There’s a kind of novel that usually I avoid. You know the kind I mean—a miasmic dunking in the minutiae of neurotic characters who do very little out of the ordinary, suffer, come together, break apart, and end up in an ambiguous condition wherein presumably some sort of enlightenment has been achieved. Turgid not because the writing of such tomes is necessarily bad but, really, it’s just like real life only artistically rendered, and who wants to spend four or five hundred pages with people and their problems that in most respects seem just like ours?
For similar reasons we do not seek to know everyone we could, because there are people we really would rather not.
But then there are people we want to know, people we do know, people who are necessary and wonderful to our lives, people who have impacted us in ways that have made us who we are. No, we didn’t choose them, it doesn’t work that way, but we can’t deny their significance after the connection and the absorption and the time spent loving and worrying and hating and assessing and comparing and competing and being with.
Which is also the reason for novels like those described above and also the reason we don’t want to read them all or even most of them, and would find the effort unrewarding if we tried. Because they don’t all matter to us. They may matter to someone, but not to us. Not now, maybe not ever.
Except the ones that do.
Meg Woltizer’s The Interestings is, as it turns out, one that mattered to me.
The thing is, like the choices we seem to make in friendships, the reasons why don’t lend themselves well to explication. You meet, you chat, you spend time, you become friends or lovers or, sometimes, enemies, and the chemistry involved in the passions that come about is a dynamic thing, a flux that mutates almost too quickly to recognize at any given moment. So you’re reduced, then, to describing how you met, what you said, where you went, who you have in common, and things that happened.
It’s no wonder that so many novels like this become finely-written lists. The catalogue of event (or nonevent) should tell something about why these people, these stories are important. To be be fair, they do. Because we find recognition in event, resonance in detail, reification in experience. Unfortunately, it’s such an individual thing that what for one reader is revelatory for another is a prolonged yawn.
The thing that sets some of these novels apart is always the quality and precision of the significant observation. The writer says, obliquely, “did you see this? did you notice how that happened?” and in the evocation of interaction gets inside and behind our desire for novelty and shows us how just being with people contains more novelty than we can manage.
This is not a simple thing. This is finding the universal in brunch, the sublime in moving into an apartment, the profound in a white lie. Usually, all those things are only and ever what they appear to be, at least for other people. In the hands of a master observer, however, they can be everything.
Once that level of access is achieved and established, imagine how powerful become the really big events of a life.
Which brings me to the novel at hand, a novel of the sort that ordinarily would hold no interest. It begins with the coming together of a group of people at a summer camp for the arts in the mid 1970s who continue on as lifelong friends. They are precocious, talented, some would say gifted, and self-consciously style themselves as The Interestings. They expect, even as they mug and mock themselves about it, Great Things for themselves. One is a cartoonist-cum-animator who actually does achieve material (and even moral) greatness, but he is dogged by a sense of failing to be the kind of person he wants to be. The rest, in their various ways, succeed at different things or fail and stop trying. One explosively ruins the life that might have been lived, another follows a sidetrack for almost too long, the others are blocked or betrayed by life, and one never seems to get off first base and yet becomes the anchor for the others in ways she wholly fails to appreciate for decades.
Envy is almost a character itself. And regret.
But also great love and generosity and all the reassessments associated with very full lives, even when those lives are not what we wanted or are simply underappreciated.
Wolitzer follows them through their various trajectories, weaving them in and out and around each other as they live through the age of Reagan and AIDS and into 9/11 and the world that made, and even when global events intrude upon the narrative she keeps it personal. Her observations of the calamities, large and small, and joys that comprise life are laser-sharp and true in the way good art should be. And although these people are not anyone we know, the effect is that we do know them, because they are just like us.
Here’s the curious part. As I said at the beginning, this is the sort of novel that would ordinarily bore me, because nothing much happens in it. These people bounce off each other, lie to each other, hug each other, fuck each other, live with, by, and through each other, and it is just life, and I have my own, thank you very much, and I know these things, have lived these things. Yet I found myself compelled to keep reading and responding in surprising ways and in the end finding an appreciation even for what I thought I already knew for which I am grateful.
Most of the rest of the novels like this, which I will likely never read, and those few before now which I have read, are not this book—just as all the people I am not friends with are not likely to ever be my friend. Most of them, fine people though they may be, are not here and do not speak to me.
This book spoke to me.
Perhaps because what Wolitzer is examining here is exactly that—speaking. Or, more generally, friendship. What makes it visceral is how she portrays the continual and constant assessment people indulge regarding this most nebulous and yet absolutely necessary human practice, that of taking inside and giving of ourselves the promises and pleasures of being a friend. As one character explains, they could have been anyone, it was chance that threw them together in that camp, and if chance had sent them to another camp then it would have been a completely different set of people for whom all this would have been important. But the fact is, it was this camp and these people, and you live with what’s in front of you. Because it doesn’t matter so much what chance has handed you but what you then do with it, and when it comes to friendship what matters is what happened before you consciously reassess how you met. Wolitzer understands this with granular intensity and gives portraits of friendships that work.
Ancillary issues permeate the book, as in life, and politics, economics, sex, art, illness all appear to complicate, distract, and force decisions upon the players. As a demonstration of answering the question “What do you do with what you have?” the novel is honest and unflinching. The events that contour the narrative are often unexpected and the choices made are organic to the portraits of complicated, compelling people.
So while I may well continue to define a certain kind of novel as a type that I don’t care for, I find that I can do so without feeling either shortchanged or hypocritical. I don’t have to like them all or even most of them. I found the one, by chance, that I do like.
William Patterson Jr. finished and delivered the second volume of his copious biography of Robert A. Heinlein not long before he passed away of a heart attack. He was too young. After reading his opus, he may well have had another book about Heinlein in him which we will now not see.
I base that on the fact that while volume 2—The Man Who Learned Better: 1948 to 1988—is filled with the minutiae of a crowded life, there seems little in-depth analysis and assessment of Heinlein’s work. Given the few and scattered remarks about the shortcomings of other books of criticism published during Heinlein’s lifetime, one might reasonably expect such an assessment from a writer of evident skill and insight. It is not out of the realm of probability that he may have intended such analyses for a third volume devoted exclusively to such an assessment.
