Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, October 28, 2013

1930: Last and First Men (Stapledon, Olaf)

Superlative: prophetic, expansive, and ingenious (5/5)

I tend to avoid early twentieth century science fiction because of the vapid plots, hollow characters, and abject cheesiness of the material. Case in point: E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Skylark of Space (1928)—hated it. When I hear about a recommended book from the same era, I tend to file that suggestion in the trash bin. However, when I read Brian Aldiss’ Farewell, Fantastic Venus (1968) anthology, I was floored by the imagination of one particular story, an excerpt from Last and First Men. I had known the name of the author, Olaf Stapledon, but never thought it sounded good—vapid, hollow, and cheesy are the words that instantly sprang to mind. Reading the excerpt smashed that ignorant assumption of mine.

Thankfully, I was in the right time at the right place when I found a brand-new edition of this book for a mere ninety-six baht (US$3.10). I snapped it up and filed it away on my overloaded bookshelf to one day be read. As a long holiday neared (October 20-23), I opened the book during my commute, then during my lunches, then in the evening in bed, then on the bus to my destination. I was hooked.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Evolution is an astonishing thing.

Over the next billion years human civilisations will rise and fall like waves on the shore, each one rising from savagery to an ever-advancing technological peak before falling back and being surpassed.

This extraordinary, imaginative and ambitious novel is full of pioneering speculations about the nature of evolution, terraforming, genetic engineering and the savage, progressive nature of man.”


Brian Aldiss has called this book “great classical ontological epic prose poems” (vi) and inspired the minds of great men; among them: Arthur C. Clark, Freeman Dyson, and Winston Churchill. I’ll respect Aldiss’ advice! My Gollancz edition (UK, 2009) has a forward by Gregory Benford (v-vii), an author who I have little interest in after the disastrous reads of In the Ocean of Night (1977) and Timescape (1980). His 3-page forward, while moderately insightful, offers the following advice:

[S]imply skip the first four parts and begin with The Fall of the First Man [Chapter V]. This eliminates the antique quality of the book and also tempers the rather repetitive cycle of rise and fall that becomes rather monotonous. (vii)

Audacious! This is terrible advice, which confirms my already dislike for Benford. Considering its publication in 1930, the first four chapter of Last and First Men are an amazingly prophetic portrait of the world after World War II with the continuation of the Americanized world into the twenty-first century and America’s bipolar relationship with China. Consider these prophetic words:

In the Far West, the United States of America openly claimed to be custodians of the whole planet. Universally feared and envied, universally respected for their enterprise, yet for their complacency very widely despised, the Americans were rapidly changing the whole character of man's existence. By this time every human being throughout the planet made use of American products … the American press, gramophone, radio, cinematograph and televisor ceaselessly drenched the planet with American thought … What wonder, then, that America, even while she was despised, irresistibly moulded the whole human race. This, perhaps, would not have mattered, had America been able to give of her very rare best. But inevitably only her worst could be propagated. Only the most vulgar traits of that potentially great people could get through into the minds of foreigners by means of these crude instruments. And so, by the floods of poison issuing from this people's baser members, the whole world, and with it the nobler parts of America herself, were irrevocably corrupted. (21-22)

Those are true words for this American expat, who renounces most of American television, political rhetoric, slovenly dietary habits, and the obsession with consumerism. Olaf Stapleton in his preface (ix-xii) to Last and First Men says, “American readers … may feel that their great nation is given a somewhat unattractive part in the story. I have imagined the triumph of a cruder sort of Americanism … May this not occur in the real world!” (xi). Sorry Olaf, your worst fears materializes much sooner than you prophesized! Further, “Some readers, taking my story to be an attempt at prophecy, may deem it unwarrantably pessimistic. But it is nor prophecy; it is myth, or an essay in myth” (xi). Sadly, what started as an exercise in moldable myth became a monopole of reality.

The first four chapters aren’t as weighty as Benford suggests; they are rich with insight and chock full of ominous signs for the next few hundred, thousand, million and billion years of human evolution.

Chapter I: Balkan Europe

Compounded pride and ignorance, ever the silent pusher in human affairs, claim the lives of many in the Anglo-French War. Thereafter, nationalism is seen as a swarthy agent of a nation’s demise, yet, when fingers are pointed they point both ways. With global interests of economy, America plays a tepid role in affairs, unacting themselves yet always nosy in the mind’s eye of the population; thus, the poisoning of the Russo-German war.

