Archive for the ‘Memory’ Category

A Lesson Learned   Leave a comment

Gene Wolfe 1931 – 2019

As a writer, I’m not often troubled by the so-called impostor syndrome. I have enough confidence in what I do to move forward on the assumption that what I write will be worth a reader’s time and money. There are, however, practitioners of the art of storytelling who can leave me baffled by my own audacity. I read their work and find myself wondering what makes me think I’m in any way good enough to do this. (Mercifully, these spells always pass.)

One of those writers died on the day I started writing this piece (April 15, 2019). His name was Gene Wolfe.

Other greats in the science fiction world have passed in recent years, people whose work has entertained and inspired me, while also teaching me things through their work about how stories can be told. Like all science fiction fans, these losses sadden me, even as I reflect on their great legacies. But this loss comes closer to home. Gene Wolfe taught me something very important about storytelling, a thing that seems perfectly obvious when you hear it, but doesn’t always make itself plain while you work your way up the learning curve.

The lesson is this: there can be no deadwood in the story. Everything must contribute to the whole, whether it’s a detail in the world build, a major element of character development, or a twist in the plot. You don’t just drop things in and walk on, adding elements just because you think it will make the story trendier, for example. There needs to be a reason for it all, consistent with the internal logic of the story.

Obvious, right? It sounded so to me, but until Mr. Wolfe imparted that lesson, I’d never thought it through before. But it isn’t the soundness of that advice that makes his passing a source of personal sadness. It’s the memory of it. He told me this in person, using an element of one of my own stories by way of illustration.

This encounter took place at the World Fantasy Convention held in Tucson, AZ in 1991. The convention programming included a chance to have a completed short story critiqued by one of the published authors in attendance. I had a story ready to make the rounds, and delayed submission long enough to use it for that event. It was a pleasant November evening when all the participants gathered to see which pros we’d been matched with. As I recall, we were crowded into a hallway in the hotel, and one by one Big Names walked out of a room and called a lesser name forward. I was talking to a friend when someone said “Thomas Watson,” and turned to see none other than Gene Wolfe searching the assembled faces in the hallway. I made my presence known (I remember something simple, like saying “Here,” but my friend remembers me muttering “yikes” under my breath) and shook hands with him. We left the crowd behind and went out to sit at a table in the central courtyard of the hotel.

Many of the details from that conversation have faded from memory. I remember Mr. Wolfe being encouraging, but very honest. I still have the original version of the story. Today I can see that it needed a lot more work, but it was as good as I could make it, back then. There was no way I could recognize this in 1991, lacking as I was in essential feedback. The concept of beta readers was years in the future, and all the feedback I’d received for my fiction to that point had come from a small writing group (that had come to an end by then) and the rare personal response from editors as they rejected a manuscript. I was doing my best and hoping against hope that it would eventually be good enough.

That evening I received feedback in a big way. Mr. Wolfe found the story engaging but badly flawed. He enumerated the flaws and suggested new-to-me ways to look at storytelling that might help. He was direct in his criticism, but never let it become too personal. He didn’t come across as the seasoned professional talking to the wannabe; he did not talk down to me. It was a serious conversation between writers. Mr. Wolfe made it that by taking my desire to write seriously. Somewhere in that short conversation he brought up the concept that inspired this essay. Everything in a story should be in the story for a very good reason.

Beginning writers often leave deadwood scattered in their prose, anything from useless dialog that’s meant to be witty, to exposition that tells readers nothing they really need to know. In the years since, I’ve learned to recognize this, and such failings have made a number of books, for me, one-and-done for a given author. More to the point, I’ve been made more aware of the concept in my own fiction. Yes, it’s obvious, after you have it spelled out. Many things work that way. Anyone can swing an ax, but have someone show you the best way to hold and balance an ax and your chances of missing your foot go up significantly.

To illustrate the point, he asked a question about the story in hand. He asked why a particular character was an African-American.

At this point I need to commit a digression and offer spoiler warnings. First, the warnings. If you have a copy of my short story collection 179 Degrees From Now and have not yet read the story “Crossing the Pond,” be aware that I’m about to spoil it for you. Can’t be helped, so read on at your own risk.

