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Wow, taking a week to write about almost nothing but Conflation has really piled up a ton of material on my "to write about" list.

A little while back, I saw links on a bunch of blogs to the fact that minor SF author Nick Mamatas has re-released his 2004 novel Move Under Ground under a Creative Commons license. Not quite the same one that I use, but in addition to providing the full text of the novel on his website for you to read, he's licensed it for unlimited free reprint, as long as you attribute it correctly to him, make no money doing so, and don't create any derivative works of your own from his material, like a screenplay or something. The capsule summary, H.P. Lovecraft meets Jack Kerouac, sounded like something carefully calculated to try unsuccessfully to catch my attention, too trite to be any good, but since it cost me nothing but a few minutes' time to read the first chapter, I gave it a look. I ended up reading the whole book, but my main reason was one that would probably only matter to me and a few others. You might like it or not, I'll get to that in a minute. First, here's what hooked me in.

Once I'd swallowed the whole corpus of Lovecraft's fiction and poetry, I got a sense that in H.P. Lovecraft's fiction, and in his idealized universe, the best of all possible worlds is one in which people lived by the Victorian pseudo-scientific update on the old Puritan ethos. To him, the ideal universe was one where every man grew up to adulthood chaste, married an equally chaste woman, lived a loving but mostly passionless life in which every waking minute that he wasn't earning the means to support his family was spent helping her maintain their home and raise their equally passionless children. The Puritans believed that we should live this way because God ordained this. The Victorians believed that we should live this way because science ordains it. But by the time Lovecraft was writing in the 1930s and 1940s, it was becoming pretty clear that the proposition that God ordains the Puritan life and the proposition that science proves its perfection were both crumbling. So Lovecraft's vision was one of people trying hard not to find that out, trying hard to exclude the mind-shattering knowledge that religion was a fiction, that humans are animals, that man and the Earth are not the center of the cosmos or its real purpose ... not for any good reason, but for nostalgia for "good old fashioned" civilization, for fear of what we'd become without Puritan/Victorian civilization as an ideal to live up to. And so, in Lovecraft's fiction, it is consistently people who have no incentive at all to live the Puritan/Victorian life, whether wealthy decadents, tri-racial isolates, or tenured professors, all of whom had nothing to lose by casting off the shackles of Victorianism, who open the doors to Things Outside and risk shattering the Victorian Era that Lovecraft regretted not having been born into.

And what fascinated me about Move Under Ground is that Mamatas completely inverts that whole proposition. Mamatas keeps the sense, in Lovecraft's fiction, that just outside the boundaries of the Earth and just outside the boundaries of the material universe we know there are Unspeakable Things out to do us no good, and perhaps substantial intentional harm. But Mamatas has incorporated into this a proposition near and dear to the Bohemians and beatniks, one that is entirely antithetical to Lovecraft. The beats believed that most straights, by which they mean mundanes in general and not just heterosexuals, were people who gave in and agreed, grudgingly, to sell off pieces of their soul, one at a time, in exchange for security and safety or at least the illusion thereof. Guys like Kerouac and Cassidy and Burroughs and Ginsberg believed that by the time that straights reached middle age, most of them had no soul left to sell. So Mamatas asks what if it's not their sacrifices of their souls that keeps the things outside, outside? What if the things outside are, whether they know it or not, what they're selling their souls to? Literally?

So when the book begins, a few years after Kerouac's On the Road, the mundane conformist world of 1960 or so has sold off so much of its soul to Unspeakable Things that R'lyeh has risen. Cthulhu roams invisible. Shoggoths imitate the dead and the living in shambling zombie-like mockeries of life, tempting people to further unspeakable sacrifices. Azathoth glares mercilessly down from the sky, and where his eye looks, reigns madness and suicide and mass murder. But the mundanes have sold so much of their souls that there's no humanity left in most of them. They're even physically transforming, under the weight of soulless life and from the chants that the churches, now all preaching the new gospels of Azathoth and Cthulhu and Yog Sothoth, offer them for solace, into slug-faced or beetle-faced humanoid near-robots. Whether out of denial or surrender, they can't even see the tentacles writhing down from the sky or up from the sea, can't even see what's happened to their own physical forms, don't realize how insane what they're doing to each other and their cities is. Society's outcasts, the oppressed racial minorities and the unemployed hobos and bums and the drug addicts and the mentally insane, do see, and know that they don't comprehend why nobody else sees what they see. But what can a couple of bums and crazies and drunks and junkies do?

Other than hitch-hike cross country all the way from San Francisco to Manhattan, through the yawning chasms of spreading insanity, with nothing more than warm beer and shallow pop-culture Buddhism to sustain them, in order to plunge directly into the heart of the worst and oldest infestations and try to save the world?

Lovecraft must be spinning in his grave.

The prose is quite good, for most of the book. It really does manage to not merely capture but update for our times the kinds of nightmares of things slipping out of our control and under the control of inhuman and incomprehensible supernatural aliens that Lovecraft tried so hard to inject into the plebian world of vampires and werewolves and ghosts that had reduced horror fiction to a stack of shopworn clichés by the time of his childhood. It also seems to me to do a great job of capturing the beats at their best and their worst, at their most poetic and at their most degraded. I could recommend this book with no reservations at all to the same kinds of people who like, say, Illuminatus!, if it weren't for one annoying problem. It's the same problem I had with Michael Bishop's The Secret Ascension, or, Philip K. Dick is Dead, Alas and with William Browning Spencer's Resumé with Monsters, and even to a lesser extent with Matt Ruff's Sewer, Gas, and Electric. Not only does this book have a very similar feel to those books, but like them, it has an ending that feels kind of emotionally flat, unsatisfying, anti-climactic, and sort of bolted on. But I sure paid a lot less for Move Under Ground, so I've sure got no right to complain about a book that I had no particular trouble finishing, now, do I?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 13th, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC)
Actually, I got the impression that in Lovecraft's world, women really didn't exist. The ideal was two men, friends from boyhood, who studied together, worked together and lived chastely together. Procreative sex is a necessary evil for society, but far too often goes awry and should be avoided by the intelligent.

(I've been listening to a lot of taped Lovecraft as I drive)

Move under ground sounds fascinating though.

Feb. 13th, 2007 02:54 pm (UTC)
Oddly enough, Lovecraft married a highly intelligent, independent Jewish woman. It didn't work, not surprisingly, but they parted amicably, as the saying goes--they corresponded for years after their separation.

*makes mental note to read a Lovecraft bio sometime*
Feb. 13th, 2007 03:09 pm (UTC)
Dunno if you know or not, but he's got an lj, nihilistic_kid.
(Deleted comment)
Feb. 13th, 2007 04:36 pm (UTC)
I win I win!!!! YAYY!!!! :-DDD
Feb. 14th, 2007 05:12 am (UTC)
do you read Terry Pratchett's stuff? His Diskworld has an Outside that is filled with monsters trying to get in that mean no good.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )