Archive for the ‘changes’ Tag
Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin
Hugo Award for Best Novel, 1970
Science fiction has always been a genre that embodies change. A genre built on the question “What if?” could hardly be expected to remain static, after all. By the time I was a teenager something called The New Wave had already swept over and through the sci-fi landscape, altering it forever. I’d already traveled through some of that altered landscape, having read Frank Herbert’s Dune, among other books. If I noticed that the genre was changing, however, I have no recollection of it. Frankly, my adolescent frame of reference didn’t give me the perspective I would have needed to notice the transition. My reading was too random – old works and books more recently published all jumbled together. I just knew that the more sci-fi I read, the better I liked it – somewhat to the distress of my parents and my home town librarian. Looking back and considering the times during which I grew up, I can understand that discomfort to a certain degree. Some of the fiction I devoured back then, especially by the New Wave authors, asked “What if?” questions that most of the people around me would rather not see asked, much less answered. Questions regarding human sexuality provide an example that looms large in my memory (I was a teenager, after all), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel The Left Hand of Darkness serves as a case in point.
I was coming up on being finished with high school, and looking forward to having it a thing of the past, when I first read anything at all by Ursula K. LeGuin. The Left Hand of Darkness was my introduction to her work, and it was one of those instances in which one book made me a fan of the author while altering my impression of what science fiction was – or could be – all at the same time. It was an experience much like my first reading of Dune. This book was different. It made a very deep impression on me at the ripe old age of 18 years, and I was just old enough to appreciate some of the things the author was saying. It felt that way at the time, at least. Rereading The Left Hand of Darkness at the somewhat riper old age of 60, I have to admit that more went past me, back then, than into me.
This isn’t an indictment, of course. After all, I had the frame of reference of an 18-year-old from a small Illinois town. I was also something of a loner and misfit, into the bargain. Having made very few (mutual) emotional attachments outside my own family, the very human interactions of the characters that populate The Left Hand of Darkness involved levels of relationship that were pretty much outside my experience. For instance, it did not register on me until this rereading that the relationship between Estraven and the Ekumen envoy Genli Ai could be considered a love story. Not a conventional romance, but the story of a deep, complicated, confusing, and powerful bond; a love that grows between two intelligent people who never quite seem to recognize how they feel. And yet, they somehow come to accept each other’s humanity, in the face of their profound physical and cultural differences.
In a nutshell, The Left Hand of Darkness is the story of a man sent to be an ambassador of sorts from a starfaring civilization to a planet just emerging from its rendition of the Industrial Revolution. All human worlds are the result of colonization by an earlier, lost civilization, and the envoy of the story is part of the slow process of bringing all these worlds back into contact with each other. The world called Gethen (a.k.a. Winter – so named for its Ice Age conditions) is populated by a race of humans who are a form of hermaphrodite. Gethens are, most of the time, androgynous. Once a month they become either male or female. Which gender develops is influenced by situations and relationships, but no one Gethen tends to become either male or female with any consistency. This civilization is divided into a pair of competing nations, one a sort of constitutional monarchy, the other bearing a strong resemblance to the collective society the old Soviet Union thought it was. (The people in the story don’t get it right either.) How the envoy navigates through the cultures that have evolved under the influence of the planet’s conditions and the reproductive biology of the natives makes up the plot. Along the way, the story examines the very nature of gender perception and relationships between genders in a way that is remarkably timely, considering what we see in the headlines these days.
There’s a depth and meaning to this story that I simply could not have understood when I read the book in 1974. (And I can’t hope to do it justice in one essay. That such a slim volume could have such depth is a tribute to its author.) The memories I could call up from that earlier reading centered on the adventure of Estraven and Genly Ai crossing the great glacier that dominates the landscape. What the book said about how we see gender in other human beings, and how that perception shapes us as individuals and members of a culture, went right past me. This time around my understanding of, and appreciation for, what the author had to say was very different. I think that this time, I get it. But maybe I’ll have to read it again after another twenty or thirty years of experience, just to be sure.
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.
If you’ve ever been at the mercy of public transportation, you know this feeling. It happens when you’re a minute or two behind your normal schedule and hurrying to the bus stop. If the bus is even a minute ahead of the usual time, you’re screwed. So you hurry. You walk briskly toward the bus stop, peering at the cross street as if you could see around or through the buildings at the corner where the bus will appear. You lean forward over your center of gravity, ready to make a run for it, even though you know that by the time you see the bus, it’s already too late. It’s a peculiar form of anxiety, waiting for the bus to cruise by and leave you stranded. It could go by at any moment. You can almost feel it coming.