Now, the digression, one that in our unsettled times is surely necessary to avoid readers turning away at this point. It has to do with Mr. Wolfe’s singling out that one character with his question. I was relating my experience to a group of fellow sci-fi fans and writers at a science fiction convention not long ago. I got as far as Mr. Wolfe’s question regarding the African-American character, and found myself handed a textbook example of “triggering.” A person in the group cut me off with a burst of outrage directed at the fact that the question had singled out the African-American character. “He shouldn’t have done that!” When I said there’d been a good reason for the question, I was told in no uncertain terms by a second person that there couldn’t be a good reason for singling out that character by his race, that it was wrong and racist. I repeated that there was indeed a good reason and that racism, to the best of my knowledge, had nothing to do with it, and was ready to explain why their shared assumption was off base. But the echo chamber around them was impenetrable by that time, and the explanation was never heard.

Listening to the world around you for the purpose of responding, instead of understanding, is a bad habit. Others have pointed this out before me. It clearly requires reiteration.

But perhaps you will reserve judgment and read on, spoilers or no. The question was asked in the context of all elements of the story serving a purpose, and adding up to a story that means something. In this particular tale (of which “Crossing the Pond” is a significantly rewritten version) the African-American character is a scholar who specializes in the life and times of Henry David Thoreau. The scholar is terminally ill and visiting Walden Pond one last time. Thoreau appears and asks the scholar if they have met before. (These elements were in the version of the story Mr. Wolfe read.) The answer is that they have not, and that Thoreau may be thinking of an ancestor of the scholar.

Mr. Wolfe knew enough of Thoreau’s story to know the man was an Abolitionist, and in fact was a “conductor” on the “Underground Railroad.” Somewhere in his writings, Thoreau mentions briefly encountering an African-American headed north. He gave the man some food and sent him on his way. It isn’t known whether or not this man was actually an escaped slave, or if he found his way to life as a free man. Reading of this encounter, my mind concocted a daydream that in the course of time became a short work of fantasy. Mr. Wolfe was looking to see if I’d been aware of these things while I wrote the tale. Had I chosen to make the character in question African-American because of this history and quietly woven this connection into the story? My answer of “yes” was what he hoped to hear; he was evidently pleased and favorably impressed, which certainly gave my confidence a much needed boost. The shade of Thoreau was there in the role of the Ferryman, helping yet another soul to a different sort of freedom. That very idea had been the germ of the original story. Mr. Wolfe picked out that character because the man’s fate and Thoreau’s history were the elements that gave the story its meaning. He wanted to hear me say I’d done this deliberately. The character’s race was important to the story, but was not in and of itself the reason the question of race was brought up.

I asked if I had failed to make the reason for the character’s race and Thoreau’s appearance obvious enough. He smiled and warned me against being too easy on readers, unless I wanted to deliberately insult their intelligence. I can honestly say reading Gene Wolfe has never insulted my intelligence, and those of you familiar with his work know exactly what I mean by that. To those who have not read this author, his fiction is frequently “no easy road,” to quote one of his own characters. I’ve endeavored to avoid belaboring the obvious in my own work ever since. Making sure each element of the story carries its weight is one way to accomplish this.

In every life there are moments that, when you look back on them, are revealed to be turning points. That all-too-brief conversation with one of the Grand Masters of the genre was one of mine, although it took the perspective of time passed to make this clear to me. Until that night, writing fiction had been a matter of shooting from the hip and hoping it sounded right. After that night I started looking at writing fiction as a controlled process. It was never again quite the act of unbridled spontaneity it had been, even if I never did start using outlines. I may still be writing by the seat of my pants, but these days I have a much better sense of direction. My conversation with Gene Wolfe made me think about how I do this thing I do, instead of just putting my head down and going for it. Once I started down that path, things were never the same again. I will always be grateful to him for that.

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What Did I Know?   Leave a comment

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia, by Ursula K. LeGuin

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel 1975

 

na·ive·té (noun)

  • lack of experience, wisdom, or judgment.

  • innocence or unsophistication.

In 1974 one of the featured selections of the old Science Fiction Book Club was a new novel by an author I was barely familiar with: Ursula K. LeGuin. A couple of years before, I’d read he award-winning novel The Left Hand of Darkness and enjoyed it, so when The Dispossessed appeared in the SFBC newsletter I decided to give it a try. I was in my senior year of high school, a standoffish nerd and misfit, with the majority of my life experience coming in the form of books I’d read. However, I was well-read for a kid my age, and had always cast a net wide enough to encompass history and current events, among other things, so it would never have occurred to me that this book would be a bit of a reach. I would not at the time have doubted my ability to grasp the underlying concepts of LeGuin’s latest (the first Hugo winner I ever read before it won the award). It was science fiction, after all. I would dig it.