To be sure, there are brief passages about several of the books of a critical nature that are useful. (Detailing the travails of writing a given work, while fascinating to anyone interested in Heinlein’s life, is no substitute for a thorough study of the work in question. This is not intended as a criticism of what is in the book, only that the wealth of information spurs a desire for more, especially when presented with tantalizing explanations of some problematic works that alter past perceptions.) For instance, in discussing one of Heinlein’s most poorly understood later period novels, I Will Fear No Evil, Patterson reveals that Heinlein’s ambition in writing it was as response to postmodernism, taking apparently as inspiration John Barth’s Giles, Goat Boy and work by Philip Roth. If true—and I have no reason to doubt him, as Heinlein himself discussed this in his own correspondence—this casts a very different light on what has become the Heinlein novel even ardent fans seem to dislike, often hate.
Although Heinlein rarely discussed his process with the story that became I Will Fear No Evil, …[i]t was as if he was working on crafting a New Wave kind of story that worked as story—the kind of thing for fiction that Frank Lloyd Wright had done with the Bauhaus when he designed Fallingwater in 1935…
He had Nabokov on his mind as well as the New Wave movement (this would have been right in the middle of it) and postmodernism, as well as reacting against the enshrinement going on in fandom of Campbellian Golden Age conventions. He wanted to shake everyone up.
If in fact that was the nature of the work, it becomes clear why the book seemed to have no “natural” audience and served to confuse people more than reinforce Heinlein’s reputation as the “dean of space age fiction.” The core readership of science fiction—fandom—would have loathed the postmodernist ambiguities while mainstream critics still treated science fiction as a fad and a not very good one at that. Had someone told the New York Times reviewers that the book was a postmodern allegory, they would have (perhaps silently) laughed in dismay.
At this point a deeper analysis of the book might have been in order.
But Patterson was not doing literary analysis, he was chronicling a fascinating life.
Heinlein has long been the largest head on the Mount Rushmore of science fiction. The myths about him, from his first sale to his unhindered success to his idolization of redheads to his supposed fascism, have stood in for any real knowledge about him, seasoned here and there with personal anecdotes. In fact, Heinlein was almost pathologically private and resented anyone poking into his personal life. He had a public persona, which he apparently enjoyed using, based on certain aspects of his character which those who saw only that took to be the whole man. In later years his critics viewed him as hopelessly anachronistic, conservative to the point of feudalistic, a reactionary, and, despite sales figures, marginal to the field. The service Patterson has done, besides the obvious demythologizing (especially in the first volume), is the extensive contextualizing of the man, the filling in of event, and the examination of how surfaces hide as much as reflect what lies behind what the public sees.
Heinlein was nothing if not experimental. Often, because he was conducting his experiments at the times he did, the experiments were misperceived and misunderstood. One can sympathize with his repeated desire not to have his work “analyzed” in an academic sense because he felt it would rob readers of seeing for themselves. He likely disliked the idea of seeing his own motives and character analyzed through the lens of his work, something which happens often, especially in academic works. He did not wish to be “psychologized” by people who may well not “get” what he was trying to do in the first place.
He was very much about control in this regard.
As in much of the rest of his life. His detractors occasionally riff on the idea that he was in some ways a fraud, that his desire for control was only to mask a deep sense of incompetence or even incomprehension. This is an unfortunately shallow reading. Consider: Heinlein’s one ambition as a youth was to have a Navy career. He worked himself into physical breakdown to get through Annapolis only to find out a short time into what he thought would be a lifetime calling that his own health was sabotaging him. He had to leave the Navy because his body failed him. The one thing he truly wanted to do was denied him.
Some people might give up and sell siding for the rest of their lives. Heinlein tried many things. He ran for political office, he tried mining, pursued his education, finally coming to writing. Even after early success at that, he continued trying to serve his country and ran a research lab.
That he may have felt some ambivalence about the thing that eventually became his most successful endeavor might be understood given all this. Rather than hiding incompetence, it is perhaps more accurate to say that he lived with continued fear that some new malady or accident might put an end to this as well. It is not inconceivable that he expected, however minutely, that the bottom would fall out in the next step or two. Reading about the speed with which he turned out clearly superior novels, it is not hard to imagine a nagging imp of doubt that he might not be able to do this next week for reasons completely out of his control
Misrepresentation and fraud have nothing to do with this.
What is most interesting in all this is seeing the bell curve of influence with each new book. Heinlein’s work was audacious when written, groundbreaking when published, influential throughout the period when other writers reacted to it, and then reassigned as exemplary of some shortcoming on the author’s part as the culture caught up with it and passed it by. In hindsight, the flaws are myriad, some profound, but I can think of no other science fiction writer to suffer such extremes of regard, especially within their lifetime.
What becomes apparent in reading the 1000 plus pages of Patterson’s work is that the one thing Heinlein intended with each book was to start a discussion. What so many seem to have taken as pronouncements from on high, Heinlein intended as the opening gambit in a long conversation. Instead of engaging in the argument, too many people made him their personal guru, something he consistently rejected, and when they realized finally that some of the things Heinlein said were problematic or downright inflammatory, they turned on him. He wanted to be Socrates, not Aristotle as remade by the Church. He wanted people to disagree, to engage.
How else to explain the wild variations of philosophy between works like Starship Troopers and Stranger In A Strange Land, Beyond This Horizon and Farnham’s Freehold, Methusaleh’s Children and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress?
On the other hand, he seemed often to work in a vacuum of his own making. He bridled at the confines of expected SF forms, yet he did not avail himself of relationships with the mainstream literary establishment he longed to be part of. He wanted to write work that transcended genre boundaries—and read extensively outside the field—and yet he rarely seemed to engage in the cultural discourse going on outside the SF “ghetto.” He and Virginia, his third wife, were usually politically isolated, even while trying to fully interact with the ongoing political dynamic. Heinlein’s politics were more of the “curse on both your houses” variety than anything categorizably useful. He claimed affinity with libertarianism, yet had no real respect for much that passed for political philosophy under that banner. Neither fish nor fowl, it came to others to try to define him, and he gave them little assistance. The country moved in directions with which he disagreed, but his reactions gave no support to others who thought the same way and wanted to do this or that to change it. He lived by a definition of liberal that was being quickly left behind by those working under that label. His consistent message through his fiction was “Think for yourself” and yet it came across more and more as “if you don’t think like me you’re an idiot.” Those looking for ready-made answers in his work could only see the latter.
