Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones was so uninteresting to me that I wasn’t going to write about it. Then I got to thinking about the comments posted by Joachim Boaz for the last story. He didn’t like my statement “And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.” Besides disagreeing with it, he thought I was being too absolute. I should have clarified things by saying, “For me, fiction works best when it’s not solely intellectual.”

There’s nothing emotional in “The Hall of Machines” and it has generated lackluster support on our discussion of it. But Austin Beeman commented, “Since so much of Sf is setting, story and characters are not always necessary. Found this story beautiful and haunting. Really enjoyed it.” Evidently, stories without emotions do have their fans.

I could have amended my original statement to say, “Since I’ve gotten older, fiction works best when it’s not only intellectual” because I can remember a time when I liked stories just for their neat ideas. But even then, none of those stories would rank in my list of favorite stories.

I remember trying to read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. It’s a novel with many fans and critical support. However, I thought Pynchon was only being clever and just couldn’t find anything to love about the characters or plot and quit reading. My guess is fiction that focuses on intellectual entertainment has admirers and that’s why Joachim was so annoyed with my statement. But I still assume most readers want an emotional connection with fiction. That doesn’t mean those same books can’t have intellectual value, I’m just saying it’s the emotional connection that makes readers love a story.

If you look at any list of best novels or short stories, most, if not all, succeed because of their emotional impact. “The Hall of Machines” has nothing for the reader who wants a character to care about. I was surprised by how little I could find on Langdon Jones. Wikipedia redirects queries on his name to the entry on New Worlds magazine. I could only find one photo of him on Google. I haven’t read anything else by Jones, but if “The Hall of Machines” is typical for his fiction, I can understand why he’s not remembered.

Evidently, the VanderMeers do like stories with an intellectual focus. It explains why I haven’t liked several of these stories we’ve already read. I should be less critical of their inclusion because I’m guessing from Joachim’s complaint such stories do have their admirers. I apologize.

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James Wallace Harris, 11/27/21

13 thoughts on ““The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones

  1. “I Remember Anita”, “Transient”, “The Great Clock”, and “The Garden of Delights” are all worth a look, and were much better than a lot of other stories that New Worlds published at the time.

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    1. I wish I had found that and linked it to my essay. Jones needs more press. I wonder why he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry? And I’m fascinated by his work on Titus Alone. “The Hall of Machines did remind me of the time I tried to read Gormenghast.

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  2. Langdon Jones’ “The Hall of Machines” speaks to my thesis regarding the pleasures and pains of the infodump. Though here, Jones ironically inverts the infodump insofar as the aim of the information provided is somewhat mysterious—or even pointless.

    I feel that if you are going to engage with the content then you must engage allegorically. The Hall could be an analogue for the human body transformed into a machine with its various process and compartments. Or it could be a commentary upon the human world itself c. the 1960s being transformed into a vast machine. Or…

    I liked the way Jones’ prose oscillates from the relatively bland and informative to the more lyrical (for instance, in the sections Machines of Death—3, and Death of Machines—1). I also was fascinated by the image of creation/destruction he invokes, and implicitly the futility of creating in the face of the rule of entropy.

    The form and content of the story reminded me not only of fellow New Wavers like Ballard, but especially of Jorge Louis Borges.

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    1. There are fictional works that pretend to be nonfiction, and sometimes they are so interesting that they are entertaining. I read nonfiction all the time for entertainment. But it’s hard to pull off a good infodump. James Michener often started his novels with long historical passages which were fascinating.

      “The Hall of Machines” was somewhat interesting to me, but never ignited. It felt like an extract from a larger work. It also felt a tiny bit like a guy walking around in the painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymus Bosch. To me, it needed more context.

      I can understand how some people could find it engaging. Have you read Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant?” Much of it is the description of the giant, and over time, the description of its decay. However, Ballard works up a good context for all that description. “The Hall of Machines” needs more context to make it a truly successful story.

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      1. I do read a lot of non-fiction too, mostly philosophical theory and to a lesser extent modern and ancient history. I have a PhD in philosophy. My area of specialisation is broadly Hegelian-Marxist theory & practice, with a particular focus on Guy Debord and the Situationist International—tho I don’t work as an academic. To be frank I despise what the university system has been transformed into, insofar as they are mostly degree factories these days hell-bent on maximalising profit and production.

        “The Hall of Machines” is a part of a larger work that includes two other short pieces, tho I suspect you wouldn’t like these very much either. Joachim reviews them positively here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2016/05/10/book-review-the-eye-of-the-lens-langdon-jones-1972/

        I love the idea of Jones’ story making you feel like you were wandering around in Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Tho I feel that it’s lack of success in being what you call a “truly successful story” is what makes it interesting to me.

        I have read “The Drowned Giant” but more than 20 years ago. I’m planning on a major revisit of Ballard over the next year, so hopefully when I get around to that one I’ll have more to say!