When it came time to reread this Hugo winner, doubts emerged. I could recall very little of the book or what it was about. I usually do much better than that. That didn’t stop me from reading this classic of the genre, but I was not far into the novel before something became crystal clear. There was no way, in my teens, that I had even a clue regarding the basic themes of this book.

Those themes are big ones, if typical for LeGuin: anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, socialism; male-female relationships; the freedom and burden of individuality. The Dispossessed takes these on through the story of one man’s naive assumptions about another culture, assumptions that are severely challenged when he visits that world and sees it in real life. At the same time, he is a living challenge to the assumptions made by the people he meets regarding his own world and culture, and how these shaped him. These matters provide the essential conflict in the story, as the character Shevek tries to be true to who and what he is, and the society he identifies with, while at the same time carrying forward research in physics that his own people see as being without real value. It’s why he’s left home, to complete that work. He is a man caught between the rock and the hard place when he must walk away from things he knows and believes in, and learn to live in an alien society that will allow him the freedom to make a major discovery – though for their own purposes. He is about to complete a theory that will change everything by allowing all the human worlds in LeGuin’s Hainish universe to communicate instantaneously regardless of the great gulfs of space between them. However, the grand cosmological puzzle Shevek hopes to solve seems a secondary concern to nearly all around him, as war and social upheaval shake the world to which he travels in the hope of completing the work.

Alternate chapters tell the story of Shevek coming of age on his collectivist home world of Anarres and his unsettling experiences in the capitalistic societies of the world named Urras, a planet that considers Anarres its moon. The story of personal conflict is clear enough – and the cultures and worlds LeGuin builds are exotic enough – that I surely enjoyed the book when I first read it. I certainly enjoyed the illusion of understanding it. Reading it again after 44 years, I was amazed and chagrined to realize much of the book never touched me at all. Big themes – anarchism, revolutionary societies, capitalism, and all the rest – and all of them passed under my notice, unable to really touch me in the naiveté of my adolescent years. All I was left with years later was the memory that, yes, I’d once upon a time read the words within this book. It would have been a superficial read at best.

This is not the first Hugo Award winner I’ve reread years after the fact for this weblog, and in each of those cases I was well aware of picking up things missed by my younger self. Life’s experiences accumulate and your perspective shifts; things are made clear that were muddy before or, worse, seemed clear but were not truly understood. But this is the first such book I’ve read that prompted me to look back across the years and realize that, in a sense, I hadn’t really read it at all in 1974. I read it for the first time, with full appreciation for the author’s work, this time around, more than four decades later.

Iacta Alea Est   6 comments

In a recent conversation, I said something to the effect of seeing much of my life in the rearview mirror. The friend with whom I had this conversation found this observation morbid and disturbing, and said so in no uncertain terms. A natural enough reaction for a member of a species acutely aware of its own mortality, a species that has built entire religions in denial of this simple and awesome fact. A reaction and a denial, and one that utterly missed my point.

I see nothing at all morbid about making such an assessment. At sixty-two years of age, and given the current average life expectancy of a healthy, non-smoking American male human being, it is simply the truth that more than half my time is now behind me. Barring miraculous medical advances that, being an average American, I wouldn’t be able to pay for in the first place, I need to be aware of that rear view. It isn’t morbid, it’s motivational. Now is not the time for relaxed complacency. Looking behind, looking ahead, and doing the math prompts me to get a move on. Time is not on my side, and there are things to do. There are stories to tell. More stories than I know how to count.

Writing is a time-consuming occupation, and when you count yourself among the independently published, you must add the time needed for various acts of self-promotion to the ticking clock ledger. It adds up fast. In the time since I first decided to give this a try – a decision made in late 2010 that I have not and never will regret – my chief limiting resource has been time. When I launched this enterprise I was unemployed and about all I did was write, sometimes three thousand or more words a day. That episode lasted fourteen months, and in the years since, I’ve balanced writing with a thirty-hour-a-week job. It seemed at first to be a good balance, and it did in fact work well, right up to the point that I released the last volume of War of the Second Iteration.