Narratively, volume 2 is packed too tightly to be as good a read as the first book. No doubt this is a result of trying to keep it usefully in hand in combination with the increased wealth of information available about this forty year period. But it nevertheless offers a fascinating look at a genuine iconoclast within his context, and for that it is a very worthy book.
Finally, as much as detractors would like to make Heinlein an irrelevancy, the very obsessiveness with which many of them attend his deconstruction suggests that while one may disagree over him profoundly, he is not easily ignored or dismissed. Whatever else, he did succeed in getting a conversation going. Sometimes it’s actually about what he considered important.
One of the most powerful yet ineffable experiences we are occasionally granted is the moment when music opens us up and sets our brains afire with the possible. Music, being abstract in the extreme, is difficult to slot into the kind of “safe” categories to which we relegate much else. Stories certainly have subtext and can expand our appreciation of the world, but they are still “just” stories and all that mind-altering power can be rendered ineffective by dint of the filters used to shunt it aside. Paintings and sculptures likewise can be “seen” as purely representational—or ignored when such designation is impossible. Even when we appreciate what we see or read, the power of taking the work in as merely a reflection of a reality we think we understand can have the result of diverting any real impact.
Not so with music. Once we open ourselves to the emotional realities of the sounds and let them have their way with our psychés, it becomes difficult if not impossible to shove a piece into a conventional box. You either take it as it is or ignore it. A great deal of pop music is written with this fact in mind, that people want to be coddled, “entertained,” and humored—not moved.
Because when music moves us it is not in easily definable ways. We experience, when we allow it, heady mixtures of emotional responses that have no convenient hole for the pigeon. We are altered for the time we experience it—sometimes altered for hours or days afterward. Less often, we are altered for life. We can, after such an experience, never hear music the same way again, and sometimes life itself becomes different.
Richard Powers understands this as well as it may be possible. In his new novel, Orfeo, he unleashes the revelations music can bring:
Young Peter props up on his elbows, ambushed by a memory from the future. The shuffled half scale gathers mass; it sucks up other melodies into its gravity. Tunes and countertunes split off and replicate, chasing each other in a cosmic game of tag. At two minutes, a trapdoor opens underneath the boy. The first floor of the house dissolves above a gaping hole. Boy, stereo, speaker boxes, the love seat he sits on: all hand in place, floating on the gusher of sonority pouring into the room.
Music has that power. (For an excellent examination of the various effects of music, I recommend Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia.) Music can transform us in the listening. Occasionally such transformations remain after the music is over.
It was not wrong of people in the 1950s to look askance at rock’n’roll and think it subversive—it was, but in no way that could be detailed. It was in exactly the same way any new musical form is subversive. In the same way that Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused riots during its premier or Wagner altered the politico-æstehtic personality of an entire people. Music both seeps in and charges through the front door of our minds and, if we are listening, changes the way we apprehend the world.
In Orfeo, however, Powers gives us a portrait of how music informs a life with its power to rearrange priorities by setting Peter Els on a quest to find the music of life itself. And in so doing inadvertently make himself the object of a nationwide manhunt as a terrorist. This unlikely combination would seem absurd, but Powers handles them deftly, with a logic that matches our present world where people going off to do things by themselves for their own arcane reasons can seem threatening and cause for mass public alarm. The passions that drive Peter Els are both universal and singular and make him the ideal protagonist for what becomes a lifelong quest for an unseizable transcendence.
For he wants simultaneously to be free and to be important. The two things may well be mutually exclusive, but he is driven to find the essence of what has driven him through a life that, on its face, appears to be a failure.
Powers knows music. Throughout the novel he exhibits an enviable command of its history and its theory and, most importantly, its effect. Anyone who has been in the grip of music that has touched the inmost part of us will recognize Peter Els’ obsession. This is one of the finest prose explorations of that bright nonspace of luminous shadows and delicate splinters of emotion that is the mystery of the musical experience.
Set within a story about the present and all its fears and insubstantial alienations, its cluttered paths of chance and chaos, and the difficulty of being one’s self in the midst of panicked conformism, a time when it may be more important than ever before to acknowledge the possibility of becoming more, of embracing other, of refusing limits imposed out of fear of losing something we may not even have.
Ann Leckie’s first novel, Ancillary Justice, has been garnering award nominations all year, and recently won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. The book has been up for a Philip K. Dick Award, a Tiptree, it’s on the Nebula and Hugo ballots. With this much critical reception, it would be easy to default to hype in praising the novel as one of the best space operas in recent years, during a period when the form has experience a bit of a renaissance, with examples that have elevated it out of its own clichés and into a new level of æsthetic opulence promised by the masterpieces of the past and now achieved by contemporary craftsmen.
Well, occasionally the hype is not misleading. Ancillary Justice is a fine piece of worldbuilding, as good as anything done by Asimov or Anderson, Banks or McLeod, Cherryh or Sargent. Set many millennia in the future, past a time when our present might have any relevance to the politics or sociology on offer, Leckie gives us an expanding human empire based on a kind of administrative ubiquity resulting from a sophisticated distributed consciousness that might be described as post-singularity. The concept of identity itself is radically altered and yet laid out almost as an off-hand by-the-way underlying the Radch. She successfully pulls this at times mind boggling idea off with deceptive grace by never letting any of her characters be in the least surprised by the reality in which they move.
Not content with that, other layers cover over the basic otherness depicted by introducing Houses—family associations of the kind we have seen from Rome through the Italian Renaissance and exemplified in science fiction in the competing houses of Dune—as the corporeal manifestation of distributed access (and privilege). Debt and honor dictate rank, unofficially (but in some ways more inviolably than the simpler meritocracy also on offer), and the entire thing is bound up in a quasi-religious culture that seems based as much on Spinoza’s theses of god-in-nature as any barely discernible concept of super or extra-natural deism.
In fact, as we read we are kept aware of our tourist status in this universe. We’re fascinated, we want to know more, but deep down we know we may never fully grasp what is going on. Our presence would be tolerated, accommodated, the outsider who needs a bit of assistance making his/her way through the labyrinths of long-established cultural modes.
As rich as all this is—and it is heady stuff, narcotic almost—Leckie then tells us the story of a fragment of a ship mind that is all that remains of what had been a huge aggregate intelligence, destroyed in a crisis of political in-fighting, the scope and details of which form the basis of the plot as the surviving fragment, embodied in human form and constantly aware of how much it has lost, undertakes an almost impossible task to avenge its own demise.