“Like most wars, the Angelo-French War had increased the desire for peace, yet made peace less secure” (18).
Chapter II: Europe’s Downfall

After Europe’s bickering divided the continent, America fills the vacuum of power. Globalizing the world with American products, America is “respected for their enterprise” yet “universally feared and envied” (21). Suspicious of competition and resistance, America makes its military pressure known with airbases and flyovers, one of which happens at the wrong time at the wrong place; thus, leading to a European megadeath and global fear of simply criticizing the powerful nation.

“For in a declining civilization it is often the old who see furthest  and see with the youngest eyes” (28).
Chapter III: America and China

Though as Americanized as the rest of the world in regards to media, language, and habit, China arises to become America’s chief global counterbalance of influence. Cultural differences divide the populous nations of China and India, yet America allies itself with Russian mysticism and China allies itself with the rigorous Germans. With the globe divided by the influence of the two nations, conflict can be sparked form noble beginnings and be fueled by patriotism.

“America was balanced between the will merely to effect an economy and political unification or the world, and a fanatical craving to impose American culture on the East” (45).
Chapter IV: An Americanized Planet

Nearly four hundred years after the European War (Chapter I), a World State and its President of the World are established. Science, empirical thought held in such high regard it borders on mysticism, impregnates the daily life of each citizen who all revere the mysterious greatness of the ancient Chinese scientist Gordelpus, the Prime Mover. However, having expended Earth’s sources of oil, they are left to rely on Antarctica’s veins of coal.

“[T]his age, for more than the notorious ‘nineteenth century’, was the great age of barren complacency” (61).
Chapter V: The Fall of the First Men

With the utter eclipse of the World State and, with it, the knowledge and pride, so too befalls the glory of Man in progress. The Dark Ages settle in for many millennia yet geological processes continue unabated, without care for Man or his progress. From the fragments of Man rise a fledging civilization in the landmass of the once South Atlantic who rediscover their ancestor’s greatness and, with it, its power for destruction and cruelty.

“Deprived of power, machinery, and chemical fertilizer, these bumpkins were hard put to keep themselves alive” (78).
Chapter VI: Transition

Only twenty-eight hearty, intelligent souls survived the megadeath of the epic subterranean blast and found purchase on an inhabitable tract of land in northern Siberia. A schism physically divides the settlement—one half of the survivors staying on the coats and the other half crossing the seas… only to slowing devolve to barbarianism. Even the cultured and learned settlement found itself helpless to their natural state of inbred infertility and inflexibility.

“[T]hey had no longer the capacity to profit much from the new clemency of nature … Little by little this scanty human race degenerated into a mere remnant of Arctic savages” (107).
Chapter VII: The Rise of the Second men

From the dregs of the First man’s ultimate Dark Age arose a passive species of its very descent. Meanwhile, across the great continental divide of mountains, a lesser form of man had devolved among simians which developed superior intellectual capacity; yet, these capacities were limited when compared to the great Siberian intellect. Jealousy leaves a rift and the demise of both races, regardless of a zenith for sexual revival, soon approached.

“So much, in the fullness of time, could be achieved, even without mechanical power, by a species gifted with high intelligence and immune from anti-social self-regard” (121).
Chapter VIII: The Martians

Near a village in the Alpine peaks, a green cloud-cum-jelly descended from the sky to temporarily terrorize the curious and unfortunate. The cloud, actually a supermind of ultra-microscopic Martian entities, soon depart for unknown reasons, but the alien mind of the Martian individual and group psyche are as irrational as the minds of men. While advanced and industrious, the Martians are also flawed by a type of monomania.

“The Martians were in many ways extremely well equipped for mental progress and for true spiritual adventure, but … they were driven to thwart their own struggling spirits at every turn” (142).
Chapter IX: Earth and Mars

Millennia pass as recurrent intrusions by the Martians, each time being defeated by the crafty Second Men, but each time diminishing Man’s will to fight.  Eventually, complete colonization of the Earth is accomplished by the Martians and further study of the humans reveals their intellectual capacity. Self-confidence is found in Man who then defeat the Martians, but not before lassitude, lingering Martian saboteurs, and starvation change Man’s nature.