I’d waited on attempting meaningful self-promotion until completing that series, with the goal of launching such efforts with the entire project waiting there for readers to discover. It worked. Periodically making the first book – The Luck of Han’anga – available as a free download has driven sales of the subsequent volumes to a gratifying degree. But the time spent managing such promotions, minimal as they really are, does cut into writing time. To do more than my current promotional activities – and I truly need to do so – presents a quandary. If I’m doing that, I’m not stringing words together, and the timely release of new work (without of course compromising on quality) is as important as promoting previously released material. My attempts to find some sort of compromise allowing both activities to be done well has created only conflict and frustration. Existing books are selling, but sporadically and slowly. My promotional activities are a mere token. And the writing of my next book drags on and on…

Over the past year it became steadily more obvious that what I’m trying to do will never be accomplished under the current arrangement. The best it seemed I could hope for was to endure this state of affairs until I could retire in either 2021 or 2022, a truly depressing prospect.

It was decided to see if something could be done to close the gap. Numbers were crunched, financial strategies were altered and moved forward, and fingers were crossed. This past summer it was determined that we could, if we were careful, bridge the gap to my official retirement without relying on a regular paycheck on my part. The numbers were there, they were correct, and I held back. Having spent most of my adult life working to make sure I was working, letting go of that financial lifeline and taking even a relatively short leap of faith took more nerve than I expected. It was a solid month before I was at ease with the decision (as much as I’ll ever be), and longer before I took that deep breath and said the magic words… “I quit.”

It should be noted here that the decision was in no way an indictment of the job, much less the good people I worked for and with. Sure, there were conflicts, and there were a few people I just never could get on with. Show me a job where this is not true. My situation in total, however, was intolerable, and something had to give.

On October 31, 2018, I stopped staring into the future as if I stood with my toes over the edge of a cliff. I didn’t take a first step – I jumped. All or nothing. Time to be what I’ve always wanted to be, the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to be, no matter what diversions and distractions pulled me first one way and then another during my life. Time to turn from the mirror and face the road ahead. To be the writer, the teller of tales from this day forward.

Iacta alea est

The Gods Themselves   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1973

In the early 1970s the range of science fiction available to me increased enormously when I joined the old Science Fiction Book Club. My personal library didn’t exactly explode in size – I was earning just enough money with odd jobs to keep ahead of the membership requirements – but the variety of science fiction I had the chance to read increased significantly. This led to a deeper appreciation for what science fiction could be, building on the eye-opening experience of reading Frank Herbert’s Dune. In fact, reading Dune was part of the motive behind joining the SFBC. I wanted a more durable copy of that book, having read the paperback to death, and although book club editions were hardcovers only by a technicality, it was an acceptable compromise.

The SFBC did more than broaden my reading range. One of my first acquisitions, along with Dune, was the two-in-one volume of Hugo Award winning short fiction edited by Isaac Asimov, one of my favorite authors then and now. The Hugo Winners was a feast of ideas and imagination, and Asimov’s science fiction convention anecdotes left me with a powerful desire to attend such an event, one day. I enjoyed those stories so much that any book offered up by the SFBC that had received the award was immediately ordered. I’d read a few Hugo award-winning novels before, but not until then had there been any context. Knowing what the Hugo Award was, and what it meant to science fiction fandom, made all the difference.

Not that I needed such incentive to pick up Asimov’s The Gods Themselves when it became available. I was quite familiar with the work of Asimov, by then; a big fan of both his fiction and nonfiction. The Early Asimov began my fascination with writing short fiction of my own. I’d read the iconic story “Nightfall,” a number of the robot stories, and all of the Foundation Trilogy before picking up The Gods Themselves. I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, and so I was pleasantly surprised to find it something of a departure from the work I knew. That impression came back to life when I recently reread the book a short time ago.

There are two points of view used by Asimov in The Gods Themselves, one human and the other that of truly alien beings in a parallel universe. This is by far the most notable departure. With the exception of some of his earliest short stories, I can’t recall anything else by Asimov in which the point of view is shared by a nonhuman being. (Some would argue his robot stories fit this bill, but I disagree. His robots are far too human to be considered alien life forms.) The plot involves predictably short-sighted motives of pride and profit on the human side, and a desperate bid for survival by the parallel universe aliens. The alien biology and the culture that evolved from it are drawn simply, clearly, and plausibly, creating a fascinating contrast to the more familiar human realm. Due to difference in the life spans of the aliens, and a difference in how time works in the parallel universe, there are more human characters to keep track of than alien, but the author handles this aspect easily enough. Overlapping sets of human characters hand off the tale across the years, finally ending that side of the plot on a lunar colony.