On one level, Ancillary Justice is a kind of ghost story. The specter doing the haunting is quite literally the left behind essence of the murder victim. But there are ghosts aplenty if one chooses to read it that way, and the only people who are not in some way discorporate entities are the actual citizens who live under this strange polity.
To add to the dissonant rigor of the novel, Leckie has opted to give us a topsy-turvy gender arrangement. Not that males and females are not definably so, but the dominant pronoun used throughout is the feminine. The default identification is female and balance is upset when the protagonist is forced by local custom to make a distinction and make it in the locally preferred way, lest offense be given.
I will not go into the plot here. For me, the plot was one of the least interesting aspects, though I hasten to add that the plot is as serpentine and complex as any other element of this novel. I will say that it hinges on an observation about political expedience with which we find ourselves faced today, namely the question of what to do when unity of purpose slips away and internal confidence ceases to be a given. As with almost everything else, Leckie puts this notion forward with deceptive simplicity, and in a way that hones the bitter edge of the Damocletian paradox at the heart of the story.
Finally, we see all this through the eyes of a hero that begins the novel as self-consciously Not Human and by the end is the most human of all those with whom she interacts in the course of the story.
This is the first volume of a trilogy (at least) and I am very much looking forward to seeing how the various mysteries of this fractal universe unfold.
George R. R. Martin has become nearly ubiquitous since the advent of his massive, multi-volumed and cable-networked Song of Ice and Fire, more commonly known as The Game of Thrones (even though that is only the title of the first book in the series). Before that, he successfully helmed a network television series, Beauty and the Beast, and before that he worked on the excellent reboot of The Twilight Zone in the mid-1980s.
Even before that, however, he was establishing a reputation as a fine writer of speculative fiction and fantasy with a handful of novels and short story collections. His first novel, Dying Of The Light, published in 1977, demonstrated his strengths and served notice that what would follow would be worth anyone’s time and attention.
Returning to early work like this can sometimes be a dubious exercise. Writers grow into themselves, rarely doing anything approaching their best work in the beginning. But sometimes the talent and skill are evident from page one and early work is as polished and significant as anything that comes after. That appears to be the case with Martin. Dying Of The Light is work one might expect from mid-career, a deft exploration of complex themes of identity and myth set against a background of rich cross-cultural shifts, all vividly portrayed.
Dirk t’Larien, living in the husk of a life in a city laced with canals, receives an esper jewel from the woman he lost years before. t’Larien has been wallowing in self-pity and ennui ever since Gwen Delvano left him. Before parting, they had these jewels made, psychic encodings of their emotional selves, and exchanged them with the promise that when one sent their jewel to the other, the receiver would come at once. Dirk sent his, years before, and Gwen did not come. He has mourned her since, mourned himself, and has been slowly crumbling in on himself since. Now he has received hers, a summons he swore he would honor.
Should he, though? She did not answer his call, why should he answers hers?
He does. He has nothing else. This is the last obligation, the last devotion he has. Without Gwen, he has nothing. As he sits in his room, debating what is undebatable, he watches a gondolier drift by in the waning light of day, and in that image we understand the story about to unfold.
This a journey to the underworld, a quest to rescue Eurydice from hell. That gondolier is Charon and Dirk t’Larien is a phlegmatic Orpheus. Worlorn, the rogue planet briefly brought back to a kind of life by its passage close to a group of stars on its way out of the galaxy, is a kind of Hades.
Too-close comparisons have the drawback of forcing a reading that limits truth-seeking. The framework of the Orphic Myths is here, but it is only a framework, because our erstwhile Orpheus is neither a musician nor a particularly attentive lover. He dwells too much on a past that turns out to be partly mischaracterized, as Gwen, when they are reunited on Worlorn after Dirk responds to her summons, bluntly schools him.
“I did call you. You didn’t come.”
A grim smile. “Ah, Dirk. The whisperjewel came in a small box, and taped to it was a note. ‘Please,’ the note said, ‘come back to me now. I need you, Jenny.’ That was what it said. I cried and cried. If you’d only written ‘Gwen,’ if you’d only loved Gwen, me. But no, it was always Jenny, even afterwards, even then.”
Dirk, during their time together, had created a persona for her which he—playfully, he thought, affectionately—used as a private sign of their love. But “Jenny,” his alternate Gwen, was not Gwen. And what Gwen teaches Dirk now, on Worlorn, is the power of names. When you name a thing, she tells him, it becomes that thing. Whether he intended it or not, Gwen had been becoming someone for him she was not for herself. She had to leave and when he called the wrong woman back, she had to refuse or surrender.
The novel is replete with this game of names. The men, the “family” to which Gwen has tied herself, are Kavalars. Kavalan is a harsh world, one that had been cut off from all the other human colonies by a long, savage war, part of which was conducted on Kavalan and formed them into the tradition-bound, violent society of codes and honor and ritual commitment into which Gwen—because she met Jaan Vikary while he was visiting one of the older, more cultured worlds and fell in love with him—has given herself. Names mean everything, and yet they mask inaccuracies parading as history, myth as religious practice, race memory as an excuse to remain unchanged.
Vikary wants to change it all. He is a scholar, something of an oddity among his people, and he has learned the real history of what happened on his world, and understands how that history had been transmuted into myth. Now that the war is long past and recontact with the older colonies has been made, Kavalan looks like a barbaric, hide-bound world of obsolete ritual. Vikary sees the necessity of change if his world is to enter as an equal into the fold of human civilization.
But it will be difficult, almost impossible. Tradition is all the Kavalar have as a source of identity.
Dirk arrives on Worlorn well after the major event that clearly will one day become part of new myths. The Festival. When the world was detected and it was understood that its proximity to certain stars would thaw it, allowing a brief window during which it would support life, 14 of the human worlds came and built exemplary cities and held a great festival. Doomed, to be sure, but a momentary, beautiful gesture, a testament of life against the inevitability of eternal night. For as Worlorn continues on, it will once more freeze and die. All the forests transplanted to its surface will perish, the oceans will turn to ice, as will the atmosphere, and these lovely cities will become fossils for the archaeologists of another galaxy to find and puzzle over. A pointless gesture, in some ways, but a fist in the air and a rude gesture to the gods of entropy.