“[T]hey had determined to see their own racial tragedy as a thing of beauty, and they had failed” (155).
Chapter X: The Third Men in the Wilderness

Freed from the yolk of Martian overrule and ushered into diversity from a glacial period, the Third Men evolved to become of special aural talent. Keen hunters yet also keen manipulators, the Third Men found a particular pleasure in the godliness of pain and considered its affliction upon lesser beings high excellent as it brought about “vivid psychic reality” (166). Fond of music, objective versus subjective harmony resulted in a chasm of displeasure.

“[T]hough sometimes capable of a penetrating mystical intuition, they never seriously disciplined themselves under philosophy, nor tried to relate their mystical intuitions with the rest of their experience” (165).
Chapter XI: Man Remakes Himself

Savvy of manipulating germ cells and with a maniacal drive to create the most supreme mind, the Third Men are able to create a superior mind with a vestigial body then, simply, a massive mind capable to incredible intellectual feats… and only that. The Great Minds then produces further Great Minds, thus producing the Fourth Men. Exterminating the pests and peasants of the Third Men, the Great Minds create their own version of human perfection, mobile yet brilliant—the artificial Fifth Men.

“[I]n both science and art man kept recurring again and again to the ancient themes, to work over them once more in meticulous detail and strike from them new truth and new beauty” (204).
Chapter XII: The Last Terrestrials

Telapathically linked as a whole, death much distressed the Fifth Men, whose lifespans reached upwards of 50,000 years. they yearned for the truth of an afterlife and found that the past was still tangible, thus began their obsession with remotely viewing the past. Never deceived, the Fifth Men also had to look forward to the terraforming of Venus because Earth’s destiny was to be sealed by its fateful dance with its orbiting moon.

“[Q]uite early in their career they discovered an unexpected beauty in the very fact that the individual must die … immortality, they held, would lead to spiritual disaster” (206).
Chapter XIII: Humanity on Venus

With the native Venerians destroyed, the Fifth Men were slowly able to evolve, with much hardship, into the Sixth Men, a species which highly valued the beauty of flight. Their unremarkable, depressing existence gave way to the most splendid , rapturous species of Flying Men—the Seventh Men. Through gaiety and bliss, their short lives focused little on the sciences, so they bore the Eighth men—sturdy, intelligent, diligent, and unexpectedly unprepared to settle the planet Neptune.

“It was inevitable that flight should obsess man on Venus … the riotous efflorescence of avian species shamed man’s pedestrian habits” (230).
Chapter XIV: Neptune

Ill-equipped for the barren wastelands of northern Neptune, the Ninth Men quickly suffered and devolved for millions of years, only occasionally arising to a brief flicker of intelligence. So went the proceeding Men, failures of their own success, until the Fifteenth Men, who “set themselves to abolish five great evils, namely, diseases, suffocating toil, senility, misunderstanding, ill-will” (251). Aware of their flaws, they created the Sixteenth Men, who devised the Seventeenth Men…

“Little by little, civilization crumbled into savagery, the torturing vision of better things was lost, man’s consciousness was narrowed and coarsened into brute-consciousness. By good luck the brute precariously survived” (246).
Chapter XV: The Last Men

The Eighteenth Men are the best adapted, longest living, and most conscious of the past, present, and future, yet they also know that they are to be the Last Men. They have lived the reality of a billion years of trial and error toward “harmonious complexity of form” and “the awakening of the spirit into unity, knowledge, delight and self-expression” (275). Life their evolution, the cosmos is very beautiful yet also very terrible and tragic.

“[E]ach individual has his own private needs, which he heartily craves to fulfil; but also … he subordinates these private cravings to the good of the race absolutely and without struggle” (265).
Chapter XVI: The Last of Man

Inevitable cosmic disaster bestows the Eighteenth Men with a great task: continue the two billion-year music of Man’s evolution or return the entire effort to stellar dust. Though slipping into anarchy and tribalism, the Men strive to produce intergalactic spore of Man which may seed a planet and continue mankind’s tragic history, though the possibly remains remote. The certain blaze of oncoming death, however, spurs a final brotherly effort to reconcile.

“[I]n the vast music of existence the actual theme of mankind now ceases for ever … The stored experience of many mankinds must sink into oblivion” (284).