The colony Asimov imagines puzzled me. His speculations were always based on the real science of the time, and are generally well thought-out. This lunar colony, as described in the novel, doesn’t exactly inspire the reader to dream of a lunar life. Cramped living conditions, food of limited variety (mostly grown from algae and yeast) and visible dental health problems – seriously, you’re going to plant ten thousand or more human beings on the Moon and forget everything that was known in the ‘70s about hydroponics? And neglect to bring along a dentist or two? The lunar setting ended up, in some ways, feeling less plausible than the biology and sociology of the aliens.

Where this novel works best is the material detailing the parallel universe aliens, and their struggles to survive as their world dies around them. It is one of these beings, a misfit in a highly ordered society, who is the real hero of this story. She is moved to risk everything for the sake of strange beings in a universe parallel to her own, about which her people know almost nothing, and who are endangered by the very struggles of her people to preserve their own species. This basic conflict is the true heart of the tale, and is handled well.

Lunar distractions notwithstanding, I’ve always found The Gods Themselves to be one of Asimov’s best novels. In terms of style it’s a bit of old school sci-fi persisting well into the time of the so-called “New Wave,” and yet held its own in terms of innovation. Well enough, at least, to earn its author the Hugo Award in 1973.

It was several years after reading both the Hugo Winners and The Gods Themselves before I made it to a science fiction convention. It was the 1978 WorldCon, otherwise known as IguanaCon II, held in Phoenix, Arizona. I watched Frederik Pohl received the Hugo Award for his novel Gateway at that convention. I grabbed a copy in the vendor’s hall before the weekend was out and read it before the convention was a week behind me. But I have a few novels between that one and The Gods Themselves yet to reread for this series of essays.

Book Five and the End of the Beginning – Part One   2 comments

It’s been my goal, from the beginning, to keep these pieces on the short side, to make them quick and easy reads. This entry refused to cooperate, so it’s being posted in two parts.

In early 2011, following certain revelations regarding an alleged revolution in self-publishing, I pulled an old manuscript out of an overstuffed file cabinet. The title of the book was The Way of Leyra’an. It was the first and only novel I’d written since completing a long-delayed B.S. in plant biology in 1998. Before my return to academia I’d written half a dozen novels (and rewritten all of them at least once), and enough short stories and magazine articles that I can no long remember the count. I’d sold some of the nonfiction, but not a single novel or short story. The sort of fall-back work I’d been doing while writing was wearing me out physically, so I went back to school to increase my range of options. As soon as the degree was done, I went back to writing fiction. Although it was easily the best thing I’d written to that point in my life, by that day in 2011 The Way of Leyra’an had spent the better part of a decade in that cabinet, and came very near to being my last work of fiction.

The first publisher to see it rejected it. This came as no surprise, since the odds are overwhelmingly against any given publisher saying “yes.” The rejection letter intrigued me, however, and encouraged me. It wasn’t a boilerplate response with a hastily scribbled signature at the bottom. It was an expression of regret. The editor liked the book! Unfortunately, he didn’t believe his company could find a viable market for it. They already had too much of that type of story in the pipeline. Bad luck regarding the marketability, but at least he liked the book! So I bundled The Way of Leyra’an up and sent it to the next publisher on my short list of those still accepting un-agented manuscripts – a list that has grown steadily shorter in the years that followed, or so I’m told. I waited and went about my business – working on student loans and getting accustomed to mortgage payments – and lo and behold, there came another rejection letter. It said essentially the same thing. Third time’s the charm, so they say. Whoever “they” are, they clearly don’t know what they’re talking about. The book bounced that time, too, with essentially the same letter coming along for the ride.

The message seemed clear – I needed to be better than every other aspiring writer, luckier than the rest, and have the psychic power to see into the future and avoid writing books that would be unmarketable by the time I finished them.

Knocked down three times, get up four, some would say. Persistence is easy to preach, but by that time I’d been knocked down and around by rejection letters for more than twenty years. I’d had enough. I didn’t send it out a fourth time. I packed it away, closed work-in-progress files on my computer, and quit. It was time to find other ways to spend my time when I wasn’t busy working to pay off those debts.

