Russian Nesting DollsCory Panshin on March 4, 2010
When Alexei and I got married in 1969, we each brought with us a set of Russian nesting dolls. Mine had been bought for me when I was little, purchased by my mother at a store on Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and they are larger and shinier and rather crudely made. His, I believe, were brought back by his father from a trip to Russia. They are more delicate and contain many more layers to be stripped away before reaching the final almost shapeless pea-sized doll at the center.
But large or small, elegant or crude, there is something mystical about Russian dolls. Like the progression of ever-smaller cats in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, they suggest that if we could only follow the sequence to its final vanishing point, that tiniest of seeds would be revealed as the ultimate source of creative power and truth.
The visions can feel that way, too. There is a sense that each one pulls back the curtain a little bit further. And it is that feeling which drives some people on to want to know more and see more — while at the same time, it makes others inclined to pull up short and start hammering in warning signs saying “Here Be Dragons!” and “Abandon All Hope!”
That dichotomy was very apparent around 1968-76, when holism and multiculturalism and the first intimations of a successor to chaos were all developing rapidly. There were some who feared anything that was new and different and wanted things to stay just the way they were. And there were others who had no attachment to things-as-they-were and wanted nothing more than to push ahead.
Alexei and I were of the push-ahead camp, of course, and it informed everything we did — so it strikes me that an examination of what we were writing and the problems we were trying to solve may be as good an introduction as any to the changes during those years.
I first met Alexei at the 1966 Science Fiction Worldcon in Cleveland. At that time, he was the author of a few published SF stories as well as an unpublished novel, Rite of Passage, which he had been working at on and off since 1961.
Rite of Passage was very much a product of the early-mid 60’s. It created, as a kind of thought experiment, a best possible case for the science-and-democracy partnership — in the form of a technologically-advanced, semi-utopian society on a giant spaceship — and then proceeded to kick even that ideal case full of holes by revealing its underlying arrogance and creative stagnation.
When the book was finally published in 1968, it was well received, winning a Nebula Award and coming close to winning a Hugo — and yet I found it strangely disappointing. It was a bit too realistically done for my taste, and it showed little interest in chaos or holism, aside from heartfelt endorsements of personhood and warnings about overpopulation. I was looking for something more radical, more subversive, something that would shake up my head and remind me of things I had never known.
But Alexei’s second novel, Star Well, was all of that and more. Although it was published only a few months after Rite of Passage, it had been written at the very peak of the counterculture, in December 1967 and January 1968. This story of galactic remittance man Anthony Villiers and his inscrutable alien companion Torve the Trog was the perfect reflection of that moment, consisting entirely of strange encounters, unlikely escapades, and irreverent observations.
When we are first introduced to Torve, he is busily instructing a priest of Mithra on the fine points of some obscure philosophical doctrine:
“See you, then, the wholeness so far?”
“Wholeness? Oh, yes, yes. I am attending you with interest. Continue, if you will.”
“Wholeness is everything that exists. Outside is nothingness. But nothingness is ripe, ready to nourishmentalize fruit, and existence is reborn. See you?” Torve asked earnestly.
“Oh, yes.” Srb nodded.
“Wholeness is born and grows, moving through nothingness and feeding on nothingness.”
“Eventualistically, nothingness can no longer feed wholeness. Movement slows, then stops. Is like great heaviness in stomach after large meal. When movement stops, all collapses. In eye blink, wholeness shrinks to size of seed and all is stasis. Only in great by-and-by is nothingness ready to nourishmentalize again. Has happened seventeen times since wholeness invented itself. Do you see?”
“No. I must confess that I don’t. Perhaps we had better work on nothingness for a while.”
“Oh, nothingness is simple. Is nothing.”
Star Well is filled to the brim with this kind of chaos-touched-by-holism, but there is also something more. When another young SF author, Samuel R. Delany, was asked to provide an introduction for the book, he began by praising it for its multiculturalism. “Star Well is a wise, delightful, and well-turned book,” he wrote, “and it is something I have never seen in science fiction before. It is the first of a series of novels that examines the proposition that the world is composed of small communities of mutual interest.”
