The works of H.P. Lovecraft have with the age of the internet experienced a renaissance. A man who in his prime was viewed as not much more than a pulp writer, today he is one of the most respected authors of horror in the world. Lovecraft’s specialty was in writing eldritch horror, stories of otherworldly and cosmic creatures of near-godlike power, so fantastical in scope that looking upon them drove men mad. He gave his monsters tentacles and scales, made them slimy and alien, and surrounded them in a shroud of mystery. They were worshiped by cults, whose followers were often cursed with insanity, and sometimes disgusting features that mirrored their god. Nearly a hundred years after he first published “The Call of Cthulhu”, his most famous work, his influence can be traced to hundreds of works in literature, cinema and interactive storytelling. Yet so much of his writing is fundamentally misunderstood. Too often do people mimic his style and aesthetic (Cthulhu himself has become a staple of horror monsters) without understanding the underlying theme that Lovecraft was desperate to get across. At the heart of his stories are not scary monsters and blood and gore, but a more existential horror: fear of the unknown, lurking in the depths of space, dwarfing our tiny planet.
What Lovecraft wanted to capture with his fantastical creatures was the idea that not only was humanity not alone in the universe, but the beings who inhabited it were so powerful, so massive, so incomprehensible that we were nothing but ants to them. Lovecraft believed that what people truly found horrifying was that which challenged our delusions of grandeur. He wanted to confront his readers with how insignificant they were, how small our species was, compared to the vastness and complexity of the universe. To this end he decided to distill the mystery and scale of the universe into physical form, that man could be confronted by it, and the implication became that should anyone ever confront this manifestation of infinity it would be the most horrific experience in their life. The horror of Cthulhu, of Lovecraft’s many monsters is a metaphor for the horror of how small we are. Nothing could save humanity from this horror. The most we could do was to be ignorant of it.
Lovecraft’s horror is one for the modern man, the man who has abandoned religion and become a god unto himself. It confronts the arrogance and avarice of his bloated sense of self with the realities of existence, and dares him to gaze into the abyss and not despair. Beyond the creepy monsters and disturbing settings, this is the true legacy of Lovecraft’s writing. No wonder that he has become so beloved.
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Growing up, I hardly knew of any female sci-fi writers. Undoubtedly the majority of all sci-fi writers tend to identify as male, which clearly has shaped the genre- sci-fi can be both macho and sexist with a clear tendency towards writing for a homogenous audience (a male one) . There are, however, some exceptions to the rule, one being the writer Tanith Lee, whose writing style has been described as perverse, erotic, lush and vibrant. Not exactly your every-day sci-fi style in other words. Her book “Don’t bite the Sun”, published in 1976, portrays the life of a young woman in a utopian world. This is a world wherein you are reborn if you commit suicide, you can completely change your appearance on a whim and do whatever you please with no consequences. Engaging in promiscuous sex is the norm and seeking thrills wherever they can be found seems to be every person’s goal in life. This is an environment everyone but two characters seem to thrive- the narrator and the person who falls in love with her. Her personal quest is to find happiness in a world where on the surface it seems readily available, but in reality it is merely base and unfulfilling.
The novel deftly explores complex philosophical themes such as the merits of a utopian state and mankind’s existential need for fulfillment and purpose. But more than that, it explores the theme of motherhood, and takes an approach to the sci-fi genre that before this novel was virtually unheard of: putting an emphasis on feminine values and perceptions. And that is where the true heart of this novel lies. Far too often are sci-fi authors inclined to avoid anything more than a basic human perspective on their carefully crafted dystopian and utopian societies, preferring sterile and
omniscient viewpoints where all facets of their world can be carefully deconstructed from a position of rationality. What Tanith Lee understands better than any of these authors is that humans aren’t always rational, that you desperately need emotions for your writing to resonate with the human soul. The utopia of Don’t Bite the Sun conforms to utilitarian ideas of a perfect world, yet through the lense of the narrator we see it for the hedonistic and empty place it truly is. The more the narrator grows as a character, and the more she grows as a woman, the more her existence becomes a living nightmare. When she grows attached to a desert animal she has adopted she wakes up to how shallow her relationships with others truly are. When she leaves the immortal structures of her city and ventures into the wild she falls in love with its frailty and beauty. As she experiences loss for the first time she is made painfully aware of how little comfort her world’s luxuries can bring her.
Don’t Bite the Sun is the rare kind of dystopian novel that isn’t interested in exploring the world it has created so much as the characters that inhabit it. It is a deeply human story that is aided by its sci-fi setting without ever being upstaged by it. Books like these are the proof that certain stories are best told together with a fantastical element.
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Fyodor Dostoyevsky is undoubtedly most known for his magnum opus, Crime and Punishment. However, he has written several other masterpieces- my personal favourite is one of his first works, Notes from Underground, which was the beginning to what I like to call Dostoyevsky’s existentialism. It was the beginnings to a completely new era of modern philosophical literature that would seduce Europe, with him as its founding father. Decades before narcissism even would become a psychological concept, Dostoyevsky perfectly encaptured it with his main character in Notes from the Underground. The novella is written out of the main character’s perspective, a foul 40-something old man, the first part of the book being his diary where he contemplates his own life and himself, and the second part figuring him as anti-hero, narrator and first person.
Dostoyevsky’s own reflections on Nihilism and rationalism are excellently, concealed in the message of the main character’s mere ramblings, but Dostoyevsky also unknowingly perfectly describes a psychological phenomenon, which we connote most commonly with the modern, 21th century man- pure narcissism. The Underground Man, as the main character is called, takes pleasure in being ruthlessly honest, rude or condescending towards his fellow man. He constantly whines about different afflictions he refuses to do anything about, happy with having something to complain about and suffer from. He embraces the weird and disturbed nature of himself and the universe surrounding him, ravelling in being decrepit and refusing to better himself to become more like “ordinary men” as, they too, disgust him. Page after page the reader is showered with his self-doubts, arrogance, self-hatred and insecurities- he is seemingly obsessed with his self-image and how he is perceived. Once again, a typical example of narcissism. But the amazing this is the realisation when you as a reader understands that the Underground man is not just a despicable man, but a reflection of any person’s mind, taken to its extreme. The Underground Man is a caricature of several different stereotypes that can be found in modern society as easily as it could be found in the 1800’s. He reflects both the typical Alpha male at the same time as the Beta Male. He is eager to push weaker people down, to highlight his own strengths and make him seem like the better person, but he can also be the weak, unsecure and fragile Beta Male that could easily be hurt by other people (and with wounded pride, never forgive them).
In short, Notes from the Underground might as well be called Notes for your Psychology test, as it pinpoints all the symptoms of narcissism, in a ground-breaking manner for a book written before narcissism was even a concept.
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