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July 15th, 2019

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Goat Song, by Poul Anderson

Third paragraph:
Elsewhere the ridges around me are wooded, alive with scarlets and brasses and bronzes. The sky is huge, the westering sun wanbright. The valley is filling with a deeper blue, a haze whose slight smokiness touches my nostrils. This is Indian summer, the funeral pyre of the year.
I wrote about this story back in 2004:

"Goat Song" is at first sight a retelling of the Orpheus myth (the title is a literal translation of the Greek phrase which became the English word "tragedy"). The narrator is a singer of old songs from Earth's distant past; his lover has died; the world is controlled by the computer known as SUM, which communicates with its inhabitants via a beautiful spokeswoman, and which also stores the personalities of the deceased in preparation for a future resurrection. Our hero seduces the spokeswoman and is allowed to enter the castle where SUM is located to ask for the return of his woman. His request is granted, subject to the condition that he must not look back as he leaves the castle. He looks back; and loses her. On his return to the outside world, he preaches revolution against the machines, and finally sacrifices himself to the female followers of a primitivist cult.

Anderson is quite a difficult author to grasp. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction notes that "With dozens of novels and hundreds of stories to his credit -- all written with a resolute professionalism and widening range, though also with a marked disparity between copious storytelling skills and a certain banality in the creation of characters -- [Anderson] is still not as well defined a figure in the pantheon of US sf as writers (like Isaac Asimov from the Golden Age of SF and Frank Herbert from a decade later) of about the same age and certainly no greater skill." Part of the problem for me is the way he packed so much material into all of his stories. For instance, There Will Be Time, published the same year as "Goat Song", is mainly about time travel, has a substantial subplot in Byzantine history, and features Anderson himself as an off-screen character. It's sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees. Yet only Joe Haldeman and Fritz Leiber have equalled his feat of winning both Hugo and Nebula for the same story three times, and only Connie Willis has exceeded it, with the likes of Le Guin, Clarke, Ellison, Asimov, managing the feat only twice.

This difficulty of grasping Anderson is demonstrated in his own account of the genesis of both "Goat Song" in his autobiographical collection, Going For Infinity, which turns out to be much more a story about Harlan Ellison's Hugo-winning story "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" . At the Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference in 1966, attended by "the likes of Gordon Dickson, Richard McKenna, James Blish, John Brunner, Anne McCaffrey, Alan Nourse, Ted Cogswell, Phyllis Gotlieb", amidst the "smoky, boozy, noisy, cheery turmoil", Harlan Ellison got inspired, took his typewriter into an empty room, and began writing. "I remember he asked me about a point in Norse mythology, and, caught off guard, I gave him a not-quite-correct answer; but no matter." (This presumably explains why the giant bird "from Norse mythology" in the Ellison story is described as "this Huergelmir" - almost but not quite like a name from the sagas.)

The story, the memory of the party and of Jean Cocteau's film Orpheus crystallised in Anderson's mind to produce "Goat Song". "About the only similarity between the two science fiction tales is the concept of human personalities preserved after death as data in a giant, probably quantum-mechanical computer system, for eventual resurrection either into virtual reality or as downloads into new bodies. Harlan didn't have a patent on it, but it was pretty new at the time, and I thought it proper to request his okay, which he graciously gave." Because of problems with the original buyer (a "well-paying magazine" which almost immediately folded - presumably Worlds of Tomorrow, whose editor, Frederik Pohl, is not mentioned even once in Going for Infinity) "Goat Song" didn't see the light of day until published in Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1972.

Added January 2005: Ellison's account confirms Anderson's: "Poul Anderson dropped me a note several months ago explaining that he had just written a story he was about to send out to market when he realised it paralleled the theme of a story [of mine] he had read at a writers' conference we had both attended, just a month or so before. He added that his story was only vaguely similar to mine, but he wanted to apprise me of the resemblance so there would be no question later. It was a rhetorical letter: I'm arrogant, but not arrogant enough to believe that Poul Anderson needs to crib from me." (Dangerous Visions, Ellison's preface to "A Toy For Juliette" by Robert Bloch.)