Gwen is here with her co-spouses because she is, as further resonance with the myth of Eurydice, an ecologist, a woman of the woods, so to speak. She’s here to study the interactions of all these varieties of never-before combined plant and animal life, even as the world itself is dying.
Yet Dirk is convinced she wants to leave her Kavalar husbands, return with him, try again. And for a short while it almost seems true.
What plays out subsequently is a contest between tradition, bigotry, and a desire to cast off chains. Dirk is a catalyst in all this, the necessary ingredient to create the transformations. In so being, he undergoes his own rebirth, which, after all, is the whole point of journeys through the underworld.
The dying in all this is not so nihilistic and tragic as the lines from Dylan Thomas might suggest. The light is fading from several people and institutions in this novel, but that is not Martin’s major revelation. He deftly weaves an understanding of how myth works and how traditions are created and at the same time shows how they become bonds that hold back even while they provide sustenance. But it is not death at the center of this novel but enlightenment, and the things dying are ancient and near-parasitical distortions. Misinterpretation, mischaracterization, and misapplications all dies in the full light of truth. Jaan Vikary is casting light on his own past; Gwen shines new light on Dirk’s incomprehensions; the essence of human is newly revealed by fearless looking. And even if it is not a wholly successful venture, a new accord is struck by the end, that new ways will at least be sought.
Paradoxically, Dirk, who is largely a cipher throughout the novel, finds the possibility of rebirth in an embrace of a very old and oft misunderstood trait learned from the Kavalars he has come to respect—honor. In keeping with the game of names Martin plays throughout, Dirk’s name is telling. t’Larien. Larien is a variant of Lawrence, which comes from the Latin Larentum—place of the laurel leaves. Laurels usually indicate honors, but it can also be seen as a criticism, as is “resting on one’s laurels.” This is the case for Dirk in the beginning—and also the case for some of the other Kavalars present on Worlorn. At the end, Dirk decides it is time to stop living in the past. It may mean a new name. Certainly it means a new beginning. Even as he goes to face a potential death, he has found a new way to live.
Recently I read my first two Lord Peter Wimsey novels. An acquaintance has long held Gaudy Night to be an exceptional work, so I settled down to indulge a period mystery, only to discover a very different sort of work full of surprises of remarkable relevance. Finishing that, I picked up Whose Body?, the first Lord Peter novel. What I found between the two was a substantial exhibition of intellectual and emotional growth.
It is always striking to encounter a character at two far-removed periods. Reading novels in a series in the order of their appearance can have a leavening effect of the profound changes visible. You grow along with the characters, if there is growth (and too often, it seems, in murder mysteries there is little growth in the principle character—but then that’s not what such series are about, is it?), and what may be striking changes seem natural, depending on the author’s skill. In this instance, Sayers’ skill was masterful in that the older Wimsey of Gaudy Night is so believably one with the much younger and more frivolous portrayal in Whose Body? even while the experiences of a life spent finding murderers and other assorted criminals have eroded the finely-modeled lines of youthful enthusiasm, allowing the layers beneath to rise, transforming as they emerge into a new kind of intellectual sensitive.
The real story in Gaudy Night is not the solution of the mystery driving the plot—which Wimsey solves in a fairly short time—but the demonstration of honest love rooted in genuine respect. Demonstration rather than revelation since the latter has already been done. It’s reception and acceptance are at question, hence the demonstration.
The hang up? Harriet Vane, subject of Lord Peter’s amorous devotion, cannot get past the suspicion that she is in fact merely an object of his devotion. She is invested, wholly, in being her Own Person. Their meeting (in the novel Strong Poison) was one more likely to elicit profound gratitude and a sense of obligation rather than the congeniality of equals, and Harriet has fended off his protestations of love and repeated offers of marriage since. She does not trust either her own feelings about him nor his motives toward her, even though she is willing to take him at his word regarding their sincerity. It is a delicate set of problems, a minefield around her heart, and in order to successfully consummate what is likely to be a fine companionship Wimsey is required to demonstrate time and again that he will not dominate her, will not coddle her, will not in any way treat her as lesser in any respect. All this while wanting above all else to protect her.
This is the classic conundrum of true love. In order for it to be true, one must not only allow but genuinely enjoy the independence of the one loved, even at the cost of letting them go.
Harriet Vane wants to be, and has worked very hard at being, her own person.
Sayers sets the story at a women’s college attached to Oxford, Vane’s alma mater, where a series of ugly, often childish, increasingly destructive acts of vandalism threaten to spoil the reputation of the school. This is all the more threatening because this is at a time when serious public debate over the utility of women’s education is ongoing and scandals add fuel to the fires of reaction. Harriet herself is emblematic of the pitfalls of living a life consistent with education and independence. The man she had lived with—not married—had been murdered and suspicion fell on her. This was the incident that first brought Wimsey and her together. Wimsey proved her innocent, hence the weight of obligation that causes Harriet to distrust the sincerity of her own feelings. She was held up as everything bad about the New Woman. She knows the problems a woman has making her own way without a man, yet she has persevered and made for herself a successful career as a novelist. Independence hard earned and not lightly surrendered, especially after having been nearly hanged for killing her lover.
What Sayers gives us turns out to be a thoroughly-considered examination of the problems of emancipation. It is astonishing how the arguments, pro and con, seem as fresh today as they doubtless seemed radical in 1935. Condescension is absent, questions of class and personality are examined, and the difficulties of maintaining individuality and pursuing ambition are laid out, all within the context of a thoroughly engaging mystery.
Harriet Vane is asked by the Dean of the college to come and help them discover the culprit. Calling in the police has its drawbacks as the events could become very public to the discredit of the college. Something, as it unfolds, the culprit very much wishes. Harriet, frustrated by the intractability of the case, finally sends a letter to Wimsey. The assistance she asks for is not what she gets. Instead of advice or a suggestion, he arrives.
Here it becomes tense. It would be easy for Wimsey to take over the case. He is the experienced detective, Harriet only writes about detectives and detecting. But Wimsey has far too much respect for her to simply butt in. And he knows that would lose her forever. He believes she can solve it. He provides assistance and no more, although he does give her some needed distraction, and renewed attention.
The dance Wimsey undertakes is as finely-performed as any solution to any murder. His object is to be what Harriet needs him to be and no more. He is clearly bursting to just do for her, but he knows he cannot, because the fragile bridgework between them must be based on equity and sharing and mutual respect. In some ways, it is a one-sided effort.
