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The Proportional Representation weenies get their shot.

Last month I participated in the Province of British Columbia’s online survey about changing the voting system. The results will be considered in the design of an upcoming referendum to swap out our musty old wig-wearing Westminster-style system for a shiny, enlightened, progressive…er, I mean proportional alternative.

I bailed on the survey after a couple questions when I remembered that I don’t give a crap what voting system we use. An op-ed in the Vancouver Sun illustrates why I can’t take the issue seriously. It’s by three well-meaning nerds from an organization called Make Every Vote Count:

It’s time to fix BC’s broken democracy

The day after an election, a majority – usually six out of 10 voters – effectively find themselves with a government in Victoria they didn’t choose.

The result? The majority must live with what the minority has chosen. Not terribly representative or democratic.

I should explain why this is an issue at all. In last year’s election, the governing BC Liberals – a right-leaning alliance of inoffensive pro-business types, with a few carefully screened social conservatives riding quietly at the back of the bus – won more seats, and a fraction more of the popular vote, than the New Democratic Party.

bc election results 2017

2017 BC election results.

However, the NDP claimed power by negotiating an arrangement with the third-place Greens, who promised to prop them up subject to certain conditions…including this referendum on bringing in a proportional representation system.

The Greens believe, probably correctly, that PR would be to their advantage in future elections: if last year’s popular vote, for example, had been translated into seat count on a purely proportional basis, the Greens would have elected 14 or 15 members, rather than the 3 they eked out under our first-past-the-post system.

How should us non-Greens feel about it? Would PR benefit the left side of the political spectrum exclusively, or would it lead to a complete upheaval of our current party system? Would it increase voter enthusiasm, solving the problem – if it is a problem – of “voter apathy” that the editorialists claim is on the rise?

I’m one of those apathetic voters whose enthusiasm for democracy will supposedly be rekindled by PR. I’ve been living in BC for five and a half years, the whole time under a government in Victoria I didn’t choose: I skipped the 2013 election and spoiled my ballot in 2017.

Perhaps I would have cast a vote for some hypothetical third or fourth or fifth party representing my idiosyncratic views, which under a PR system might have elected one or two members to gripe from the backbenches.

I might be slightly happier under this scenario. But my slightly greater happiness would be offset by the irritation of the many British Columbians wondering, “Who let those goddamned cranks into the legislature?”

***

Looking back at previous provincial elections, it appears that under a PR system the perennially second-place NDP, providing they were able to count on Green support, would have had a lock on government for the last decade. (Though this is accepting the implausible scenario where party alignments and voter preferences remained static under a changed voting system.) Which is why it’s lefties and progressives currently pushing PR, while the Liberals vow to fight it.

But back in the 1990s, before the rise of the Green Party, it was the right side of the political spectrum that was fragmented, allowing the NDP to rule with popular vote totals around 40%.

I suspect that even now there are at least as many social conservative voters in BC as there are Greens, but it has been the Liberals’ luck (perhaps augmented with a little backroom skulduggery) that a viable right-wing alternative hasn’t emerged since the collapse of BC Reform in the early 2000s.

Paradoxically, lefty media bias might be one of the factors helping the right-wing coalition hang together. The more talented conservative politicians, knowing that their Twitter and Facebook feeds will be mercilessly examined for any hint of sympathy with taboo ideas – Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, whatever-the-next-thing-is-phobia – opt to keep their heads down and settle for second-class status in a winning centre-right coalition, rather than try to launch a true right-wing alternative.

When Canada’s unimpeachably progressive prime minister Justin Trudeau retreated from his election promise to bring in PR at the federal level, this was precisely the rationalization he offered: that a new voting system might enable far-right ruffians to sneak past the gatekeepers and into parliament.

You can laugh at the hypocrisy of Trudeau’s discovery that the system was working at the exact moment the system elevated him to power. But there’s something to his analysis. Under first-past-the-post, coalition-building takes place before the election, as the mainstream parties jostle for position on the ideological spectrum; enabling the parties to act as a cartel, filtering out viewpoints that are popular with the electorate, but unpopular with our ruling class.

Under PR, the ruffians needn’t win over a plurality of voters anywhere, only enough here and there to scrape past whatever arbitrary popular-vote threshold – usually 5 or 10% – the gatekeepers have imposed. Once the ruffians tumble through the door, ululating and firing their pistols in the air, there’s a risk ordinary people will start paying attention to them, and then – why, anything might happen.