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  3. The formal experiments in form and content among some of the SF New Wave raises the question of the influence of the broader literary and artistic avant-gardes of the 19th and 20th centuries. Without engaging with this it is hard to understand what is going on, particularly if we are hoping to be entertained or enjoy a vicarious escape.

    The discussion that you and Joachim have had regarding the extent to which a work engages one intellectually and/or emotionally I think begins to address the question of the worth of works like Jones’ to some extent. But it was something else Joachim said that I feel holds the key. He wrote: “one reads to escape.” To my thinking there are two broad types of “escape” that can be enacted through reading fiction. One is what is usually meant by escape: the apparent escape from the humdrum of the everyday into a fantastical world of excitement and adventure. By far the least interesting of escapes to my mind, even if I would hesitate to say that it doesn’t have its own peculiar joys. The other, I feel, is what Joachim is gesturing at. The escape of the limited perspective of the individual, a sort of “othering” that allows us to escape or expand our individual horizons.

    How does this relate to the 19th and 20th century avant-gardes? The SF New Wave in the 1960s is in many respects re-enacting a singular discovery of the past avant-gardes: the freedom of the word. The idea that one need not simply hew to the forms and contents that we have inherited from the past. The literal escape from the strictures of the received wisdom regarding literary form and content. Certainly, this sense of literary freedom is apparent in Jones’ work that dispenses with the pleasantries of plot and characterisation. I believe it opens on to greater vistas that cannot simply be addressed in literature: for instance, the idea of freely constructing our social and natural relations with each other as Jones’ constructs his story. This is certainly the thesis of Guy Debord and the situationists.

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    1. That’s a great distinction, that there are two kinds of escapes. Maybe there are three. You mention escaping from thinking about everyday life. And escaping into a new perspective. What if the writer is also escaping from the conventions of fiction writing?

      There are times when I enjoy the second and third types of escapes, especially when I was younger. Now that I’m older and jaded for most fiction, I want a story that uses all the tricks in a writer’s toolbox to take me into a dazzling story that works on multiple levels at once. I’m not really interested in experiments, because usually, they’re fragmentary, aiming to test out only one aspect of a good story.

      I’ve written about my rating system before. A 3 is a good solid professionally written story. A 4 is a story I like so much I look forward to rereading in the future. A 5 is a story I’ve read and reread many times over my lifetime. Nowadays I hope every new story I read is a 4 that will become a 5. That doesn’t happen of course, but it’s what I’m searching for.

      “The Hall of Machines” is barely a 3. I give it that because it’s being reprinted in this anthology. However, it needs more to take off.

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      1. If you modify “your” rating upwards because two other people put it in a retrospective anthology then it’s not your rating anymore. If you think it’s a 2, why not just say so?

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        1. Good question. If a story is published multiple times by different editors and I dislike it, I assume it has virtues I can’t perceive. I’ll give it a 3 because I assume all those editors saw something I didn’t.

          Ratings are so relative that I don’t want to discourage people from trying a story just because it didn’t work with me. I figure I’ve already given my specific criticism.

          I’ve thought of only writing about stories I believe are 4, 4+, or 5. I want to encourage people to read stories, rather than telling people to avoid them.

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      2. I like the idea of considering what I call “the freedom of the word” as a third escape. Tho I feel that this third “escape” takes us further into everyday life, or at least has the potential to. In that sense I would hierarchically present the three escapes thus: 1. Escape from the everyday (the “lowest” form, or the least interesting to my mind); 2. Escape from the prison-house of individuality; 3. Escape from the bounds of literature itself. I feel that all these escapes are implicit in literature, insofar as literature, its composition and consumption, are parts of everyday life, and they open a “literary” space up (as well as opening onto the various “spaces” of difference). But I find the first form of escape is too often the default that is appealed to, particularly with regards to fiction and especially with regard to most fantasy and a lot of SF.

        Of course, this is not to say I don’t appreciate the first form of escape—far from it!

        I imagine that many people would find the idea of “escaping from the bounds of literature itself” either crazy or pointless. I am certainly not arguing for an end to literature, even if I perhaps imply an end to literature as it now exists. Rather, my argument crucially needs the context in which literature presently exists. For instance, the “escapism” that is often bound up with reading has as its context a situation that necessitates escaping—more often than not, the burdens of wage slavery. To my mind, this more than anything has shaped literature over the last two centuries, as much as it has created an audience for just this type of literature. Which is to say, the *need* to escape a situation that we often experience as limiting our freedom to act rather than enabling it. I realise there are a tonne of caveats in what I’ve just said. Hopefully I’ll explore some of them in upcoming blog posts of mine!

        Very briefly on ratings. I think I have a similar rating system to you, except I’ve just done away with “1” ad “2” ratings! Hopefully—again!—I’ll have more to show in this regard over the next month.

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