Tag Archives: essays

An EPQ Comparitive Essay: Introduction – Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?


Yesterday I dusted off some work from the archives of my laptop and gave it a new, backup home on the world wide web in the humble dwelling that is Mrtsblog. Today I’ll continue the trend with a more academic piece. This essay was the fruit of a summer of reading science fiction, histories of the Cold War and comparisons between the American and Russian ways of life. Originally I also intended to write about Ray Bradbury’s works. Whilst I did enjoy The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451 immensely, and they really are beautifully written with fantastic ideas, I could not accommodate his writing with my theme. Perhaps it was better I left Ray’s work alone and in the drawer of pure enjoyment in my brain.

Anyway in the end my essay, for an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) at A-Level, became a comparison of the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick. Looking back on it now there are things I wish I had done better and it’s not as well as written or argued as I hope to be in future. But I do miss the satisfaction of both academic study and essay writing now and again, so these posts will remind me that I am capable of it.

The first post (this one) will be the introduction, with the two parts on Huxley and Dick to follow. I really enjoyed marring my interests in literature and history with this essay, and as it was primarily written for English sizeable chunks about American history had to be removed. Unfortunately it’s still quite a drawn out read, with as I say, a lot of weaknesses despite a good mark. I don’t really expect any readers to consume the whole thing, but as I say, will add it to my online archive of work regardless.

So here we go:

Focusing on the Cold War, how does the work of Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick challenge dominant historical perceptions of America?

 

Aldous Huxley and Phillip K. Dick can both be loosely linked under the banner of “science fiction” writers. However the two men have extraordinarily different backgrounds and influences. Huxley was an English intellectual living in the shadow of the First World War, whereas Dick was an anti-establishment Californian who came of age as the Second World War ended. The literary outputs of the two men are also poles apart in a number of ways. Huxley wrote satires of the English upper classes but Dick’s mainstream successes were realistic portrayals of the average American dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Huxley’s most celebrated work, Brave New World, is regarded as a “novel of ideas” and Huxley himself admitted that he struggled to find the balance between plot and information. Dick did not have Huxley’s scientific heritage, but approached writing fiction with a strong knowledge of philosophy, psychology and Eastern Religion. These influences are all evident in Dick’s most highly regarded novel, The Man in the High Castle, along with an excellent original premise and believable characterisation. Whatever their differences however, both men continually challenged accepted thinking in their writings and in particular questioned the reality of the Cold War world. Both men are also best known for cautionary messages that prompted readers to remain vigilant about threats to their humanity from any source, totalitarian or otherwise.

Huxley and Dick were both rightly influenced by the division of a post-war world into two separate ideological camps. Huxley was deeply concerned by the methods of totalitarians and the worrying susceptibility of the masses to their tactics. Dick was amongst the first to recognise the destructive potential of two nuclear armed adversaries and the implications of impending doom on human existence. However what sets them apart from the rest is their refusal to allow their thinking to be consumed by the scale of the Cold War and the evil of the Communist threat.

Both men had the awareness to keep one eye turned inward on the frailties of the Western world, at a time when democratic governments were getting an easy ride on a wave of unity against the tyranny of the Reds. Neither man succumbed to the temptation of oversimplifying the world around them into a good vs. evil struggle. They equally recognised the potential for right and wrong in each individual human being. A Communist was still a person capable of good, just as an American had the potential for bad. Both men touched on this theme in their work, Huxley with his “Savage” outsider and Dick more specifically with his almost – human androids.

The underlying warning was that a capitalist citizen could be as easily exploited as a Communist drone if they neglected their freedom to think and question. In life both Huxley and Dick were determined never to do so. Huxley fretted about ignorant modern lives, lived to purely satisfy the senses. He questioned the very idea of progress, warning against unnecessary and deceptive changes. Dick led a tortured life, lurching between periods of depression, paranoia and addiction. Through it all he maintained an intellectual curiosity with the abuse of power and perceived reality. There was hope for both of them in freedom of expression.

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The Art of the Short Story – Reading and Writing Challenge Month


For weeks now I’ve attempted to absorb myself in the art of the short story. Not just to read lots of new ones and re-read old ones, but to look closely at their composition, compare their merits and work out why it was that these fleeting snapshots of life seemed so much more like art than their beefier cousin, the novel.

At the end of my blitz of numerous tales I feel at once wiser and just as ignorant. The fact that my study of these stories has been so intense, the fact that it was indeed a solitary blitz, meant I had much less time than I would have liked to dissect, contrast and concoct thoughtful, satisfactory points and conclusions. This mini task within the greater, rushed whole of Reading and Writing Month has certainly not proved to be the magic pill I might have hoped for; I have not morphed into a masterful writer myself simply by consuming such a renowned, diverse range. But I am glad I was ambitious and wide ranging. I feel as if I’ve discovered intriguing examples I’ll be able to return to again and again as an inspirational template and model for my own work. Or works I’ll re-read simply to marvel at and endlessly reinterpret and enjoy.

Even prior to this challenge I found that a certain type of short story would leave me baffled. It would feel as if I’d barely read what could be called a “story” at all. Ernest Hemingway was one of the particular authors that could simultaneously make me feel cold and unmoved and fascinated. At A-Level I studied Cat in the Rain and for this challenge I read other tales from Hemingway’s “First Forty-Nine Stories” collection, including Homage to Switzerland and One Reader Writes. One Reader Writes is barely two pages long and feels as though it were lifted straight from an experiment in a creative writing class, as the narrator, clearly barely literate, attempts to write a letter about her husband’s syphilis. Homage to Switzerland presents three almost identical but also very different conversations at a railway station in Switzerland.

