Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mason & Dixon ARC (1997)

At some point in the early 1980s, I took an oddball science fiction course -- one of only two such classes in fantastic fiction offered by my university during the time I was there. I say oddball because it wasn't a genre overview by any stretch of the imagination: no context of tradition for our course selections was established, Wells or Verne merited little mention, and I'm sure Hugo Gernsback never came up. Our primary text was a contemporary and relatively generic best-of anthology published by Playboy, and lecture discussions were on how topical concerns related to whatever we'd just been assigned (meaning, more than anything, it was yet another course in metaphor). Not counting my recollection of the professor's ridiculously scraggly beard, two things have stayed with me: being spellbound by George R.R. Martin's excellent novella Sandkings, and, in a rare moment when the Golden Age peeked into the windows of our classroom, listening to a scratchy LP audio interview with Isaac Asimov wherein he brought up John Campbell's notion that sci-fi isn't an isolated genre, but rather the exact opposite: every genre is actually a subset of science fiction, covering as it does all of time and space and possibility.

I've been known to drag that posit out when in the presence of someone staunchly claiming to hate science fiction on principle, usually just to make them hush for a minute. But this morning while pondering my summer vacation reading, Mason & Dixon, which ranks among my favorite novels, came to mind. If any one book could serve as exemplar for Campbell's definition, it could well be this one: a historical romance employing modern meta-storytelling techniques to re-imagine a young America, the virgin landscape divided by a couple of star-crossed, star-gazing, unassuming surveyors onto whose humble names crashed a terrifying amount of significant history. Pynchon lays out his agenda on page 349, declaring that history's Practitioners, to survive, must soon learn the arts of the quidnunc, spy, and Taproom Wit, a jack-of-all-trades job description sounding suspiciously like Novelist. Thus, here is the Past given focus through modern lenses, retrofitted for Star Trek references, and otherwise complete with psychic talking dogs, a watch powered by perpetual-motion, sentient bread dough, and a robot duck. Maybe I was never taught any better, but if this historical Frankenstein's monster isn't science fiction, I don't know what is.

This is an advance reader's copy, an artifact from my bookseller days courtesy of a generous sales rep, one of 500 with promotional information on the back (another 500 were in generic wraps). I'd only made it through the Transit of Venus section when the first hardback editions came in, so this one is essentially unread, a treasure. For a long time, I had one of the specially-printed cardboard crates Henry Holt shipped the early printings in (like many things, it didn't survive my time in Montgomery), but I do still have some ridiculous promo cards, suitable for framing, advertising the cinderblock-sized tome as a breezy beach read, canvas lounge chairs parked beneath particolored umbrellas and all. Because, why not. It's only science fiction, after all.