Consider the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh: “Civilisations have been destroyed many times, and this civilisation is no different. It can be destroyed. We can think of time in terms of millions of years and life will resume little by little. The cosmos operates for us very urgently, but geological time is different.” This modern Buddhist philosopher’s words echo what Olaf Stapledon, a British philosopher from decades earlier. By Chapter XIV, Stapledon begins to wax lyrically about the petty existence of Mankind in terms of the lifespan of the cosmos: “[T]he whole duration of humanity … is but a flash in the lifetime of the cosmos” (244), and yet, even at the crescendo of consciousness which bestow the wise Men of the Last Men, Man still lies prone to all disasters which maybe come, be they cosmic or man-made:

At any stage of his career he might easily have been exterminated by some slight alteration of his chemical environment, by a more than usually malignant microbe, by a radical change of climate, or by the manifold effects of his own folly. (281)

Doris Lessing, in her afterword (295-297), cites four authors who admired Olaf Stapledon’s work: Brian Aldiss, Arthur C. Clarke, Stanislaw Lem, and Theodore Sturgeon. This impressive list of admirers is flattery enough, but, as Charles Caleb Colton had said, imitation is sincerest form of flattery. Three books epitomize this flattery:

(1) Aldiss’s own flattery in the form of imitation comes from his collection Starswarm (1964) where Man has settled 10,000 new worlds over one million years. These myriad “descendants of the inhabitants of Old Earth” (Signet, 1964) exhibit radical changes in society, in culture, and in physical form.

(2) Jack L. Chalker, best know his endless series of quests, wrote a quadrilogy entitled The Rings of the Master, which starts with Lords of the Middle Dark (1986). The proceeding three books explore Mankind which had been deliberately dispersed by Earth’s Master system and the cast’s attempt to retrieve the necessary rings to disable the System. Each world is home to an exotic form of Mankind, forcibly evolved to adapt to the planet’s climate.

(3) John Brunner’s A Maze of Stars (1991) is an amazing stereoscopic view of mankind’s evolving and devolving amid “the six hundred planets” which “had been seeded with human stock by the greatest feat of technology ever achieved” by The Ship. The Ship’s duty is to visit, time and again, each of the worlds it had seeded, for better or worse.


Regardless of its 83-year age, this book has stood the test of time, rendering it a testament to imagination to a magnificent scale, foresight on an epic scale, and intuitiveness of a grand scale. The decades haven’t been as kind to some science fiction books as is has been to Last and First Men—Asimov’s Foundation (1951) has a terribly dated feeling and Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1953) now feels limp and lackluster.

Disregard Gregory Benford’s simple-minded advice of ignoring the first four chapters of Last and First Men (a sixth of the entire book) because Stapledon’s ingenuity starts even before the first chapter, it starts in his preface; disregard people who dislike a book without a protagonist or central character because Mankind’s potential is the highlight here, and disregard my own opinion… this needs to be read.

PS: Here’s your 3,000-word review Jesse!

Monday, October 14, 2013

1965: The Day of the Star Cities (Brunner, John)

Struggles to find a toehold or point of advance (2/5)

The year 1965 was a busy year for John Brunner; he published seven novels: five with Ace (The Altar of Asconel, The Repairmen of Cyclops, The Martian Sphinx, Enigma from Tantalus, and The Day of the Star Cities), one with Ballantine (The Squares of the City), and one with Faber & Faber (The Long Result). However, unlike many other Brunner novels, this novel was neither serialized nor stitched-up. One might assume that this would make the novel more coherent, more focused… yet, one would be incorrect in that assumption. The Day of the Star Cities fails to find its voice amid the characters’ conjecturing, flaccid hypnotic slant, and hollowness of the aliens’ intentions.

The Day of the Star Cities has an alternative title of Age of Miracles (1973), but this is a revised edition and, by simply looking at the page count, a substantially longer book—158 pages and 300 pages, respectively.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The first hint that Earthmen had that aliens had come to their planet was a catastrophic one. Suddenly, without warning, all the atomic weapons and fissionable material on Earth were blown up. Panic, death and chaos reigned for months before things began to get back under control.

By that time reports were already coming in of five mysterious star-shaped cities scattered over the globe—huge area [sic] of flickering light and awesome free energy, disorganizing to human senses and impregnable to attack. The aliens had built their bases on Earth.

But were they only bases, or—something else?”


Though called “cities” by the helpless natives of Earth, the actual purpose of the towering translucent structures is unknown, yet some hold a theory that, rather than housing alien intelligences, the “cities” are actually the nodal points of an alien interstellar transportation system. The five “cities”—located in Russia, Brazil, America, Australia, and Antarctica—are each shaped like a star and are also arranged in array, a fact which leads credence to the transportation theory.