Consider the UK where, despite about half the electorate wanting out of the EU, the suits in the mainstream parties successfully banished the issue to the fringes for a generation. When a single-issue anti-EU party emerged – UKIP – it wasn’t in Westminster but in the proportionally-allocated European Parliament that it managed to gain a toehold…whereupon the embargo began to fall apart.

***

No matter what voting system is used, a ballot is a blunt instrument for registering your democratic choice. It doesn’t indicate your level of enthusiasm – a grudging preference for candidate A and a rabid hatred for candidate B result in the exact same mark on the ballot.

The do-gooders seem to imagine some ideal system where no-one ever casts a negative vote:

[M]any feel pressured to vote for the lesser of two evils. They feel compelled to vote “strategically”.

Instead of voting for someone they believe in, they vote for a different candidate to prevent the election of yet another. Not coincidentally, a growing number feel cynical about politics.

Apparently a proportional system will somehow obviate the need for strategic voting. But no matter what process is used, the endgame is the same: to enact the policies you support, while blocking the policies you oppose. All PR does is expand the gameboard. Instead of strategizing at the level of a single electoral district, you have to strategize at the provincewide or nationwide level.

This may actually make voting less satisfying, as it’s hard to predict what the parties will do when it comes time to dole out roles in a coalition government. How many Germans are likely to be thrilled by the result of their most recent election, run under a version of PR, which saw Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats returning to power yet again with the support of her supposed opponents, the Social Democrats?

This mashup of the two biggest parties, centre-right and centre-left, happens so often in Germany it has a clunky abbreviation, GroKo. For fans of mushy centrism and technocratic tinkering, a GroKo probably sounds peachy. But suppose you’re a left-leaning German whose main issue is a burning detestation of Angela Merkel. Do you vote for the Social Democrats whose policies you generally support, in the hope that this time around they’ll spurn the chancellor’s power-sharing blandishments? Or do you take a flier on the populist Left Party, who are a bit nutty for your tastes, but whom you can rely on to give Mutti Merkel the finger?

Sounds like a job for strategy.

***

What will happen if the do-gooders get their way, and bring some form of PR to British Columbia?

I’d expect the current Liberal Party to fracture into its constituent ideological parts. A renewed BC Conservative Party might yield 10-15% of the vote, while freeing the remaining Liberals to run on a more explicitly centrist platform, stealing some votes from the NDP, who will meanwhile be losing votes on their left to the energized Greens.

I could imagine the NDP fracturing as well, with the meat-and-potatoes labour types and the nose-ring contingent going their separate ways. And who knows what other blocs might be able to grab enough votes to sneak into the legislature. Maybe the Libertarians could burrow out a little nook in the centre of the political spectrum. Maybe Trump-style conservative populism will overleap the ramparts of yuppie disdain and become an electoral force in Canada.

We might easily wind up with a GroKo-style alliance of moderate New Democrats and moderate Liberals, opportunistically cobbled together to freeze out populist insurgents. I’m not so sure the authors of this op-ed – two of whom (going by their Twitter feeds) are the kind of lefties that dismiss Trudeau as a wishy-washy sellout – will be thrilled with that result.

At least under PR the makeup of the coalitions would be overt, rather than disguised, as it is now, under vague party labels.

Would this really do anything to win over cynics like me? It’s hard to say. Would I rather vote for a big mainstream party, representing an ungainly hodgepodge of interest groups, that has a real shot at winning, but once in power will pay little attention to my concerns? Or for a niche party that might elect one or two members who’ll faithfully but impotently articulate my viewpoint from a remote corner of the legislature?

I’m pretty sure I’ll find something to moan about, no matter what. But that’s what a cynic would say.

M.

Speaking of idealistic electoral reform schemes, I am striving to become the internet’s number one resource on Nevil Shute’s multiple voting system. Elsewhere on this blog I have declared that there is no God-given system under which elections would be perfectly fair and expressed mild support for sovereigntist movements like Brexit.

 

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I take a stand!

(An early draft of this essay bore the cheeky title, “Come to think of it, I guess I am a Nazi sympathizer”. But why invite needless trouble?)