Gaudy Night is very much a comedy of manners. It is also a disquisition on self-possession. It is also a feminist critique. And it is a romance. All at once and successfully achieved.
Whose Body? on the other hand is a straight-forward Who-Done-It, an introduction to the character of Lord Peter Wimsey. Serviceable. The pleasure of the novel is the characterizations involved, which are ample and sophisticated. Sayers portrays Wimsey as someone very much in need of distraction. He is damaged by service in WWI. He is too intelligent by far to be satisfied with the usual and stereotypical distractions of his class. He is a rare book collector, a fair pianist, a gourmand.
He is also impatient with a tendency to be judgmental. He is in a hurry. Too lengthy an immersion into a case threatens to open old psychic wounds. Therefore, what patience he exhibits in the course of solving a case must be an act of will. He seems shallow to some. This is a side effect of his aversion to too-deep an introspection, although he cannot avoid it. At the end of the book, we are left with the impression of someone who needs to unravel and solve his own self as a way toward healing, but he can only do so indirectly. Solving murders is his way of occasionally showing a mirror to himself, finding another piece. Had he met Harriet then, they could never have worked together, they would never have found each other. He would not have survived her rejection, she would never tolerate his insistent perceptions.
In Gaudy Night there is a long discussion of principles and morals. Principles, Wimsey maintains, are inherently destructive, morals possibly a chimera. Yet he clearly has both and knows it. In Whose Body? the question arises as to why he bothers with criminal investigations and clearly the answer is that a principle is at stake. He can do this, he has the skill and talent, so how could he—morally—not do it? It’s never asked quite so baldly, but it threads through the entire book. It does, in fact, put the question forward. By Gaudy Night it seems Wimsey has answered it, at least for himself. And the evidence for the principle is the way he is willing to walk away from Harriet rather than impose anything on her. The imposition of one’s will on another is abhorrent to Wimsey, and what is murder if not the ultimate imposition, the total denial of self?
But even without murder, the principle maintains. Even built in to the crime being enacted at the college, there is the question of imposing wills on others. At the heart of the vandalism is a different sort of crime, or perhaps the same sort at a different level, a lie, a libel. Choices are all we have, really. To be able to make a choice freely is a kind of ideal state. But it is what we strive for, one hopes as a civilization. Wimsey goes to impossible lengths to guarantee that freedom. It is fascinating to see the answer to the questions he poses himself emerge between these two novels.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land
“Consider Phlebas…” The phrase focuses attention and sets expectations. As the novel progresses, we are primed to consider.
And yet, it seems to be little more than a big, yawping space opera, set during a war, with a lot of zipping about, fighting, explosions, deaths, intrigue. All of that, to be sure. What is there to consider?
Iain M. Banks loaded the dice before the first page by taking his title from an enigmatic stanza of a famously complex modern masterpiece. He has claimed in interview that he “just liked the sound of it” and had to use it as a title in something. An easy, dismissive answer to a question that begs for something more.
Consider Phlebas opens with an escape. In the midst of combat, a self-aware ship fashions a new Mind, a self-contained assemblage of massive intellectual potential, and shoots it out to make a getaway before it can be captured. The Mind is too young, unprepared, empty of experience, but it knows this, making it a remarkable construct. It executes a dangerous, almost hopeless maneuver that puts it—temporarily—out of reach, buried within the catacombs of a dead world that once was home to a civilization not terribly different than our own that failed to survive past its nuclear age. The planet is now a shrine, maintained by an enigmatic alien race which is as shapeless as water. The Mind finds sanctuary, but it has also trapped itself.
The next scene introduces Phlebas—in this case, a Changer named Horza—who is about to drown in a dungeon as punishment for espionage. He is chained to a wall while waste water is dumped into the chamber, gradually filling the space. He will die, ignominiously, wretchedly, tastelessly.
And indeed, he once was handsome and young, but in his present physical state he is an old man, having Changed himself for the purposes of his mission. Caught, he will not even die as himself, at least not physically.
The problem, though, as he keeps being forced to confront after his last-minute rescue by the hands of his alien masters, is who exactly he is. He is Bora Horza Gobuchul, a Changer, member of a species of human having the ability to imitate others by physically—and to a fair extent emotionally and intellectually—altering to become Someone Else.
Horza has allied himself with the Idirans in a war against The Culture. Here we find paradox. The Culture is an empire in that it covers vast stretches of (interstellar) territory and claims many races as members. It is tolerant in the extreme, vital, but in many ways essentially human. While there are many variations of human, there is a recognized standard, of which the Changers claim consanguinity. The Idirans on the other hand are definitely Not Human. Tripoidal, somewhat reptilian, they are also religious zealots. They seem congenitally incapable of recognizing the validity of different viewpoints on the question of Truth and have been engaging crusades of absorption (or annihilation) for some time before running into The Culture and finding themselves in a serious fight.
The Idirans consider all other races inferior—including their allies.
Yet Horza fights for them. Or, as he puts it, he is fighting on their side against The Culture, which he sees as the true enemy of humanity.
Because The Culture also includes machine intelligences as equal partners. For Horza, this is the line crossed that has set him in opposition. He cannot see machines as being in any way equal to biological life. They can only ever be either subservient—or masters.
So Horza indulges the classic choice—the enemy of my enemy, etc—without seeing the irony of his own position other than in the most superficial ways. He knows he could never accept the Idirans as master, he utterly rejects their religious purity, and yet if they beat The Culture they will continue conquering less capable polities, absorbing or eliminating apostates, until one day they will force the Changers to choose. Horza does an ethical dance with himself to permit his alliance for the immediate goal of stopping The Culture, which is also growing and absorbing new territory.
Though in a completely different way.
But more than that, The Culture itself is in a profound ethical quandary about the war. The Culture hasn’t fought a war in so long that it has to reinvent its capacity to do so. The decision to go to war against the Idirans has been highly unpopular with most of its citizens, and even those prosecuting it have serious doubts about their right to do so. The Culture has to consider the possibility that this will change it into something it does not wish to be in order to win. As well, there’s no clear idea what “winning” means. This is not how The Culture does business.
the Idirans seem to be the only ones in the mix with a clear, confident idea of what they are and why they’re doing this. But as it is revealed, they had to change in order to become imperialists. The evangelical urge was once a new thing, turning from an inward-facing, contemplative people, to crusaders.