As I wrote the final volume of the War of the Second Iteration I felt a strange sensation building; a quiet, formless and yet strangely familiar anxiety that could never quite be banished. At first I dismissed it as a consequence of the constant troubles of the past year. I never seemed to be able to stay focused on the book, and the longer that went on the more concerned I became for the quality of the finished product. But when I thought about it I realized worries over quality didn’t fully explain what I felt. One afternoon, while feeling the aches and pains left over from a traffic accident, I realized what was bothering me. This anxiety gnawing away at me was the fear of not finishing this book at all. Of not being able to finish it. So many problems had struck out of the blue in recent months, including that automobile accident – which could have been so much worse – what was next? Would the next calamity be disabling? Or something more terrible? And wouldn’t it be the ultimate irony of my life to get four of the five books done and then be taken out by some pointless accident or illness? It would have seemed a far-fetched concern a couple of years ago. By the middle of 2015, thoroughly shaken out of whatever complacency had crept into my life, it felt otherwise.
It felt like I was running a little late, and the bus could roll by at any moment.
Overreaction? Morbid thinking? Some would certainly say so, and council a more “positive” outlook, but I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I’m a realist, and to me the possibility of such an irony is all too real. The troubles of last year merely reminded me of something I already knew. I took them as warning shots. It just makes sense to be mindful, and to not take life for granted.
I quietly celebrated my 60th birthday not long ago. The simple reality is that I probably have more years behind me than ahead of me, at this point. The chance to get into print via the modern version of self-publishing came to me rather late in life. There’s a positive aspect to this. At a time when many people would be winding life down and wondering what to do with their “gold years,” I’m launching something new and – for me at least – tremendously exciting. I’m being challenged in new ways and dealing with new situations. I’m told this is a good thing, a healthy change, and it certainly feels that way! But I have a lot of books in me, a multitude of stories, and I have – how much time left to write them? Does anyone know? Can anyone know? To make the assumption that I have the time I need would be, to put it mildly, foolish. Too many people at or near my own age have suddenly come to an end, of late. People I’ve known or known of have died, cut down by something they couldn’t have seen coming, much less prevented. Over and over again I mutter, in response to news from a friend or news of the larger world around me – “Too young! Much too young!” It’s happened recently to the daughter of an acquaintance. Living her life as usual and suddenly gone. No one saw it coming. It’s the sort of news that makes you rethink many things. It made me write this piece.
I have no reason whatsoever to believe that I am exempt from the possibility of an untimely demise. I’d be a fool to assume such a thing. So I’ll keep moving briskly forward, ever mindful of that bus. The War of the Second Iteration is, for all practical purposes, done. But there are other books, other tales to tell. The clock is surely ticking. I need to write faster. But then, doesn’t everybody, really?
Isaac Asimov was once asked, in an interview, how he would respond if he received a terminal prognosis. “If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn’t brood. I’d type a little faster.” Though it was said with tongue-slightly-in-cheek, there’s truth in those words, so I’ve always been inspired by that statement. There’s been no bad news from my doctor, but it could happen. Or something worse could occur in the proverbial New York minute. Brood about it? No, absolutely not. I’ll use these reminders that life is a chancy business, and that there are no guarantees, as motivation.
And I’ll type a little faster.
You try not to let it happen, but some degree of complacency often creeps into your life, over time. It’s hard to cope with a day-to-day routine without falling into the proverbial rut and just following it along. The pattern provides structure, and structure appeals. It can even be productive. For me, four of the past five years fell into a comfortable pattern that provided several hours each weekday in which to write. I’ve made good use of that pattern and produced four novels, a couple of short stories, and a brief memoir while following it. Unfortunately, the complacency encouraged by a comfortable pattern can come back to bite you without warning. In January of 2015 I started the fifth and last volume of the War of the Second Iteration series, ready to swing through that comfortable routine and get another book done by the end of the year. I was a month into it when the pattern suffered the first of a series of disruptions, turned on me, and bit hard.