The other day I removed, from a telephone pole by my building, a sticker advertising the white nationalist website Stormfront.org. The first time I passed by I thought, “Meh, none of my business”; but on second thought I decided I ought to do what I could to forestall the inevitable media meltdown when someone else noticed it – “Community Rallies To Oppose Wave Of Racism” – so on my way home I stopped by the pole and, after checking to make sure no-one was watching, scraped off the sticker. I assume it was left by one of the little jackasses from the nearby high school who pass under my window hooting and swearing every day at three o’clock.

I felt a little conflicted about what I’d done, because I’m pretty much a free speech absolutist; I think even the most imbecilic speech ought to be tolerated, even in sticker form. It never crossed my mind to tear down the many posters I saw around town this winter, put up by local socialists, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Russian revolution; but then, I’m pretty sure the local media won’t be reporting worriedly on the Wave of Communism that all decent people must stand against. My removal of the Stormfront sticker was purely self-serving; as someone who harbours mildly subversive thoughts, I was trying to prevent the more dimwitted of my fellow subversives from making the rest of us look bad. So it seems I’m not all that committed to free speech after all.

While I have no sympathy for Nazism, an idiotic creed, I do sympathize with Nazis; or rather, I sympathize with people who believe all manner of idiotic things, having believed various idiotic things at various times in my life; and being unable to declare with certainty that I don’t believe one or more idiotic things right now.

I don’t think I’ve ever met an actual Nazi. There was an older kid – eighteen, but no bigger than a fourth grader, with leather jacket, long hair, and a wispy moustache – who when we were introduced by a mutual friend greeted me with, “Are you a Jew?”

“N-no,” I replied. Only then did he extend his tiny hand to shake mine, in the “clasped-thumbs” style favoured at that time and place by stoners, longhairs, and cool kids. (Sometimes the clasped-thumbs shake would be combined with a finger snap, a trick I never mastered.)

How sincere was his anti-Semitism? We lived in a part of Canada where you could greet a hundred people a day with “Are you a Jew?” without much danger of encountering an actual Jew. It was a low-risk, low-effort way for that physically unprepossessing kid to stake out the most outrageously antisocial position in a subcaste where antisocial attitudes were celebrated and rewarded.

I fantasized afterward about standing up to the shrimp: “Sure, I’m a Jew. You wanna make something of it?” (I’m not a Jew.) But what would that have accomplished? Despite his weirdly high status among the longhair crowd, it’s obvious in retrospect that the kid was mildly mentally retarded. I think his friends played along partly because he was known to be unstable and maybe dangerous, but also out of something akin to pity. To defy him would’ve meant risking a shanking; but even if he’d backed down, it would’ve meant humiliating him in front of the only group of weirdos who’d tolerate him.

That’s the only incident of overt anti-Semitism I can recall from my youth in small-town Saskatchewan in the 1980s and ’90s; though for a time it was a fad with some of my high school friends to use “jew” as a verb meaning “to rip off” – “that vending machine jewed me out of a loonie” – which got on my nerves, but I was too cowardly to say anything. I’m quite conflict-averse, and I was as uncomfortable defending an unpopular position at sixteen, when I was the most bleeding-heart among my redneck friends, as I am at forty-one, when I’m the most redneck among my bleeding-heart friends.

I used to feel ashamed of my cowardice, but looking back I’m glad I never took an off-puttingly self-righteous stand over what I now realize was harmless posing. It only took a couple years of university for most of my redneck friends to turn into censorious progressives of the modern type; and if the pendulum ever swings back, and mild homophobia and racial slurs again become signals of coolness, my friends who’ve conveniently forgotten the then-fashionable things they claimed to believe in high school will forget the fashionable things they claim to believe now. My beliefs, too, have mutated over time, in response to the changing political climate, and it’s probably some quirk in my character that makes me feel like I always wind up wearing a fur coat on a sunny day.

But to return to my small Saskatchewan town: the one time I recall speaking up was in junior high when I learned that a few of my friends, in my absence, had spent the evening drinking Slurpees and vandalizing the playground equipment at a local elementary school with symbols of rebellion: heavy metal band logos, anarchy signs, and KKKs. “Mmm,” I responded mildly, when my friend told me what he’d been up to the night before. “I dunno. I mean, what if people think you’re serious about all that KKK stuff?”