Oh, you who turn the wheel and look to windward…
Horza is rescued only to find himself set adrift in a spacesuit during an assault by a Culture ship on his rescue ship. He faces drowning in vacuum. His rescue by a privateer is the most improbable of events, but as it turns out not quite as unlikely as it might seem. Ships like the Clear Air Turbulence shadow the forces in these huge engagements, looking for opportunities for salvage or cover for smuggling. Hence, Horza finds himself on board a freelance, unaligned ship with a crew of misfits looking for the next big score. They are just competent enough to almost succeed at something. They’re very good at getting into situations for which they end up being unprepared.
Horza decides to use them—by changing himself gradually into their captain—to accomplish the mission he had been given before being shucked out an airlock: recover the Culture Mind that has hidden itself on that off-limits world.
The bulk of the plot involves this mission and Horza’s manipulations to achieve it.
Into this two players are added that complicate the ethical issues—Balveda, an agent of The Culture’s Special Circumstances department; and Unaha Closp, a maintenance drone, a self-aware machine, both of whom get trapped on board the ship during an escape Horza engineers. Balveda has been tracking Horza all along and is caught by him as he fully manifests as the captain of the Clear Air Turbulence. Closp is doing maintenance on the ship and is unable to leave when Horza makes his escape.
Of the two, the drone is the more important complicating factor. It forces Horza continually to engage it as an equal, something Horza is loathe to do. It exhibits character, personality, resilience, and competence. It is, as we get to know it, impossible to see as “just a machine.” Which, of course, is the whole point. This is the key to Horza’s entire objection to The Culture. A self-aware “device” that refuses to be treated as a lesser being. In what way, its presence asks, am I any different than a biological form? In fact, it demonstrates an appreciation of choice and life that is categorically denied by Horza’s employers.
Balveda, while of secondary importance in this equation, is nevertheless absolutely necessary. She represents The Culture’s willingness to deal with any situation that threatens to impair exactly the kind of status Unaha Closp demands. Her department, Special Circumstance, is itself the embodiment of an understanding of the impossibility of creating a one-size-fits-all moral program. There will always be conditions that do not allow for cut-and-paste solutions. At the same time, The Culture realizes that dealing with questions such as the Idirans present has the potential to distort what The Culture is at its core. Hence, Special Circumstances, a division of Contact, put out there as a kind of moral buffer. Or at least a cultural one. Balveda and her colleagues are the immune system of The Culture.
What Banks built in this universe is a subversive ethical microscope, subsumed into the fabric of what appears to be little more than an epic space opera.
In fact, though, Consider Phlebas, like most of The Culture novels, is subversive of the form itself. Anti-space operas, because the outcomes are never as clear cut and triumphal as the great space operas of the past. On the contrary, clarity is only found in an appreciation of the irony at the heart of a Banks Culture novel. Horza himself subverts his own purposes at almost every turn. He defends something he does not believe in, fights something that might give him purpose, and like the Phoenician is drowned in a sea of bad options and murky choices.
And who is the hero? A space opera, by long tradition, requires a hero, one character we can point to and show clear-eyed purpose and to whom some degree of success accrues. Who is that here?
Unaha Closp. Of them all, the drone exhibits all the traits of the hero. The very thing Horza identifies as inimical to everything he believes in is the one that comes through every time, acts consistently on its convictions, and perseveres as well as survives. Banks seems to be saying that principle is not determined by form. Biology can lay no exclusionary claim to it—in fact, by example, biology has the hardest time with it. But the prejudice of the flesh, so to speak, precludes genuine tolerance, and principle is sacrificed when options are reduced to two—the ideal or the beneficiary.
The underlying ethos of The Culture, though, is a denial that choices are ever only reducable to just two. That if that’s what we believe, then something has been overlooked.
On the off-chance, though, that time or resource refuse an opportunity to find third or fourth choices, it would be useful to have a Special Circumstances to deal with the contradictions and conflicts.
Great Causes often come down to one or both parties making the statement that no one has the right to impose principle or form on someone else. It can be confusing when terms like freedom get tossed into the mix. Freedom from what? To do what? To be what? The universe would appear to be too mutable to admit unitary definitions of freedom or rights or even morality. The Culture, Banks suggests, understands this fundamental fact. They work to preserve a space in which people can decide for themselves, and intervene when the decision produces evangelical movements. The question then is, what if the evangelicals are right? Well, that would be a very special circumstance indeed.
Horza makes his way by engaging mutability as an innate talent and, he must at some point realize, a self-claimed right to be anyone or anything he can imitate. But he can’t imitate everything. Perhaps this is the basis of his metric as to what is or is not acceptably his equal. He can’t become a machine.
And yet, he does. A tool, a cog, a machine in a larger mechanism. He forgets ultimately who he was. Maybe who he is. He clings to his prejudices as a way of maintaining some sense of identity. If he cannot say exactly who or what he is anymore, at least he can say what he is not. One cannot help but see his choices as driven by a desire to find some cause that will give him solid shape. Unfortunately, while he’s searching, everything around him shifts, and he drowns in a sea of change.
(I am cross-posting this from my other blog, the Distal Muse, as it relates to the theme of this one.)
There was a hardcover copy of a Mary Poppins book in my grade school library. I remember finding it and being very excited. Naturally, I’d seen the movie and I was already discovering how much better the books from which films were made could be. So I checked it out and took it home and that night opened it up and—
Took it back the next day, unfinished. To say it was nothing like the film is beside the point. To say I found no magic in it would be closer. But frankly, the Mary Poppins of P.L. Travers—of which we now are so vigorously concerned of late—I found to be a cold, humorless drudge who was obsessed with discipline. She was more like Mr. Banks from the film, who had to be saved from his stern, business-before-all attitude before he let all of life pass him by. I grant you, I was quite young—ten—and not, perhaps, the most patient of readers or the most perceptive, but the contrast was so sharp and jarring that I’ve never gone back. Travers’ Mary Poppins was no one I would have wanted anything to do with. That Walt Disney found something magical in these stories amazed me at the time.