At the end of January, 2015, my father died. His health hadn’t been great the previous year, but the last time I talked to him there was no indication that things were getting worse. I very much suspect he was keeping things to himself, in a misguided effort to avoid worrying us. In the middle of the month I received word that he was in the hospital, and barely a week later, in a hospice. I got to Phoenix in time to have a talk and say goodbye. I brought a copy of my latest book release, knowing he’d been looking forward to seeing it. He took the copy from my hands, clearly delighted. He’d read all three existing volumes, by then, and set aside the new book after examining it, “To read later.” And of all the sources of pain that tangle together and equal the loss of a parent, the thing that rose then to wrap around my throat and choke me up was the realization that he would never know how the story ended. Not the most rational response to watching a parent die, perhaps, but what reason is there in grief?
His death a few days later shut me down. Some writers can work through grief, but I’m not one of them. It took a long time to catch my breath and resume work on Book Five. The comfortable pattern seemed restored.
In short order, however, the pattern was twisted twice more. My wife took a tumble and broke a wrist. Not a horrific injury, though it required surgery to repair, but it caused us both great distress and took her out of action for several weeks while leaving me to take up the slack. I did this without question; that’s what you do, and she has certainly not counted the cost when I was the one down and out. This time the creative energy wasn’t balked so much as diverted, since I needed so much energy, and time, to keep things on an even keel for all concerned. While we were coping with the wrist injury, we were in a traffic accident. This left me with an injured leg that shut down a lot of activities, and slowed me down to the point that I could barely keep up with any obligations. The process of writing the book became a less organized and cohesive activity, with lengthy gaps between writing sessions that often left me feeling that I’d lost the thread of the story. I’d certainly lost that comfortable pattern, that’s for sure.
I did the only thing I could. I kept picking away at it, hoping that I’d be able to sew it all up into one neat bundle – eventually. For surely this run of bad luck couldn’t go on indefinitely – could it?
And in a way, it didn’t. Something more insidious took the place of accidents and injuries as the summer passed, a slower distortion of life’s pattern. My wife’s 89 year old father’s condition began to deteriorate, a slow but steady downhill slide that saw us spending ever more time and energy helping him cope. The pattern of daily hours for writing, barely re-established to begin with, became rather shallow. For a time, it was all at least predictable, and an adjustment could be made. Things moved slowly forward yet again. The first draft was finally completed and sent off to beta readers. While they worked it over, her father lost the ability to drive, which upped the ante quite a bit. Memory impairment also worsened, requiring more of our time still to help him manage. Then, as 2016 started to unfold, his physical health declined to the point that hospitalization was required and, ultimately, the dreaded “change in residence” loomed over us all.
This, as the revision and copy editing process began in earnest. I kept revising, in fits and starts. My wife, who does the proof reading (and is very good at it, as those who have read my books may have noticed) kept at it when and as she could. With her father in a tough spot, the book assumed a decidedly secondary status.
As you might imagine, this all added up to a year and more of ongoing frustration, and not just as a writer. Frustration, but no anger. No one (except the driver of a certain green SUV) was in any way culpable. These things just happened, and happened to string together in a series of disruptive events and circumstances. All you can do with such a run of bad luck is, well, put your head down and run with it. Rearrange the priorities appropriately to do what must be done, then just keep going. I did that, or at least, did so to the best of my ability, writing and revising only when I was free to do so. It made for slow progress, but the work did move forward.
Lately I’ve I found myself looking back on that year of disruptions and circumstances, thinking that I really need to be less dependent on any given pattern of hours and days for writing. There was a time in my life when I was able to write whenever an hour or two became available. I didn’t need that much structure – the writing was always right there, ready to go, for a paragraph or a page, whatever the moment permitted. But even as I began to chide myself for having grown so complacent, I thought about Book Five – so near, now, to release – and realized that this is exactly what I spent the past year doing. The pattern was thoroughly disrupted, and yet somehow, the book happened anyway. In paragraphs and pages at a time, writing when I could, without leaving the people in my life feeling like they were secondary priorities. Perhaps the complacency hasn’t set deep roots after all. I find that reassuring, and I cling to that reassurance. I need to be able to write that way, because you never know what comes next, and 2016 already promises to be its own sort of adventure. I’ll need all the flexibility I can muster.
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.
I once heard an author declare that the most bothersome question you could ask a writer of fiction was “Where do you get your ideas?” This happened at a science fiction convention sometime in the middle 1980s, during a panel discussion. The other authors present wore knowing smiles as they nodded in agreement. A long conversation followed, and an interesting one, that provided the audience with plenty to think about, but no real answers. In the time since I’ve resumed writing fiction, I think I finally understand why they failed to provide a definitive answer.