The consequences of this decision were not immediately apparent. In fact, for a few years it felt like I’d recovered from a long illness. I spent more time in the garden and returned to the world of amateur astronomy. The latter in particular soaked up a lot of creative energy, and the time I’d originally devoted to writing. It was (and is) an immensely enjoyable and rewarding hobby. But the feeling of emancipation didn’t last. At some point in 2007 I became aware that my basic attitude toward life had shifted in the wrong direction. I was more sarcastic and cynical, and more likely to see the negative side of things. A comment from my wife started the process of realizing I was headed for trouble. She said that I didn’t laugh as much as I used to, her way of asking what was wrong without making a complaint of it. Given the amount of humor that was a hallmark of our relationship, I was baffled and unsettled by the question – and I didn’t see it her way, which represented a hefty dose of denial on my part. Then I started to have the nightmare. It was a dark dream that repeated along variations on a theme, the central element being that I had gotten myself lost and, for some reason this was worse, couldn’t come up with a reason for being there. What purpose did it serve, I’d ask myself. And the answer would come: “None.” I’d then be seized by chest pains that lingered when I woke up in a cold sweat, leaving me to wonder if this time the heart attack was for real. It was never real. It was frightening nonetheless, and as the frequency of the nightmare increased, it started to wear me down.

That sense of being without direction or purpose was corrosive. I wasn’t as much fun to be with or work with, and I lost any sense that the work I was doing was worth anything or was going to take me anywhere I wanted or needed to go. I was considering asking my doctor to refer me to someone qualified to throw me a lifeline. Depression? No doubt about that. Nothing made much sense, fewer and fewer things seemed worth doing, and I couldn’t figure out what to do about it. Oh, life wasn’t uniformly bleak. There were good times that diverted me and provided some relief, but more and more often, especially in winter, I would awaken to a black mood and the firm conviction that none of this was worth a damn.

All the while, Amazon and its Kindle e-reader were turning the world of writing and publishing upside down. I’d heard of the Kindle; being book-oriented regardless of what else was going on, I could hardly miss it. I remember my amazement the first time I saw and held one. There’d been e-readers before, but they were big, clunky disasters. This thing was like a gadget out of Star Trek. I was fascinated, and I immediately wanted one, but I had no clue regarding the effect it was having on the world at large. So I couldn’t have predicted how e-books would ultimately influence my life.

That changed when my wife and I had lunch with a couple I’ve known for quite a few years, one of whom had recently published her first novel with a small press outfit. Over lunch this friend mentioned her plan to self-publish her next book. I’m afraid my mind translated “self-publish” into “vanity press,” since the two had been nearly synonymous for many years. I tried not to react openly to this, but she knew what I was thinking – it was such a predictable reaction. The explanation that followed acquainted me with e-book direct publishing and print-on-demand paperbacks, developments that had passed me by because I’d stopped paying much attention to the publishing world. It sounded way too good to be true, but I looked into it anyway. What I learned sounded promising, and next time we were with these friends I said as much. The suggestion was made then that I pull out an “old” manuscript and try self-publishing it to see what would happen. Of course, I pulled out my most recent attempt, The Way of Leyra’an.

What came next will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny   Leave a comment

Winner of the Hugo Award, 1968

In the late 1960s change and turmoil swirled around me, and I took almost no notice. I knew as little of real world affairs then as I did about science fiction. The only news that registered on my mind was that regarding the “space race,” and for me science fiction was all about Tom Swift Jr. and the occasional Heinlein young adult novel about teenagers skating down the frozen canals of Mars or navigating swamps on Venus. Well, of course, there were the black-and-white B movies, watched when the weather didn’t permit outdoor activities. This was Illinois, so in the winter at least, I spent a lot of time watching macho dudes fighting bubble-headed aliens and giant insects. I suppose that counts as sci-fi on some level. That the world was changing, and changing rapidly, around my small rural town, was invisible to me. The same was true of the steady evolution of science fiction as it was influenced by and reflected those times. The genre was expanding its reach, and bringing in ideas from an ever-widening set of sources. A case in point, the winner of the 1968 Hugo for Best Novel, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny. I was all of twelve years old, that year.