Humans are barred from entry by subjection to permanent delirium; those who have entered and returned are called “crazies” yet rumor has it that a Russian child possesses the ability of entering the city and returned unscathed. Members of a resistance group in opposition to the militant dictators kidnap the boy and aim for the western American coast, where they happen upon rescue by American sympathizers.

In America, too, there is rumor of one child’s ability to enter the city and return with a glowing artifact. These live artifacts are very rare as most of the detritus surrounding each city is dead, inoperable and without notable function; the American separatist state of Grady’s Ground was founded on the trade of these artifacts and Grady himself is very eager to collect functioning pieces of alien technology. However, other people, as equally as unscrupulous as Grady himself, are also after the artifacts which could bring huge amounts of money and, thence, power. In an era where the governmental reach has collapsed, holding power is greatly beneficial to survival, expansion, and control.

Dennis Radcliffe is once such swarthy peddler. In a bar, casually having a beer like any man, a crazy materializes in the bar and assaults Den screaming “Damn you … you did this to me, you bastard” (6). Never having seen the man before, Den is perplexed by the accusations and, as any man would have, defends himself against the crazed man, killing him. Sheriff Waldron questions Den, without much success, and attempts to solve the mystery of the crazy, whose innards are laterally swapped and whose face is exactly similar to Corey Bennett… who is without twin and still alive in Grady’s Ground.

Confounded by the mysterious crazy, hampered by the fanaticism of the religious zealot’s outside the city, and impelled to seek answers to the Star Cities’ origins, Waldron, a band of Russian dissenters, and a host of minor characters aim to settle the rumors, quash the untruths—hypnotism may be a key in understanding why children can enter the Cities while adults turn crazy.


Essentially a mystery filled with knavish characters, The Day of the Star Cities isn’t very enticing as a mystery. The Cities are dull monoliths as are the aliens; neither are explored to any length, so rather than being awed by the pellucid behemoths, the reader diverts attention to future history within. With the destruction of all nuclear piles under 1.2 kilograms (or thereabout), industrializes countries have been ravaged by blasts and radiation, thereby crippling the power of each government. Sadly, how people fare in the headless Union isn’t covered very well.

The knaves which inhabit the plot are all pretty uniform—out for themselves, out for money, or out for power: “Greedy, unscrupulous, careless of the future” (120). Things are so bad and unpredictable, some claim that it’s “a damned sight safer dealing with the aliens than with our own lunatic species” (103). Ever since the occupation, humans have been unable to contact the aliens so any such dealings with the occupiers are pure myth. The only glimmer of light shed on the aliens is when a nebulous clouds descends on a stolen artifact (a mystery of which is left to taper off and die).

Eventually, Brunner returns to two time-honored favorites of his: spies and hypnotism. Psycho-spies are a minor element of the plot but the existence of it irks me endlessly along with hypnotism, a seemingly faultless science of the future, which is used to resolve a key plot hole. The solution is lazy and overused, lazy being an adjective which could encompass much of the book—perhaps this is why Brunner rewrote it, extended it, and republished it eight years later in 1973. I can’t compare the two, so this is purely hypothetical.


Some earlier Brunner is surely much better, The World Swappers (1959) and Meeting at Infinity (1961) among them, both Ace paperbacks. Naturally, some later Brunner also suits my tastes: Quicksand (1967) and Stand on Zanzibar (1968), for example. Though one of my favorite authors, Brunner is still hit-or-miss. This being the 27th Brunner book I’ve read, I stand by my conviction with an air of reassurance gained through the thick and thin, good and bad of what Brunner has had to offer the reader… yet, this journey is far from complete.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

1971: Metamorphosis and Other Stories (Kafka, Franz)

Repercussions of isolation, both forced and willed (5/5)

I know of Kafka by reputation alone—a German author from the early 20th century, whose prose has confounded many readers with short attention spans... pity them. I’ve read what has been referred to as “Kafkaesque” literature and found it stimulating, though lengthy: Carter Scholz’s Radiance (2002) and Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland (1991) come to mind. My analyses of the stories in this collection are entirely based on my own opinion, undiluted by popular belief, contextual extrapolation, or academic exposition.

The stories resonate with four type of repressive isolation:

(1) The hermitage in “Metamorphosis” is enforced while the other stories exhibit a willingness for seclusion—notably, the anthropomorphic “The Burrow”;

(2) Monomaniacal fixations also penetrate the isolation, as in “The Investigations of a Dog” and “The Burrow”;

(3) This sense of isolation also extends to separation from the State in “The Great Wall of China”; and

(4) Lack of self-esteem or self-confidence can trigger fatal isolation, as in “Metamorphosis” and “The Penal Colony”.