There really isn’t one.
Imagination is a thing poorly understood by science. The same is true of creativity in general. All human beings are capable of dreaming, and by that I don’t mean visions in your sleep, but dreams in the waking world, in which we ponder how things might be different, perhaps better, in our lives. Such dreams lead people to set goals and test limits, to see whether or not, or to what degree, their dreams can be made real. They have practical dreams, firmly set within a real-world frame of reference that entices them with the possibility of something potentially attainable. It seems doable, and so they get to work.
Artists, musicians, and writers go further. Their daydreams may have, upon realization within their respective media, practical consequences. After all, I’ve always dreamed of being a successful author. I still do. But that isn’t really the motivation. Rendering imagination, the daydream itself if you will, into a tangible form, drives the process. If you are of that inclination, you can’t avoid pursuing the vision, whatever it is. As a good friend was fond of saying about writing, some years ago, you can’t not do it. I learned the truth of this the hard way. I stopped writing fiction. I told the daydreams to leave me the hell alone. They refused to comply. It was an awkward and deeply unsettling episode in my life. Artists, musicians, and writers take it further, because the real ones have no choice.
So here I am, a writer with a head full of ideas and no clear way to tell you how they come into being. I daydream, and the daydreams become stories. Sounds pretty simple, but how does it work? And why? Why do I dream the dreams I do, about civilizations in the future, ships and swordsmen, hostile aliens, and worlds like our own – only different? Why does my imagination generate such things and not, for example, innovative business plans or experimental protocols? For that matter, why words and not music, or pictures? Why do I even have such a fertile imagination in the first place?
I can provide no solid answers to any of these questions, only the sort of speculation that comes from looking back across the years. I’ve always been this way. For the record, it really is a blessing, not a burden – which is not to say it’s always easy. As a youngster, before the idea of writing fiction ever occurred to me, I had a penchant for spinning yarns and windy stories. I’ve always related to the kid in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip because I lived in a similar imaginary world, and all too often the line between reality and imagination faded away. The consequences of that fade were sometimes awkward. It might be honest and accurate to say I was born with that style of imagination, that the root of it all is in some quirk of gene expression, but by itself that doesn’t explain the way the phenomenon manifests itself. The way my imagination works may be a consequence of the times in which I spent my childhood, the Sixties and early Seventies, when the race to the Moon was on and Cold War nuclear paranoia was palpable – even if you were too young to really understand the rhetoric. “What if,” was the big question on those days. The “what if” scenarios were not always pleasant.
I was also a skinny kid, and not terribly sociable. Being a bit of a misfit, the urge to escape was natural, and having a lurid imagination being fed by equally lurid speculations regarding space travel and nuclear war, you can easily guess the direction in which I escaped. I read mostly science fiction, adding fantasy somewhere in high school when I discovered Tolkien. The addiction to print was an early development, and the inclination to write in a similar vein just seemed to co-evolve. And maybe that really does explain it all.
Or not. As explanations go, it still feels incomplete. And even if it’s adequate for those reading these words, it says nothing about the creativity and imagination of others. It’s all surely variations on a theme, but others are writing those themes. This is just me.
These musings merely touch at the roots of a process that becomes, for me, a novel or a short story. Roots grow into places dark and fertile and strange. Maybe this is as deep as I should dig, for now.
After my recent experience rereading Robert Heinlein’s Hugo Award winning novel Starship Troopers, I approached his third Hugo winner, Stranger in a Strange Land* with a certain amount of trepidation. As was the case with the former, the latter was one of those novels that made a profound impression on me as a young reader of science fiction. I was disappointed by Starship Troopers as an older and more experienced reader. The contrast between my impressions of the book, then and now, was stark. I was in my late teens – a little older and a bit more experienced, though not perhaps as much as I believed at the time – when a copy of Stranger in a Strange Land fell into my hands. I remember being strongly affected by the book back then. With this rereading of another old favorite, was I about to be disillusioned yet again?
The answer, I’m pleased to report, is no. While I certainly responded to the novel in a very different way after forty years of life experiences, I came away from this reread with a favorable impression. The novel is a strong enough character-driven story that it held my attention to the very end, even though these days I don’t read a novel and take its contents at face value. (That was very true of me in younger days.) To my relief, Heinlein resisted the urge to simply use Stranger in a Strange Land as another glorified soap box for his political views. I was able to read it and be entertained, even though his beliefs and attitudes do come through, at times loud and clear. Some of what comes across strikes me now, as a more mature reader, as an oversimplified take on human nature, but Heinlein’s views on such matters never derailed the storytelling process, as I saw happen in Starship Troopers. They were part of the tapestry he wove into the story, and for the most part the story worked.