In Lord of Light, Zelazny tells the story of an alien world on which human settlers have used Hindu mythology as the framework for their civilization. Exactly why the original colonists chose this frame of reference never came clear to me, but the consequences were so well-realized that I wasn’t much troubled by this. The resultant civilization is ruled by Hindu gods and goddesses who are actually humans rendered immortal and given extraordinary powers through advanced technology. In general, this technology is kept from the rest of the human population, although reincarnation through the transfer of minds into new bodies can be earned by the faithful. This is not seen as technology, of course. It’s divine intervention. Centuries have passed since the original colonists arrived and tamed the world, a process that included the near extermination of the original sapient species discovered there. The battles that took place in that earlier era are recounted in the manner and style of epic Hindu myths and legends. Some of these indigenous inhabitants still survive, but are now considered demons and other manifestations of the supernatural. Almost everything about how humanity came to live in this place has been forgotten, a cultural amnesia encouraged by the “gods,” some of whom were the original colonists to settle the world.

One faction of the immortal population wants to reintroduce lost technology, with the goal of improving the lot of humanity on this world. The other gods, jealous of their privileged positions, want nothing of the sort. The novel is about the conflict between these factions. The book opens with the resurrection of a man named Sam, a clever fellow who dates back to the original colony, and something of a hero to those who would restore humanity to its full potential. How he came to be dead in the first place makes up the main body of the book, which is essentially one long flashback. (I missed this at first, and for a while the narrative had me a bit confused. Watch for an early chapter that ends with Sam sitting back and reflecting on his life.) The tale of Sam’s efforts to unseat the selfish gods of his world unfolds quickly and smoothly, a very different work from Zelazny’s previous Hugo winner, but clearly a work of the same mind and imagination.

The use of a non-Western mythological frame of reference was a departure for science fiction of the time, though Zelazny may not actually have been the first to do so. It was, however, one of the first novels to win the Hugo while recognizing the validity and utility of other mythic traditions for the sake of story-telling. (The other was Frank Herbert’s Dune.) That the book was written when it was is surely no coincidence, as the counter-culture inspirations of the ‘60s were at that time spilling out into the general public in a big way. The Beatles weren’t the only ones playing sitars and practicing transcendental meditation at that point. Anyone alive in that time would have been aware of how these “exotic” ideas were being embraced – and resisted – by the people around them. For those of a creative nature, it was all raw materials, grist for the mill. The science fiction genre certainly partook of these possibilities, and Lord of Light is one result. It’s a novel that remains very readable, having “aged” well, but is clearly a product of its time, as books so often are. The product of times that passed me by almost unnoticed, even as they changed the world.

 

 

 

One Last Heinlein   Leave a comment

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Winner of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1967

I have strong memories of books I read in younger days. I was not a particularly sociable youngster, being on the small side and relatively thin-skinned, and often uncomfortable around my rowdier small-town peers. I became something of a loner, which was not encouraged in that place and time, and very quickly came to place a high value on having time to myself. Reading is a natural fit for such a frame of mind. Finding such solitude was remarkably difficult between long days at school and living in a small house with parents and four siblings. There was often only one place to go to get away from everyone and get any peace, especially in winter, when being outside was rarely an option – inside my own head. This may have been what rendered me imaginative. It’s certainly what turned a desire to read into a compulsion.

Fortunately, there were other readers in the family, and seeing in me a kindred spirit, they did what they could to provide me some space (reminding siblings that it was rude to distract someone while they were reading) while keeping me supplied with books. If a birthday or holiday season passed without at least a couple of books being unwrapped, the occasion felt incomplete. This almost never happened. Since one of these relatives, an aunt, was a die-hard science fiction fan, I was introduced to the genre very early, and among the first novels I read were those by Robert A. Heinlein that would these days be considered YA. These books had an enormous impact on how my imagination developed. I practically memorized stories such as Red Planet, Between Planets, and Have Spacesuit, Will Travel ­– the last being my favorite in those days. Since I responded so eagerly to these Heinlein novels, it comes as no surprise that this same aunt, when I was a few years older, produced copies of Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress as gifts. Both novels fascinated me, and were read multiple times. One of these books, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, was the last novel by Heinlein to ever win the Hugo Award.