Metamorphosis (novella, 1915/1947) – 5/5 – Gregor Samsa supports his parents and untalented sister with his mediocre job which he loathes, but he gets along grudgingly until one morning when he wakes to find himself abruptly transformed in an insectoid figure, hideous and loathsome. His family quarantine him to his room and feed him orts and leftovers, a duty his sister fulfills aside from supplanting income lost, as do the parents, by finding their own jobs; but it’s Grete who takes to French, shorthand, and the violin. Soon, Gregor sees himself supplanted. 55 pages

A familiar story where a man hates his job yet still performs it flawlessly for the pay and hope for advancement; the one time he fails to show up for work on time, due to the unfortunate circumstance in which he finds himself being a big disgusting insect, results in a cascade of bridled accusations from his employer and even his own family. Already suffering in this transmogrification, Gregor is dealt repeated blows to his ego when his mother refuses to see him, when they remove furniture from his room, and when the careless susurrus of their loathing reach his chamber. His inability to eat makes him weak yet he is still drawn to the embrace of his family and, overall, to the music his sister produces. When he creeps from his solitude to the room where she plays for guests, his appearance shocks the guests and his fate is soon sealed.

Perhaps remaining in solitude, maintaining the hermitage of his loathsome appearance, he would eventually be happy in his new guise. He seems to be an honest man who’s had an accident—an abrupt change from man to beast—and is being vilified for this. Though not his fault, he feels persecuted for the turn of events, during which his family undergoes their own metamorphosis. Is this reflective of Kafka’s running theme of lonesomeness, of personal helplessness or self-hate?


The Great Wall of China (shortstory, 1931/1952) – 4/5 – The successive empires of the constantly shifting Chinese dynasties have charted epic plans to build a Great Wall of China, though the construction of the extensive project seems odd to one worker from the southeast: Why build random 500-meter segments along the Wall’s entire length? What daft emperor would ever suggest such a ridiculous plan? What fundamental cultural defect could undermine the remarkable scheme against the unseen northern barbarians? 15 pages

The word “government” is an abstract noun and an abstract concept; one is unable to touch government let alone actually see governance. Just as in 1931, the gap between the common man and the federal government is a massive chasm filled with bickering, scheming, and mysterious motives. Like the man contemplating the planning of the Great Wall, the common man only see the output, the physical structures of the planning. When this planning and construction run smoothly, we hardly notice; when is goes awry or is counter-intuitive, only then do we begin to question the authority (in this case, the Empire). Kafka offers a morsel of insight into this human nature, an impetus which can rattle our human condition only because it’s one of our human faults: “Human nature, essentially changeable, unstable as the dust, can endure no restraint; if it binds itself it soon begins to tear madly at its bonds, until it rends everything asunder, the wall, the bonds and its very self” (71-72).

This separation between “the empowered” and “the power”, or in the Chinese man’s case between “the employee” and “the Empire”, can be belittling knowing that everyone in the world is doing something without you, knowing that schemes are being employed which affect you yet no one bothers to ask you for your opinion. Kafka points to a culture origin for this chasm, perhaps a uniquely Chinese phenomena: “[T]his very weakness should seem to be one of the greatest unifying influences among our people” (80). We tend to all loathe the working of our government, a shared interest in which we form ideas, policies, and parties, thence becoming the thing we loathe. This is another manifestation of loneliness; rather than focusing this hate inwards, Kafka has turned the mirror toward a common, ever present yet nebulous concept—governance.


Investigations of a Dog (novelette, 1931/1946) – 4/5 – A mewling yet scientifically-minded pup considers the general realm of dogdom and inquires into the unspoken law of dogs where making “no reply to the greetings of other dogs” is “guilty of an offence against good manners” (90); furthermore, this young na├»ve pup, as reflective and precocious as a sage, aims to tackle the loftiest of questions, however subjective the impetus is: “Whence does the earth procure this food?” (95)—music may point the way. 42 pages

Isolated by intellectualism, this scholarly dog mulls over inane questions which other dogs seem oblivious to or well beyond caring to answer. Monomaniacal yet scientifically trained, the essence of the investigative dog spears questions to his own kind’s temperament yet battles overcoming the subjective dilemma which permeates the nature of his question: self observing self. This metaphorical hall of mirrors limits the scope of the investigation to the obvious while the observer infinitely regresses: the self observes self observing self observing self, etc.

