Monday, May 05, 2008

Don't Look Back ...



There are some things better left in memory than brought back up for another pass. Some delights you recall with warm fondness that, upon reexamination, don't taste nearly as good as you remember.

Brown's Velvet Pineapple Sherbet is the lone exception from my childhood. It tastes exactly as I remembered it. Of course, said concoction was made of completely unnatural ingredients as I recall, artificial this, chemical that, no nutritional value at all, but hey, I loved the stuff. On a trip back to Louisiana a few years past, I bought and ate a half gallon of it and it was terrific. Probably as good a preservative as embalming fluid, too ...

My biggest disappointments on the don't-look-back book front could be narrowed to two: Atlas Shrugged and Stranger in a Strange Land. Ayn Rand and Robert Heinlein, respectively, the authors.

Rand, on her best day, wrote material so dense you could use it to stop X-rays, so that's maybe not such a surprise. If you are into the ideas, you tend to gloss over the expression.

Bob, however, when he was on, was a steppin' razor, so sharp was his prose. But he had his off-days.

At eighteen, I became an Objectivist, a philosophy so far to the right that it made John Birchers and Libertarians seem like commie pinkos. It was all so heroic and stolid, and that John Galt line about stopping the world's motor nailed me. Stand up and spit in the collective's eye, yessir, that was where I was going to go.

A couple years later, after living in the Real World, I let go of that pie-in-the-sky vision. I found a replacement that, while it didn't come to pass as I had hoped, at least had a heart instead of only a hard-on.

Heinlein wrote, as I recall, Stranger and Starship Troopers more or less at the same time, and they were polar opposites. Heinlein was closer to Ayn Rand in Troopers, very much Manifest Destiny and all, and that was more in line with his personal philosophy.

When I read Stranger, probably at nineteen or twenty, I was stunned. The sixties were cranking up, and although the book predates the hippie movement, having come out in '61, I didn't get to it until '67 or '68. Just in time.

The adventures of Valentine Michael Smith, the human-Martian more or less astounded me. "I am but an egg," and "Grok," and the Fair Witnesses, the sense of togetherness ... ah, a book for those of us looking for the Age of Aquarius, to be sure. Even came up with the waterbed, first of which we owned in '66, and the idea of water-brothers. I can still recall attending hippie weddings during which a silver bowl of water was passed around for all to sip from ...

Atlas Shrugged is so didactic and of such a heavy philosophical cant that it leaves the term "turgid" in the dust. There is a radio speech in the middle on economics that runs sixty pages that would have put John Maynard Keynes into a coma. Rand never offers a point but that she beats you over the head with it like John Henry swinging his nine-pound hammer, and the only reason that most people who have read the thing did so was because it was required in college philosophy classes.

Or, because they were young and dewy-eyed and actually believed it might work. Rand couldn't even do that in her own life. The first-person book accounts of what went on behind the facade, written years later by Nathaniel Brandon, and his ex-wife, Barbara, were real eye-openers to the faithful. When the woman who created the philosophy can't pull it off, that's a bad sign ...

Of course, I didn't know that until much later.

It is not surprising that, once you have given up the notion that sketching the dollar sign in the air is more spiritual than making the sign of the cross, that the book doesn't hold up. You could make it into armor-piercing shells it is so dense.

Stranger, on the other hand, is simply not nearly as well-written as I remember. Heinlein always bitched that it had been cut from his original ms by sixty thousand words, and thus made much less. Having read the "restored and uncut original" about fifteen years ago, I disagree. (Reminds me of Stephen King's novel, The Stand. When it first came out, I read that, and liked it, but thought that it could have been two or three hundred pages shorter. Later, King decided to revise the book and I thought, Great! So what did he do? He added another three hundred pages ...)

Part of this is, of course, that as a writer, I see strings where I didn't notice them before I started doing my own puppet shows. And part of it is that the utopia that Heinlein was postulating never had a prayer -- so to speak -- anymore than the hippies had of causing the Pentagon to levitate.

Part of it is that Heinlein liked to preach, and he often had a crusty old man in his story to do it for him. Jubal Hershaw offers some things that, in review, seem fairly racist and sexist, not to mention homophobic. (I believe it was in the novel Friday that Heinlein offered a dedication to a bunch of women, several of whom were writers of the day, that certainly sounded like "Here's how it's done, girls." Which was funny, since the character of Friday was never more than a man in skirts, big hooters notwithstanding ...

Um. Perhaps it's like the old joke, What is the Golden Age of Science Fiction? Answer: Twelve. It catches you then, or it misses you, and that might be the situation here: At eighteen, books about unworkable philosophies are more appealing than they will be, once you learn a little bit about how life works ...

7 comments:

Dan Moran said...

Last few years I've been working my way back through the stuff I read when I was younger, the works that made me want to be a writer in the first place. Some of it's brilliant -- some of it, not so much.

Stranger in a Strange Land was the first SF novel I read (first adult, anyway, though there might have been some kid stuff floating around out there I don't recall.)

I was eight when I read it. I didn't understand most of it, but I knew it was the best thing I'd ever read. It's what nailed down for me that I wanted to read SF ...

It's one of my few seminal novels I'm genuinely afraid to reread. I hated Heinlein's later work -- I'm afraid I'm going to hate the ur-novel that helped make me who I am today ....

Try that on for size.

Tiel Aisha Ansari said...

Kind of like... re-reading the Narnia series...

Bobbe Edmonds said...

Well, for me anyways, I liked most of C.S. Lewis' work later on in my adulthood as well...The silent planet series got a little preachy later on, but I can pick up "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader" today and still enjoy it. (To be fair, I hated "The Silver Chair..Still do). And for it's time, he was considered cutting-edge, even for the religious bent he subtly inserted in his books. In some books he even makes references to drinking and the praise of alcohol (he was a professed alcoholic).