When I read these works by Heinlein as a teenager I was, well, a teenager. Typical of someone that age, my frame of reference wasn’t exactly expansive, so when I read fiction it was in a rather superficial way. This didn’t start to change until I was well into high school and became more aware of (tempted to say sensitive to) subtexts in the fiction I read. This explains the effect Dune and The Fellowship of the Ring had on me, at the time I read them, and timing really is everything. I first read Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress well before reading Dune, and this gradual increase in awareness had barely begun to develop. I enjoyed both, but was mostly blind to anything beyond the central plots. As a result, when re-reading Starship Troopers a couple of years ago, I was rather startled by my reaction to the book. The political subtext was anything but subtle, and the preachy quality was blatant enough that it almost spoiled the book, and cast a shadow on some old memories. So it’s not surprising that I approached The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (and before that, Stranger in a Strange Land) with a bit of wariness.

Stranger in a Strange Land survived the test of time, and so did The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.As was the case with Strange in a Strange Land Heinlein’s personal philosophy and political beliefs inform The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but in this he is really no different from any other author. If it serves the story, it can work for me, even if I don’t entirely agree with that particular philosophy. Of the Heinlein I’ve re-read, only Starship Troopers blatantly subverted the story to drive home a message. In Stranger in a Strange Land the story carried his points without becoming pointed, and so it was with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is not to say that I came away from this reading with the same impression I had when I was fifteen years old. The author’s Libertarian-style point of view is easy to see all through the book, but in this case he uses these ideals to build a civilization that, while it exemplifies that school of thought, isn’t a deliberate application of it. Heinlein imagines, in the development of the lunar culture in the book, a society that is essentially libertarian in nature, but not by design. Survival in that deadly lunar environment dictated certain traits and behaviors, and the society depicted in the novel is a consequence of that.

When I read the book early in high school, I was fascinated by the way the lunar revolutionaries orchestrated their complicated conspiracy. Knowing human nature a bit better these days, I find it all a little less plausible, almost naïve in the way it unfolds so well. Never mind deliberate betrayal, inevitable human error and simple bad luck play roles that would more than likely unravel the scheme if it went on too long. I get the feeling Heinlein realized this, because his lunar revolution, when it comes, does erupt abruptly and before the narrator believes they are fully prepared. Less easy to overlook was his characterization of the two sides involved in the conflict, and it’s here that I could see his politics most clearly. The colonists are, for the most part, competent, self-reliant people. Stereotypical rugged individualists, the myth of colonial America set on the Moon. The administrators of the lunar penal colony, along with their handlers on Earth, were equally, if negatively, stereotyped as over-reaching and often inept government bureaucrats, clearly lesser beings, and blind to anything but the need to remain in rigid control of the lunar population. Heinlein manages once again to avoid preaching. Use of first-person narrative helps here, which is ironic since he used the same style of voice in Starship Troopers. But he stopped that story dead in its tracks to deliver a sermon. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, it just comes across as the way one Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis happens to perceive the world and the people who share it with him, and the story keeps rolling along.

There was one element that I just couldn’t buy, as an adult reader of fiction. As is so often true with Heinlein, and other authors of that time period, the interactions between males and females sometimes have a juvenile quality to them that, in this more sensitive era, comes across as sexist. I try to make allowances for sensibilities changing over time, when I read older books, but now and then I run into something that leaves me shaking my head. Heinlein attempts to describe how the curious sexual dynamics of the lunar colony developed, and why, and it approaches being plausible. But in the end a minority population of women dressing like it was a day at the beach and encouraging – even expecting – wolf whistling, eye-rolling, and foot stomping recognition of their beauty strained my ability to suspend disbelief.

Even with that wrinkle, though, I managed to enjoy revisiting this old novel. And with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress I leave the work of Robert A. Heinlein behind, as far as the Hugo Awards are concerned. Heinlein did very well with the Hugos, winning four and being nominated for ten. He remained popular and productive almost to the end of his days. And yet, at some point in the 1980’s his work began to lose its appeal for me. The last Heinlein novel I read that I truly enjoyed was Time Enough for Love. After that there was something of a sense of having been here before one time too many, and later on, too often a sense that the author was being more than a bit self-indulgent. People would grow excited about a new Heinlein novel, and sometimes passed copies on to me when it was clear I lacked the motivation to buy one for myself. I usually gave those books a try but – and here The Number of the Beast comes to mind – I generally ended up setting them aside unfinished. They didn’t hold my attention. The times changed and I changed with them, altering my tastes in food, in music, and in fiction. Nothing against Heinlein, to be honest. It just sometimes works that way.

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