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The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz

Yale University Press, 2017, 188 p. Translated from the Polish Góry Parnasu, Science Fiction, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Polityczenej, 2012, by Stanley Bill. Reviewed for Interzone 268, Mar-Apr 2017.

 The Mountains of Parnassus cover

My knowledge of Polish SF has heretofore begun and ended with the works of Stanisław Lem. I saw this book as a welcome opportunity to rectify that. However, Miłosz made his reputation as a poet and essayist – as cited in his Nobel Prize – and this unfinished work (deliberately unfinished, the translator’s introduction tells us) is, as far as I can tell, his only attempt at an SF novel. Miłosz apparently had doubts about the viability of the novel as a form, though he considered SF’s realist conventions as the most promising vehicle for it even if “Science Fiction has mainly consisted of gloomy prophecies.” In his Introductory Remarks to the novel he says will “never be written” he notes that his depiction of two female characters “who do not appear in the pages printed here” made him shrink from the “horror” of writing a “novel from life.” Since “literature always fares awkwardly when it strives to depict good people and good intentions,” he describes what lies in front of us as artistically dubious and immoral. So much for fiction, then.

The book as a whole seems designed more for the academic than general reader with its Translator’s Introduction plus Note (both complete with references) emphasising Poland’s highly literary tradition of SF writing and Milosz’s view of SF as akin to scripture in its use of the past tense to describe future events. Correspondingly the “novel”’s latter parts are steeped in Catholicism. The style is discursive, its six sections reading more like essays than a conventional narrative. Strewn throughout them are nuggets allowing us to glean the outlines of society plus references to powerful groups of various sorts; the Botanists’ and Astronauts’ Unions, the Arsonists’ Association. There is no dialogue; unless you count the Mass of the Catechumens in the Appendix.

A description of the Mountains of Parnassus, supposedly kept in a state of wilderness, is written almost like a gazetteer. Their visitors exist in “an Earth without fatherhood” and strive to become their own fathers. A general atmosphere of ennui (avoiding “killing time” via the M37 current or erotic games, which prove unsatisfactory palliatives) leads a character called Karel to play Russian Roulette. His survival and altered mental state lends him immunity to the activities of an organisation known as The Higher Brethren of Nirvana which has begun to cull humans to prevent degeneration and extinction, its victims simply disappearing, each “losing its unitary quality in a single moment” with no one knowing the criteria for selection.

There follows an adumbration of the theories of Professor Motohiro Nakao which overturned the practice whereby “long ago the more energetic rulers had made the strange assumption that the minds of the ruled were a threat if they could not be convinced by persuasion or fear.” Data collection of “tracks” of perception can identify any which may be harmful to the rational social order defended by the Astronauts. This leads to Cocooning, interfering with the ability to communicate by slowing or accelerating the speed of a person’s thoughts thus denying access to those of others.

The “Cardinal’s Testament” of Petro Vallerg, all but the last celibate, finds him struggling to understand the thinking behind John XXIII’s aggiornamento in calling the Second Vatican Council, as it caused a rotting structure to collapse by attempting to refurbish it. Vallerg recognises the Church’s failings, where ritual has petrified into form, but “if the Church had not used the stake and the sword of obedient monarchs in the critical thirteenth century, little would have remained of Christianity,” and “no purely human institution similarly depraved could have survived,” but bemoans “the shame that induced us to reject the relative good simply because it was relative” and that the numinous has been reduced to metaphor and figures of speech.

Lino Martinez, member of the elite Astronauts’ Union, whose perk for risking their lives on humanity’s behalf is monthly longevity treatments, is never the absolutely perfect Astronaut and finding desires, passions, betrayals and faults reduced to miniature dimensions and the effects of time dilation disturbing, he deserts, to expose himself to time.

An Appendix: Ephraim’s Liturgy looks back to when inhabitants of Earth were allowed to run wild as educating them would be too difficult; “the petty and insignificant became great and significant”; a guaranteed small income allowed anyone who wished, to be an artist (but structuralism destroyed any hope of immortality thereby, rendered works indistinguishable) and the promise of communication had led to its negation. Ephraim therefore believed speech could be imparted only by ritual.