Furthermore, his investigations are clouded by early childhood experience, which he continually refers to as a sort of root cause to his investigations; this memory taints his subjectiveness into his supposedly scholarly probing and, ultimately, drives him into unproductive monomania: “[M]any things that are disposed of in the minds of grown-ups are not yet settled in the minds of the young” (93).


The Burrow (shortstory [unfinished], 1946/1952) – 5/5 – Having concocted a maze of underground tunnels to the point of perfection, a solitary mole stands back to appreciate his work with the labyrinth of dirt, cubbyholes of sleepy serenity, and the Castle Keep of grandeur and security; yet, the hermit realizes the unsteady state of his own construction and that of his own life, both of which must be watch vigilantly, listened to earnestly, and reassessed at all times and in all manners. 38 pages

Ingenious yet monomaniacal, the mole had set out to dig the most brilliant of all burrows and, as a result of his success, has become obsessed with its sanctity; cubbyholes are continually investigated, all sounds and resulting intrusions are quickly dealt with, and the division of his food store is constantly reassessed and redistributed. Occasionally sated with its perfection, the mole sleeps “the sweet sleep of tranquility” (131) but jerks awake with inklings of improvement or doubts of flawlessness, thus rabidly running about his labyrinth with a sense of meticulous duty; this doubtfulness also urges him to spy on both the real hidden entrance and the fake entrance, a period of vigilance which he feels must stretch to infinity to ensure his construction’s perfection. His monomania reaches extreme distress when he is unable to locate a ubiquitous scratching that penetrates the entire tunnel system.

The mole’s inevitable undoing from the omnipresent rasping is the one infiltration into his subterranean fortress, an enemy which has no physical manifestation other than the torment it inflicts on the mole’s mind. Satisfied with the physical perfection and allocation of stores, the one constant the mole is unable to control is the ever-nagging aural bombardment—possibly, the source of the sound is actually a hallucination due to the mole’s schizophrenia, torn between perfection and adjustment.


In the Penal Settlement (novelette, 1919/1968) – 5/5 – Next to an empty, earthen grave stands “a remarkable piece of apparatus” (169) which executes its victim only after six hours of needled tattooing—the torturing tattoo a fitting message repeated all upon the body before being dumped into the grave. Invented by the Commandant but now cared for by a single officer, the workings of the apparatus are generally known to the officer and are being explained to an explorer, whose mere presence at the camp makes men reconsider their morals and allegiance. 31 pages

The explorer in the story is simply an agent of change or, in this instance, a change of thought. The officer is staunch in his support for the contraption of execution, yet without the reassuring word of the apparatus’ creator, the Commandant. Relating the machine’s intricacies to the explorer, the officer’s confidence begins to show when asked whence the spare parts come, to which he confesses of the inferiority of the necessary replacements.

His armor of confidence cracked, the officer parries off further damage by insisting that the explorer support his ideals, yet a fatal blow is dealt to the officer when his strategic offense goes awry. Having been the sole supporter of the contraption and its devilish tattooing, the officer’s armor of confidence is weak and any opposition to his delusions is provably fatal.


The Giant Mole (shortstory [unfinished], 1931/1949) – 4/5 – A small village is visited by a giant mole and, while only a few people witnessed the odd event, an “old village teacher” (203) penned a pamphlet about the oddity but received very little attention aside from amusement and a scholarly cold shoulder. In defense and in support of the old village teacher, another man aims to produce his own pamphlet which correlates eyewitness accounts, hence lending credibility to the whole incident; the pamphlet backfires when the teacher feels challenged and tried. 16 pages

Author/philosopher Albert Camus once said, “[G]ood intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding”. Clearly is such the case of the man’s pamphlet, where he simply wanted to add another level of authenticity to the village teacher’s and refresh the memory of the local phenomena; however, the school teacher misunderstood the man’s intentions and rather than collude and collectively deduce, the teacher chose to exclude and writher in obscurity.

Upon rejection from the university scholar, the teacher felt dejected and closed off the matter to all but himself. His resultant isolation steeped him in a silent rage of self-conviction which was sensitive to the slightest pressure, resulting in a fierce lashing out toward opposition or support—in this instance, the support was seen as opposition. Regardless of good intentions from others, the village teacher became a island of scholarly dejection.