This last story is more typically Hemingway. He simply paints the picture of a scene to the reader; who watches. It takes the rule of “show don’t tell” in storytelling to the extreme. It points towards any number of possible truths about the characters, just as the famous Cat in the Rain does. The reader is left to interpret, as if watching a scene from a play. Indeed the quote from The Guardian on the back of my Hemingway collection sums up, what in the end, is his subtle brilliance:

“The author’s exceptional gift of narrative quality gives the excitement of a well-told tale to what is, in fact, a simple description of a scene” (my emphasis)

Here then is the first vague, hardly groundbreaking truth I began to comprehend better about short stories; that they can show us the many, differing qualities of a specific scene, much like a play. They can have as much or little drama as the reader (or the audience) chooses them to. Their brevity and focus also means that short stories encompassing a substantial sweep in time become harder to write. They’re also more likely to succeed if they contain dialogue. I do not say light-heartedly that dialogue is easy to write, but simply that good short stories rest on their ability to show us things in flashes, like a play. This is easier to do with well written dialogue. The professional looking winners, submitted by amateurs, to last year’s writing competitions, for Summer and Halloween in The Guardian and Telegraph respectively, mostly contained convincing dialogue, from which the reader can infer.

Chekhov was of course a playwright and this might explain his aptitude for the short story. In an insightful and enlightening introduction to a collection of Chekhov stories, Richard Ford makes a number of points about the merits of Chekhov’s writing that can also be applied across the board to short stories. Firstly he highlights how teachers were always telling him it was the sheer economy of Chekhov’s writing that others tried to replicate. As he concludes though, whilst this was evidence of accomplished craftsmanship it was hardly remarkable. What Chekhov did to elevate his writing, what made them art, was to expose universal, everlasting truths of the human condition still relevant today. His stories, the most famous of which being The Lady with the Dog, went against convention by taking established forms and zooming in on their less explored aspects. Like poetry, or a well executed play, Chekhov slowly makes us accept facts of existence we knew to be true all along; he simply crafted the circumstances and phrases to express them.

And yet short stories don’t all have to be masterfully subtle scenes, open to endless interpretation. The subtlety helps and it certainly doesn’t do any harm to have the fine focus of a scene. But they can also be the seeds of future novels, as Haruki Murakami’s Firefly became Norwegian Wood or symbolic essays on ideas. If I had to categorise the stories I have read, and I don’t think it would be wise to, I would divide them between these focused scenes and explorations of a particular idea. Fiction, in this condensed form, can be a far better, fuller examination of any idea than a hard written essay. Short stories can also better express something, without all the trappings and requirements of a novel.

In a refreshingly frank and interesting introduction to the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami talks about the difference for him, as a writer, between short stories and the novel. As always I find his distinctive Japanese symbolism captivating, even when he’s not crafting anything creative:

“To put it in the simplest possible terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden. The two processes complement each other…”

Certainly there is substantial crossover in style and themes from Murakami’s novels to his short stories. Like his most celebrated novels, these tales are often heavy with nostalgia, sentiment and emotion. I mentioned ideas, but Murakami is a writer more interested in feelings and moods. His short stories allow him to explore these moods in isolation, touchingly and with symbolism. Many of his stories are symbolic and for me at least, irresistibly enthused with ingredients like adolescence, love and Japan. He is also an old fashioned storyteller in the sense that his short stories are often told by a character, or have happened to a friend of the narrator. Stories are currency to be passed around and retold, often based on perplexing coincidence that cast life in light or shadow.

Among my favourites from his collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was A Poor Aunt Story, apparently one of his youthful, inexpert creations. This was a story with a symbolic idea at its heart, as opposed to someone’s emotional journey; the narrator wanted to write a story about a poor aunt, only for one to appear stuck to his back for the world to see. It seemed to me a wonderfully poetic way to make a point about the forgotten members of society, the pieces in the background.

Murakami also has the knack for the occasional, sensational and fantastical funny tale. A perfect day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes were all witty and amusing. Other personal favourites from the collection included: Hanalei Bay, Where I’m Likely to Find it (wonderfully mysterious), The Seventh Man, Hunting Knife and Birthday Girl.

Like Murakami, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer excellent at moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed his atmospheric collection “Nocturnes”. This was five stories of music, love, nightfall and heartbreak. Here we find another string to the short story bow; loosely connected stories, that are quite separate but as a whole unite to portray one emotion, one truth or experience.

So finally then, to ideas. Whether they are sci-fi musings such as the poetically described automated house, with all its rhythm and life, in There Will Come Soft Rains from Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, to Thomas Mann’s more intellectual and philosophical ponderings via his protagonist in Death in Venice, the short story can properly showcase them all. Mann’s masterpiece is a superbly written meditation on obsession, love, beauty, youth, art, ageing, inspiration and everything in between. It’s also just a damn good story, with an impressive sense of place, created from very little, compared to the time devoted to beauty and reflection.

Stories need not replicate the sweep of Mann’s success to be brilliant of course; I’ve already praised the narrow focus of the genre. They can deal with aspects and ideas within a grander theme. From the collection of love stories, My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, The Hitchhiking Game by Milan Kundera and Lovers of their Time by William Trevor, stand out. Kundera’s story for its exploration of role-play and the need for a balance between meaning and fun in a relationship; what he calls “lightheartedness and seriousness” (reminded me of his unique philosophical novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being). And Trevor’s for its portrayal of the decay of love over time.

My three favourites from my fleeting trawl through the form then: The Hitchhiking Game, Death in Venice and Murakami’s Where I’m Likely to Find it.

Thus concludes my inadequate summary of the art of the short story. But as I say, I do feel enlightened and extremely excited to have reignited the joys of reading and writing.