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 ...