“Yeah,” my friend agreed – a little abashed, I believe – and we never spoke of it again. Back then people kept incidents like this in perspective. The newspapers weren’t notified, the graffiti was painted over a few days later, and probably only one or two little native kids, as opposed to every native person in the city, decided based on my friends’ asinine prank that white society was irredeemably prejudiced against them.

My preference is to refrain from throwing gasoline on fires. Groups scrape along best when there’s a consensus that we should ignore, rather than amplify, each other’s idiocies; and the idiots themselves, I feel, are likelier to respond to quiet reason than angry howling. But then, I’m pretty sheltered. I recall chatting with a Scottish visitor who told me and my friends about the low-level conflict between Catholics and Protestants in her country, and how brawling among sectarian gangs was an ordinary rite of passage for working-class males. “Gosh, I’m glad we don’t have anything like that in Canada,” I said; and a fellow Canadian piped up that, well, actually, his older brother and his cronies had regularly gotten into rumbles with native gangs back in the day. I’ve never heard directly from anyone who participated in such rumbles. Maybe, as I rather supect, my friend was exaggerating; or my friend’s older brother was exaggerating; maybe even our Scottish visitor was exaggerating. But such violence does happen, whether or not I find it believable; and having gone through it would probably make one snigger at the impotent finger-wagging of armchair geezers like me.

Why am I sharing any of this? I guess I’m hoping that, since I did my small part to Oppose a Wave of Racism, the Commies will cut me a bit of slack when they take over.

M.

Last year, inspired by a poster left on another nearby piece of urban infrastructure, I worried about progressives’ ever more flexible definition of Nazism; and the year before that, I wondered whether pre-war German Nazi Party members were really as dumb as their opponents claimed.

Movie bad guys, by the numbers.

Warning: This post mentions major plot points from the 2017 movie Unlocked.

Last summer, in a rambling post inspired by a scene from Robert Altman’s The Player, I wrote about my friend who’d been complaining that Muslims were stereotyped as the bad guys in Hollywood films. I demurred that

even after a decade and a half of Middle Eastern war and unrelenting media attention to Middle Eastern terrorism, in the movies Middle Easterners were stalled in the number four bad guy spot behind Russians, Nazis, and rich WASPs – maybe even five, after Latin American drug lords. But my friend seemed to doubt me.

I went on to wonder whether our argument could be settled by numerical analysis. Could one analyze a large volume of films, determine who were “the bad guys”, and prove scientifically that Hollywood had been treating certain groups unfairly?

I attempted to define the parameters of the experiment:

One would need to examine all movies (caveat: define “movie”) over a given period, identify the main bad guys (caveat: by what criteria?) and somehow sort them (caveat: actors, or characters?) by ethnicity and religion.

I now realize I was understating the difficulty. Consider only my first caveat, defining the data set. Do you limit your investigation to American-made films, and if so, in the era of international co-productions what constitutes “American”?…or for that matter, in the era of Netflix and video-on-demand, a “film”? You could make a case for restricting your analysis to big-budget movies, as they more accurately represent studio conventional thinking. Or you could ignore budgets, and focus on the highest-earning movies, as they’re likeliest to reflect audience prejudices. Or you could include as many movies as possible, including little-seen indies, as they represent the widest possible sample of filmmakers.

Your choice will skew the results. If your sample is heavy on big-budget, theatrically released movies, you’re going to find a lot more superheroes shooting Nazis with laserbeams; the more you expand it to cheapo direct-to-DVD fare, the more Mexican cartel members you’ll see getting kicked in the face by guys in blue jeans.

But suppose you cracked all the above problems and carried out an accurate and objective census of bad guys: what percentage would qualify as “unfair”? What does science tell us is a proportionate depiction of Middle Eastern villainy?

***

Netflix recently made available a pretty generic spy thriller called Unlocked, starring Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, John Malkovich, and Michael Douglas. It’s ostensibly about Islamic terrorism, but none of the main actors plays a Muslim. In the end we discover that the evil mastermind is one of the top-billed stars – a CIA agent secretly helping advance a jihadi plot in order, he rants, to awaken America to the threat of biological weapons.

I’d seen enough movies of this type – i.e., more than one – to predict that it would be something along these lines: the only question was, would it be Douglas, Malkovich, or Collette who turned out to be the villain? This insight didn’t rely on parsing Hollywood’s racial politics; only awareness of Roger Ebert’s Law of Economy of Characters.