As the world’s only gay black dyslexic science fiction writer, Chip Delany was probably predisposed to see society in terms of overlapping small communities of mutual interest. But there’s no doubt that he was picking up on something which was really there and which became more marked in the two succeeding Villiers books. The Thurb Revolution and Masque World both delight in plucking humans, aliens, and robots out of their comfort zones and throwing them together, willy-nilly, just for the fun of seeing what might happen.
There is yet another element, however, which goes beyond chaos, holism, or even multiculturalism — and most of it has to do with Torve. Torve is deep. Even though Villiers eventually informs Srb that Torve’s disquisition on nothingness was science and not religion, we are given no reason to believe that Torve sees any difference between the two. There are mysteries about Torve and his way of perceiving reality that only grow stronger as the books proceed.
For one thing, Torve is a “Restricted Sentient,” who still manages to travel freely by befuddling the mind of any customs guard who asks to see his papers. For another, he regards the world non-causally, in terms of patterns he calls “lines of occurrence,” which are visible only to him and which enable him to operate with a strange certainty. It is never clear whether Torve is merely able to foresee the future or if he deliberately shapes it by his actions, but everywhere he and Villiers travel they appear to serve as a disruptive element, inciting wild outbreaks of creativity and unlikely problem-solving.
Although neither Alexei nor I knew it, these elements in the Villiers books were early intimations of a new inner experience vision — the successor to chaos.
For all its strengths, the chaos vision also had flaws and limitations that were becoming apparent during the 1960’s. Some were already obvious early in the decade, as in the staleness of the aging hipsters and beatniks. Others became clear from the violence and nihilism that plagued the counterculture almost from its start. And still others would be highlighted by the triviality and self-indulgence that caused the 70’s to be dubbed “the me decade” — a label first applied to it in 1976 by Tom Wolfe, the former chronicler of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
Meanwhile, the exploratory energy of the counterculture, the impact of psychedelic drugs, and the influence of holism were generating experiences and insights that could not be adequately explained within the terms of the chaos vision but demanded a new vision with different assumptions and different conclusions.
In particular, there was a growing need for a vision more magical than chaos. Chaos might be mysterious — but in a world of random flux there can be no higher sense of pattern, of non-physical causality, or of meaningful relationships among events.
For much the same reason, chaos affords no place for morality — by which I mean not old-fashioned moralism, but a sense that our actions have consequences which will in time reflect back upon us. For that to be the case, the universe must be both reactive and responsive, and the universe of chaos is neither.
Finally, chaos provides no opportunity for wisdom. It is all intuition and instinct and gut feelings and wild improvisation, and it never holds still long enough to allow the accumulation of deeper knowledge and true understanding. Reason may have gone too far in anticipating cosmic secrets that could be mastered like scientific laws, but chaos had overreacted in the other direction.
I had found all these things in Tolkien — magic, morality, and wisdom — which is why I kept re-reading The Lord of the Rings over and over throughout the 60’s. But I was also aware that those qualities in Tolkien were derived from a very old-fashioned set of largely religious assumptions about the world which could not be taken seriously by any late 20th century child of chaos.
Those same three qualities, however, were also present in the Villiers books — but in a form that acknowledged chaos and then went beyond it. That was why I felt impelled to write Alexei a somewhat embarrassed fan letter immediately after reading Star Well, in which I managed to do little more than mutter vaguely about the oddly fairy-tale rightness of the ending.
I couldn’t say what I had really gotten from the book and he couldn’t say what he had put into it, but somehow it didn’t matter. One thing led to another, and less than a year later we found ourselves married.
Sometimes the visions grab you up by the nape of the neck that way and take over your life. But I’ve got no objections.
A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.
A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.
A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.
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