingrained fears can magnify or distort natural phenomena into something strange, unnatural, and monstrous. From there, he expands his focus to the religious, concentrating in particular upon the three largest monotheistic faiths today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and how each contain monsters who attributes are tied into issues of faith, salvation, and damnation.  While he does not present anything particular new in his presentation of these issues, Asma manages to make these arguments clear, concise, and perhaps most importantly, interesting to the reader.

Umberto Eco, The Vertigo of Lists (The Infinity of Lists in the U.S.)

From my original review:

Lists are fun.  Whether it be goals to do, things to buy, people to meet, enemies to beat, list making is a near-universal activity among humans.  From how we order our affairs to how certain religions rank their divine masters, lists also serve as a visual representation of hierarchical arrangements.  We just cannot seem to escape this seeming need to classify and to arrange objects, ideas, and people along various schema.

Umberto Eco's latest non-fiction quasi-coffee table book, The Vertigo of Lists (available in the US as The Infinity of Lists), is a continuation of his explorations begun in History of Beauty and On Ugliness.  It is in equal parts a celebration of the near-boundless human imagination and a critical look at how we classify and arrange information and how those classifications have shifted and changed with the tides of time.  As with the earlier two volumes, The Vertigo of Lists contains several dozen illustrations, literary passages, sculptures, and other material artifacts that serve as visual representations of Western culture and its values over the past five millennia. 

Eco organizes this book in a loose chronological order, starting with Achilles' shield and ending up in the realm of Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Can illustrations.  In-between, he explores notions of how the Sublime was configured in art and literature, how medieval philosophers categorized the world, from the species to the human tongues spoken in all imagined corners of the world.  While this book perhaps would have been even stronger if there would have been more (or frankly, any) coverage of African, east Asian, and Amerindian concepts of order and time, for the most part Eco's essays complement the gorgeous artwork and moving literary passages.  Eco is very erudite and in his essays on the various aspects and uses of lists over time/space, he demonstrates a depth and clarity of thought that is vital if books such as this will be valued for more than their reproductions of artwork.

Javier Negrete, La Gran Aventura de los Griegos

Negrete is one of those rare writers who can write excellent fiction in a variety of forms, then turn around and write an interesting popular history of the ancient Greeks that is based on the author's years of studies as a Professor of Greek in Spain.  Hopefully one day soon this fine work will be translated into English, as Negrete takes an interesting approach to constructing this history.

Utilizing the most current archaeological and historical research, Negrete depicts ancient Greek societies from the archaic period around 2000 BCE to the conquest of Macedonia by the Romans in 146 BCE.  Along the way, he covers not just the most exciting military battles (his treatment of the huge naval battle of Salamina, which he also covered in a novel of that same name in 2008, is vivid and fun to read), but also thorny debates regarding the origins of Linear A and B script, the social positions of women in various Greek city-states, and the controversial issues of homosexuality and pederasty in Athens and elsewhere in the Greek world.  Although this book is full of endnotes, Negrete has written this history as historia, a wondrous story that anyone (well, anyone that can read and understand Spanish) curious about the Greeks can read and enjoy without having to worry overmuch about not being trained in the finer points of historical debate.  This is one of the finer history books of any era, region, or language that I've read in years.

Mark Bould and China Miéville (eds.), Red Planets:  Marxism and Science Fiction

This is a critical study that I did not review when I read it, in part due to time constraints.  Hopefully I will get the chance in 2010 to re-read it and review it at length, as the essays that the editors include are interesting.  I am somewhat sympathetic to Marxist interpretations of social and cultural histories (it's hard to even conceive of interpreting those fields without at least some awareness of the methodologies that Marxists of all stripes have developed over the past century), but there are several elements in this book that need some closer scrutiny.  I seem to recall (it's been several months, thus my memory is fuzzy) that certain elements were overlooked and others were given too short shrift for my liking.

Quibbles aside, Red Planets continues an excellent series of critical SF studies published by Wesleyan Press over the past few years, including Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction by John Rieder (touched upon in last year's review of non-fiction) and Farah Mendlesohn's Rhetorics of Fantasy (also reviewed last year). 

Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James, A Short History of Fantasy

Book-length overviews rarely satisfy readers or authors.  Either there is too little coverage of an interesting topic (say, the emergence of feminist critiques in secondary-world fantasies) or too much is said of a period that a reader might find to be of less interest than did the writer(s).  In a way, such was my experience with A Short History of Fantasy. While I appreciated it for providing a handy reference to influential works of the past 150 years or so, too often I found myself wishing that more coverage was given to the earlier years and not as much to the past 30 years of marketed "Fantasy."  Such is the Scylla and the Charybdis that writers of such books have to sail through.

However, this does not mean that this book is without merits.  In fact, it is written in a very conversational tone that invites the readers, especially those knowledgeable about certain eras and/or writers, to question the wrtiers' interpretations (and perhaps their own).  While doubtless some might find the takes on certain authors to be questionable (I had fun at this site posting excerpts from the book concerning Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, and George R.R. Martin), books such as this serve to spike interest in the field and in certain authors and movements.  While A Short History of Fantasy ultimately left me wanting to know more, perhaps in that very wanting the book achieves a major goal, that of creating interest in this wide-ranging speculative narrative mode.


Martin said...

I've just started A Short History and I'm finding it more than a little idiosynchratic. It doesn't even list "secondary fantasy" in the glossary, despite the glossary just being a list of types of fantasies. This might well be because the authors prefer their own terms but they use "edifice fantasy" - a term of Mendlesohn's - in the text and that isn't listed either.

As you say, the split between new and old and popular and important is tricky to juggle. However, there is something very wrong with the list of important texts at the back and its bias towards the last couple of year. They even list 2009 and 2010 books despite the main text having a cut off date of 2008.

evision said...

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