It’s all undeniably intellectual, almost Stapledonian but lacking the extraordinary timescale and perspective. I doubt it’s representative of Polish SF, of anything but Miłosz himself.

Pedant’s corner:- in the Translator’s Introduction “allows Milosz to takes these” (take.) I found it odd that the author’s full name (and indeed Lem’s first) – except twice, both times in Notes – is rendered with an unPolish unbarred l while that of another mentioned Polish writer, Sławomir Sierakowski, isn’t. Otherwise: “In the name of the Kingdom. I made sacrifices…..” (no full stop necessary?) snobbism (snobbery is more usual,) “sent their long ago” (there,) Bureaus (Bureaux.)

Interzone 269 Mar-Apr 2017

TTA Press

Interzone 269 cover

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Guest Editorial outlines ten actions you could take to help address climate change problems. Jonathan McCalmont’s column1 argues that attempts to open up genre culture to previously marginalised voices are all well and good but that reading genre cannot of itself address the world’s problems, only action can. Nina Allan’s Timepieces2 reflects on the many homes she has had, some of which have fed into her fiction. She hopes she has now settled down. The reviews contain one of Tem’s latest novel Ubo plus an interview with the author. Also covered are the latest novels by Charles Stross, John Scalzi3 and Adam Roberts, the very good indeed Spaceman of Bohemia by Jaroslav Kalfař, and my thoughts on The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.
In the fiction, The Influence Machine4 by Sean McMullen is narrated by Albert Grant, the only Metropolitan Police Inspector in 1899 with knowledge of science. A woman has been arrested for loitering with intent as her wagon contains something “scientific”. Her machine can peer into a parallel, more scientifically advanced world. The story is delightful but its ending is a bit weak.
A Death in the Wayward Drift5 by Tim Akers didn’t grab me at all. It features divers in a lake of strange water, things called emissary birds, trees that move and, despite the title, more than one death.
Still Life with Falling Man6 by Richard E Gropp. A man who can see into other dimensions is employed to find when a new nexus opens. These are spaces wherein twenty seven million years goes by in a subjective ten seconds. He gets trapped in one and is counting down from ten. This aspect reminded in part of my own Closing Time (Interzone 89, Nov 1994.)
In A Strange Kind of Beauty7 by Christien Gholson the Scoryax Kahtt wander a parched landscape following the prophecies of scrolls. Their Vaithe find new scrolls and translate the prophecies. Heoli’s find points her tribe to a hitherto forbidden place replete with water.
Set in a globally warmed flooded south Florida The Common Sea8 by Steve Rasnic Tem focuses on a man whose oldest memories are visions of another dying world and who is trying to get by in this one. In part the story riffs on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Pedant’s corner:-
1arm sales (arms sales,) “lies not in the protagonist’s ability to leap tall buildings but in the knowledge that his ability to deploy overwhelming force in a manner that is beyond reproach” (of his ability,) “designed to illicit (elicit,) “the moral and political value of books lays not in the quality of the ideas” (lies not, see earlier quote.) 2Merthyr Tidfil (Merthyr Tydfil.) 3emperox (emperor, I believe.) 4waggon is used throughout. I prefer wagon, “open to the naval” (navel.) “seemed” in a present tense sentence; so, seems, discretely (discreetly,) 5”trying to not think of what lay ahead” (trying not to think of what lay ahead.) “Initiates wore …….to allow easy movement … when we are on the lake” (wore, therefore “when we were on the lake”.) 6”The skin, clothing and furniture remains unchanged” (remain,) “There was very little flora” (flora is plural???) 7Xichoh (elsewhere Xicoh.) 8no where to go (nowhere.)

Interzones 269 and 270

 The Stars Are Legion cover
Interzone 269 cover

Interzone 269 arrived today.

It contains my review of The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.

A few days ago I received The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley.

That review is due soon for Interzone 270.

Latest from Interzone

 The Mountains of Parnassus cover

Interzone 268 has arrived. Amongst the fiction and the reviewers/contributors lists of best reads of 2016 there are of course book reviews. Mine was of Invisible Planets: 13 visions of the future from China, edited and translated by Ken Liu.

Also arrived from the same source is an unusual object, an SF novel by a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Czesław Miłosz. He is best known for his poetry and this was his only SF novel. My review is due for Interzone 269.

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