Stranger in a Strange Land is the tale of Valentine Michael Smith, a young man raised by a very alien culture on Mars, who is then returned to Earth where everything humans consider normal is completely new to him. He discovers himself as a human being while observing all aspects of the human experience through that thoroughly alien frame of reference – one that, by the way, gives him superhuman abilities. Smith has no reason to simply accept his humanity as a given, or to accept blindly the rationalizations of those around him regarding the human condition. And thereby hangs a tale. Through the experiences of Valentine Michael Smith, and the people who become involved with his life, Heinlein examines who and what we are as human beings. This is a common theme in science fiction, and grows none the worse for the wear through constant reuse. Heinlein puts it to very good use in this book. To my mind, this is one of the best novels Heinlein wrote. Some would go further than that. The cover of the old paperback I read proclaims the book to be “THE MOST FAMOUS SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL EVER WRITTEN.” (And yes, it’s all capitalized on the book cover.) I’m not sure this is literally true, but it surely is one of the most best known novels in the genre, in part because of the way it seemed to anticipate the “counterculture” of the 1960s. Oh, and for its famous prediction of the waterbed. (Can’t leave that out!)
Stranger in a Strange Land is sometimes dismissed by modern-day readers as – among other things – sexist. By today’s standards, the book could indeed be seen that way, though I doubt it would have seemed sexist in quite the same way more than fifty years ago, when it was published. The female characters of this novel certainly are comfortable with their own sexual appetites, and show a level of assertiveness not usually seen as completely acceptable in popular fiction of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. And yet these same characters also seem to carry plenty of 1950s happy homemaker baggage, which really doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) play well these days. To those who read old novels without considering the times in which they were written, this seems a mixed message. When this book was written, however, our society was stepping none too steadily out of one societal norm and into the next. Sometimes, while rereading the book, I got the impression Heinlein was a man standing with one foot in each epoch, not at all sure which way to go.
The strongest complaints regarding sexism seem to center around the character Jubal Harshaw. Jubal’s treatment of and interactions with the women he employs toucha nerve with many modern reviewers. Harshaw’s openly and bluntly sexist behavior toward these women would be cringeworthy in modern society, heard without a proper understanding of the context. But there is a context, and even a casual read of this book should reveal the understanding that exists between Harshaw and these women, and his obvious respect and affection for each of them. This is apparently missed by some modern reviewers, who interpret the material as being a typically sexist portrayal of women as brain-washed objects. (The character Anne, by herself, should dispel such a notion.) That seems too harsh to me, especially after reading Harshaw’s lecture to Ben Caxton regarding the sculptures La Belle Heaulmiere and Caryatid Who Has Fallen Under Her Stone. Not exactly the attitudes of your average insensitive male sexist pig.
For all that I believe some modern readers judge the book too harshly, I can understand, up to a point, why they react as they do. However, as I read the book I didn’t get the feeling that the author intended to belittle or diminish the value of female human beings. Quite the contrary, he seems more inclined to glorify them, although in a somewhat awkward, adolescent way. This explains why I could enjoy the novel, even though I often found myself shaking my head and thinking, “Really?” Heinlein’s portrayal of women obviously remains rooted in a time when some things we now consider sexist were seen as normal and acceptable. We no longer see things that way – well, some of us, anyway – and so whatever he intended is sometimes lost on modern readers. Perhaps because of this, I’ve seen reviews of the book that go much too far in their response to the apparent sexism, suggesting that the book should be shunned or heavily edited, because it does not match modern sensibilities. Such an idea makes me almost as uncomfortable as the degree of gender-based inequality that stubbornly persists in our modern times. The works of the past should not be dismissed, or worse, altered, because they do not reflect the beliefs of the present day. We need these books – and films, and whatever else from the past might draw such a response. We need these things in order to provide a perspective that can help us to judge how far we’ve come, a perspective that provides the only realistic measure of how much further we have yet to go.
*I read the “uncut” edition of the novel, released in 1991, but realized afterward that I really should read the one people actually voted on thirty years before. The original is the book discussed here. I didn’t see that the uncut edition added anything of substance to the story.