Anderson was wrong to think that the idea of personality storage in computers for potential later reincarnation was all that new. A number of stories had already been published which used this concept - most notably, Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars, first published in 1956; also Jack Vance's novel To Live Forever, likewise first published in 1956 and re-issued in early 1966 by Ballantine; and in Roger Zelazny's short story "For A Breath I Tarry", first published in spring 1966, the story is the other way round - his computer protagonist decides to become incarnated as a human. Zelazny came back to this theme several times - the human hero of his 1967 novel Lord of Light goes through the process of recording and reincarnation that the narrator of "Goat Song" seeks for his beloved; and the Recall process in Zelazny's novel Isle of the Dead, published in 1969, is almost identical to the resurrection process in "Goat Song" (except that it runs via skull plates rather than bracelets). It also crops up in another 1969 novel, Robert Silverberg's To Live Again.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction gives me the following cross-references for sf treatments of Orpheus: Samuel R Delany's The Einstein Intersection, Constantine Fitzgibbon's The Golden Age, Charles Harness's Wolfhead, Russell Hoban's The Medusa Frequency, Tim Powers' Dinner at Deviant's Palace, and in particular Patricia A. McKillop's Fool's Run. To that list one would now have to add Salman Rushdie's The Ground Beneath Her Feet and of course Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Out of this list I've read only Powers and Gaiman, but I suspect it doesn't matter too much, because "Goat Song" relies at least as much on the Jean Cocteau film (see review by Roger Ebert) than on the original legend; in particular, the beautiful woman in a remarkable vehicle who is a mysterious intermediary with Death is a direct lift from Cocteau. Orpheus in the film is a poet rather than a bard, and in Anderson's story quotes other people's poetry, rather than (as in the legend) composing his own music. And in both cases, Death (or its representation as the computer SUM) is much more of an actor than in the classical myth.

And in any case, the story is more a libertarian parable than a retelling of classical myth - perhaps Ellison's "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman" is more relevant than "I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream". I refer back to Clarke's The City and the Stars, where (as in "Goat Song") a young man from a mechanised, unchanging city finds a new meaning for his life in a rural setting. But whereas Clarke's Lys is a civilised country town, Anderson's wilderness is very wild indeed, a place where ordinary laws do not hold; and where Clarke's hero discovers a spaceship and goes off to find the meaning of life, leaving his home city to adjust to the discoveries he has made, Anderson's hero comes back from his life-changing experiences determined to smash the system, in a rage against the tyranny that humans have imposed on themselves by handing themselves over to SUM. His final self-sacrifice at the hands of his fellow humans and indeed the earlier promise of a physical resurrection are both (probably deliberately) reminiscent of Christianity.

Several other striking things need to be mentioned about the story. The only two named characters are Thrakia, the woman who eventually kills the narrator, and SUM, the computer he plots to destroy. The narrator himself is never named, and the two other women, the Eurydice character and the Dark Queen, are given epithets but no names. This gives the whole story a mythical, almost archetypal feel. The other point, mentioned earlier, is that the narrator does not compose his own songs, but quotes from Swinburne, Brooke, Dunbar, Arnold, Wolfe, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, the Psalter, and "Tom O'Bedlam". This is partly to illustrate the way in which the mechanised city culture has cut its inhabitants off from their own cultural heritage. It's also a bit of a relief in that many other authors have succumbed to the fatal temptation to try and compose their own verse to fit in with the plot. (Are you listening, A.S. Byatt?)
Coming back to it now, the only point I feel I missed in 2004 was Anderson's really inventive use of language - in the quote above, we have "the westering sun wanbright"; later we have "true wood of different comely grains", and "Hoarfrost is gray on the steel shapes". It's a story that would sound well when read aloud.

"Goat Song" won the 1972 Nebula and 1973 Hugo for Best Novelette. In both cases it beat "Patron of the Arts", by William Rotsler, "Basilisk", by Harlan Ellison and "A Kingdom by the Sea", by Gardner Dozois. The other Hugo finalist was "Painwise", by James Tiptree, Jr.; the other Nebula finalists were "The Animal Fair", by Alfred Bester; "The Funeral", by Kate Wilhelm; and "In the Deadlands", by David Gerrold. The only one of these I can remember reading is "Painwise".

The other short fiction winners that year were: "The Word for World is Forest", by Ursula K. Le Guin (Hugo, best novella); "The Meeting" by Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, and "Eurema's Dam", by R. A. Lafferty" (Hugo, best short story, joint winners - the only time that has ever happened in this category); "A Meeting with Medusa", by Arthur C. Clarke (Nebula, best novella); and "When It Changed", by Joanna Russ (Nebula, best short story)

That was the year that Asimov's The Gods Themselves won Best Novel for both awards. I'm not going to go back and reread that because of how hard I bounced off it last time I tried. So the next in this series of reviews will be The Dispossessed, by Ursula Le Guin. 

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