To this day, I couldn't tell you why I loved "The Fountainhead" and "Atlas Shrugged" so much in college. They give me hives now.

One interesting thing, I tried like hell to get into "Dune" in high school. I remember it clearly, getting through the first few chapters and then just never picking it up again. Couldn't stand it. I saw my fellow geeks walking around with "Heretics of Dune" "God Emperor of Dune", etc, but Arrakis held no fascination for me. In fact, I didn't bother with the David Lynch flick when it came out.

Got to Seattle several years later, and casually picked it up at the airport on my way to Indonesia. Couldn't put it down, read it all through the (long) flight to Taiwan and most of the trip to Jakarta. Was too busy to finish it in Indonesia, but I was counting the minutes until I got back on that plane.

I'm a total Dune-head now, no denying it...I think the "golden Age" of Sci-Fi doesn't really leave you, if it gets you at any age you'll just have to find the writing style that suits you, and as you advance in your own knowledge level you'll have to advance in your choices of literature.

I have a love-hate relationship with Sir Arthur C. Clarke's stuff...He either writes straightforward, with trimmed down scientific explanations (which I love) or he succumbs to that dreaded malady of all scientist-authors: O.S.S. - Over Science Syndrome. The pedantic detailed explanation of a thing to the cellular level of it's existence, leaving the reader some three days behind in a cloud of dust. I hate it when an author panders to about 1% of his readers and excludes the rest. Don't publish it in Science Fiction Analog if it belongs in Popular Mechanics, or Scientific American.

J.D. Ray said...

I was afraid to read "Stranger" for a long time; I was intimidated by it, with its reputation for being so deep and philosophical. When the "uncut" version came out some fifteen years ago, I decided it was time to tackle it. While I generally enjoyed the read, it wasn't all I expected it to be. Maybe it was that we were still getting over the collective illusion that was the eighties, maybe it's that I was just expecting more than was there, who knows.

Recently I went back and read a few novels I'd read half my life ago (twenty years), to see if I liked them as much now as I did then. In each case, I found that, perhaps because I wasn't whipping from page to page looking to see what would happen next, or because I've learned a little more about what makes a good sentence, I didn't find them to be AMAZING in the way I did all those years ago. But I still liked them, and will probably read them again someday because, yeah, they're good enough.

The books? Two series of three, one about the life of an arrogant but brilliant kid named Trent who can steal anything, the other about this guy who never misses what he shoots at. I know, they sound lame, but they're really pretty good. You should read them sometime.

Mike said...

What's worked for me is going back and reading all the stuff they made you read as a kid in school (Dickens, Shakespeare, Melville, etc.) and finding out there was a whole lot more here than I could have possibly grasped at 14. "Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang" doesn't mean much to a teenaged boy, but at 65 that's a whole 'nother story.

"Stranger" in my view was ok, but nothing to shout about. "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" is still my favorite Heinlein book, but I was doing other things and more-or-less missed the 60s, so maybe that's why I didn't quite get it. And to me Rand is just nonsense. Dense, turgid nonsense with no style at all.

One good thing about getting old is being able to introduce younger friends to books they'd be otherwise unlikely to find, books like "The Witches of Karres" or "The Demon Breed" (Schmitz seems to have held up very well over the years); lots of others, too. "Hardwired", "Matadora" and so on. Fortunately, the list is endless.

Steve Perry said...

As a writer, you speak to a passing parade.

Stuff you read at ten or fifteen is apt to resonate differently than if you'd read it at thirty or forty.

I always liked the quote attributed to Twain, about how, at sixteen, he thought his father was the stupidest man who had ever lived, but by the time he was twenty, he was amazed at how much the old boy had learned in just four short years. Or what is attributed to Georges Clemenceau, France’s prime minister during the first World War: “If my son is not a communist by the age of twenty, I will disown him; and if by the time he is forty he is still a communist I will disown him.”

Stuff you were forced to read in high school when you had absolutely no context to understand it past the most basic levels might indeed wear better on a revisit down the line. "Heart of Darkness" did for me, as has much of Shakespeare's work. Dickens, Thackery, John Locke.

But as you improve as a writer, your standards tend to get higher. That which impressed you before you know how the trick was done is less impressive once you know how to do it. I think that a magician who amazes a group of magicians watching has achieve something.

Salesmen love to be sold, and writers loved to be surprised, if the surprise is clever and it moves the story to a place they didn't see coming. But, even in a whodunnit you have read before and already know the ending, if the writing is good, you can enjoy it.

If the writing is so-so, it's not such a fun ride.

At eighteen or twenty, I could forgive a lot for the sake of the story, especially given that I didn't know much about how it was done. These days, some of those tales just aren't for me, they are for the boy who has just joined the parade and who hasn't seen them before. No crime to have written Stranger in a Strange Land. But no joy it going back to it, since it is no longer my story.

The warning is not so much Here Be Bad Dragons! as Here Be Dragons Done Badly ...

Steve Perry said...

Well, I dunno about the dead-eye shooter, but he guy what wrote the stuff with Trent in it is one of the top three or four space opera writers ever to ply the trade.

Gottta count E.E. Doc Smith, maybe Dan Simmons -- even though he gets the gun stuff wrong -- and for my money, Harry Harrison -- I cut my space opera teeth on the Deathworld books and Planet of the Damned, maybe even Greg Bear, but Dan'l Moran can run with these guys, no question.

Wish he made more money at it so he'd do that instead of a Real Job ...