Fast-forward to my erstwhile attempts at being a writer and the slight knowledge I’ve garnered about property rights and adaptations and so forth, and many things make much more sense now. The books were popular—not Harry Potter popular, not even close, but they sold—and there was presumably a market that could be exploited. It must have appeared to Uncle Walt to be an opportunity to do a little payback toward England, where his Peter Pan was barred by the tidy little trust Barrie had put together that guaranteed revenues for the orphanage to which the playwright was dedicated. Disney had gamed international copyright to make the film without cutting them in for anything and they successfully kept the product out of British markets (until only recently, when a new deal was cut, paving the way for, among other things, the wonderful Ridley Pearson and Dave Barry novels about Peter and the Lost Boys). Walt was snatching another British property and this time nothing would keep the film from English audiences.
And he saw something my ten-year-old self didn’t—a way to extract a Disney production from the elements of the stories.
But the result was so different from the source material, one must wonder why he didn’t just come up with something completely new on his own.
Well, at a guess, that name. Mary Poppins. (Especially the way Dick Van Dyke said it, in that exaggerated cockney accent.) And the setting. And the back story. Safer, maybe, to grab something whole from a long siege than risk opprobrium by cutting out a new set of characters and then being accused of plagiarism. Uncle Walt, after all, had an image to protect—his was part of an America trinity that included Abraham Lincoln and Santa Claus, honest, uncorrupted, generous, and pathologically well-meaning. In his calculus it must have seemed worthwhile only if he could show that everyone, from the creator to the audience, approved.
And he bloody well paid Travers enough for her work. Sixty thousand pounds, which would have worked out to roughly one hundred two thousand dollars, which, adjusted for inflation etc etc would be worth about three-quarters of a million today. Plus she got five percent of the box office gross.
She was, as they say, set.
Yet from all accounts the new film, Saving Mr. Banks, portrays Travers as just as difficult, odious, and perpetually disapproving as her signature character, granting Disney an aura of magnificent patience in dealing with this woman he seemed intent on making rich just by making Mary Poppins even more famous.
Because the fact is Travers went to her grave hating the film Disney made. He turned her work inside out, cut away large portions of it to leave in the bin, and concocted a musical mish-mash of mind-numbing magical mush which she reportedly loathed. The serious points she wanted to make in her stories got short-shrift, the “proper British household”(which she rather admired, especially being the daughter of a man who struggled for the position of Mr. Banks but lost it, only to die prematurely when Travers was six) was held up to ridicule, and Mary herself came off closer to an Edwardian jet-setter than the nanny who could fix anything Travers intended.
Mary Poppins was a creation from her childhood. She had grown up with this character, it was part of her DNA, so to speak. Disney worked at getting the rights to make the film for 20 years. Can anyone fault Travers for being protective? Indeed, obsessively so? This is something most writers understand in their bones—it is their work, no, it is their being which is, depending how you view it, either being praised or raped.
The success of the film did not hurt. She published more Mary Poppins books after it came out, among other things, but she never agreed to another Disney adaptation. At a guess, at a minimum, she must have thought Disney had trivialized her character.
(To understand what must have gone through her mind, imagine for a moment the idea of telling, say, Ibsen that one of his plays was going to be made into a new production by Gilbert and Sullivan.)
Turning things over to someone else’s control is hard. It can wrench to see your work treated differently, with apparent disregard for what you envisioned. Even if no ill intent is on hand (and surely Walt Disney had nothing nefarious in mind—he was first and foremost an entertainer, he wanted to make magic that sold well) it can be galling to watch what you have done…altered.
I find it ironic that the film has been titled Saving Mr. Banks. Disney as an institution has had more than a hefty dose of bad luck since Walt died and is often criticized for a variety of business practices which, while perfectly normal in the Hollywood milieu seem horrid and crass given the “Uncle Walt” persona the company wishes to put forward. I realize it’s a play on the Banks family from the books and that part of the story Disney put on the screen concerns saving Mr. Banks’ soul from the creeping corporatism that is stealing him from his family. But the film is about Walt Disney and his company. Saving Mr. Banks, then, is about saving an image, saving a corporation, saving…Walt?
I have met no writer of books who was ever satisfied with the job a film did with his or her work. Not one. It is a very different medium from the printed page. Those few films that have successfully (however one defines success) translated book to screen are the exceptions, not the rule. The film maker very often finds it easier or more workable to just dump large parts of a written work and start over. If everyone knows this is going on up front, then the results can be artistically fine. Take for instance Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. There is maybe 15% of the book in the movie, but it is a brilliant film for all that it has departed from Dick’s original story.
Be that as it may, one wonders at the reasons behind putting together a hagiographic film about a relationship, while certainly important, probably few people really cared about so long after the events. Why now? Why this? And what use is there in misrepresenting so much of what happened? (Which films do all the time, this is nothing new, but for those who know better it is nevertheless aggravating.) I wasn’t aware that Walt Disney’s image needed a new coat of varnish.
For the record, I liked the film Mary Poppins. I’ve been a fan of Julie Andrews ever since. I liked it. I didn’t love it. I disliked musicals then, rather intensely, and the story seemed somewhat removed, but there were moments, magic moments, that took me out of my young head and made me marvel. Enough that I became excited when I found that book in the school library. Enough that I was disappointed at what I found on the page.
And that’s a point. It matters what we’re exposed to first. It sets out expectations. While it may not be cool to admit it among certain circles, if the film is the first thing to which we’re exposed, it sets a bar that the books then must meet or surpass, and that’s just as difficult if the relation is reversed. For me, the film remains stubbornly primary, even though I “know” better. In a time when copyright and corporate ownership of intellectual rights is coming under more and more sophisticated scrutiny, it might behoove Disney to put forth an additional bit of mythology suggesting that this primacy is the valid one, that through his almost saint-like patience and paternal good will Uncle Walt was the one with the preferred vision and Pamela Travers was just, you know, being difficult.
Even a cursory glance at Travers’ life belies this. She was an unmarried woman who had been making her way in the world of the theater and publishing for some time, who was in no way the constitutional drudge apparently being portrayed. To be successful in that kind of life at that time, she could not be without considerable experience and business savvy. It’s likely she smelled snake oil in Disney’s wooing and she reflexively recoiled. She knew well enough that such a project would make her material existence easier, even if her conscience bothered her. To personify what was a pragmatic business decision as some kind of character defect—because she was repelled by the subsequent production—is unkind, unnecessary, and more than a bit nasty.
Something Disney is not supposed to be.