I could use Unlocked as a data point against my friend’s argument that Middle Easterners are negatively stereotyped: all the main bad guys, even the leader of a jihadi cell, are white men; of the five non-white Muslim characters, one is clearly good, three are ambiguous but portrayed sympathetically, and only one (fairly minor) is an outright villain.

But if I wanted to make the opposite case, those three ambiguous Muslims could easily be roped into the “bad guy” column; and it’s true that all the Muslims in the movie, good and bad, are defined by their relationship to Islamic extremism.

In short, like many movies on this theme, Unlocked could be pigeonholed – stereotyped, if you will – equally well as anti-Muslim paranoia or anti-American paranoia.

Poking around for reviews of Unlocked I came across this one by a writer who thought it was not just a good but a “great thriller”, and who was “pleasurably surprised more than once by sudden twists in the plot”. But even this credulous viewer found something to roll his eyes at:

The only real flaw it has is in following a very hoary cliché. Cynical viewers would guess from the beginning that the heroine’s black friend is marked for death.

As soon as we see his happy home life, and watch him playing with his beloved infant daughter, we know his fate is sealed…

This “flaw” didn’t even register for me. Is “black sidekick with happy home life is doomed to die” more or less of a cliché than “CIA heroine’s mentor is secretly the bad guy”? Could we conduct a numerical analysis and find out?

I doubt it. Movie-watching isn’t a science. We see the stereotypes we’re interested in seeing.

***

Pursuing the line of thought described in my earlier post, last summer I downloaded ten years of box office returns from the website Box Office Mojo and attempted to answer what I believed was a straightforward question: In the previous decade, had there been more movies about the “Global War on Terror” (henceforth GWOT), or about World War II?

I predicted that WWII would be the clear winner. In spite of (or because of) the ubiquity of real-life Middle Eastern violence in our newsfeeds, and the central place of Islam in our current ideological squabbles, in our fictions we prefer to go on reliving the clear-cut ideological and military triumphs of our grandparents.

I started with the top 200 movies, by North American box office receipts, from each year 2007-2016.

I threw out all documentaries and animated movies.

I disregarded country of origin but excluded a few foreign-language films for which there was little information online.

Then, using Wikipedia plot summaries for the 1686 movies remaining in my sample, I attempted to identify and categorize every war movie.

Finally, having devoted many evenings to this time-consuming project…I chucked the whole thing out.

I realized that my survey was absurdly susceptible to manipulation. Depending on how I defined “war movie”, I could make the case that WWII movies greatly outnumbered GWOT movies…or the exact opposite.

Here’s a table – which should not be regarded as in any way scientific – illustrating what I mean:

war movies wwii versus gwot 2007-2016

Click for PDF.

Movies marked red take place primarily in a war zone.

Movies marked yellow include one or two battlefield scenes, or explore the causes or consequences of war, or deal with war in a comedic or fantastic way…but most people wouldn’t think of them as “war movies”.

Movies marked orange could have gone either way.

Using a strict (red) definition of “war movie”, there were more than 1.5 times as many WWII movies as GWOT movies. (16-10)

Using a loose (yellow) definition, the GWOT movies outnumbered the WWII movies by an even greater proportion. (43-25)

But those results are next to meaningless. I could have expanded the definition of “war movie” still further by hauling in the innumerable action flicks about ex-Green Berets fighting bad guys on U.S. soil. Or limited GWOT movies to only those involving declared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I could have applied a higher or lower box office cutoff, or used some arbitrary criteria to exclude “non-Hollywood” films, or performed any number of subtle manipulations, to get whatever results I wanted.

My effort wasn’t entirely wasted. It has made me even more skeptical about dubious claims of scientific objectivity, and the journalists, bloggers, and social media stooges who unquestioningly pass those claims along.

Having said that, I can scientifically prove that there is a shortage of movies about the surprisingly busy sex lives of struggling middle-aged male writers. My study is forthcoming.

M.

A shameful habit exposed.

I don’t tweet and I don’t face-beak, but I do carry on a desultory back-and-forth with an email list consisting of a dozen or so of my oldest friends. Every month or two I’ll update them on my doings and they’ll update me on theirs, and we’ll chat a bit about uncontroversial topics.

The list used to be livelier, in part because I would share thoughts about politics and society that I now reserve for this blog. In fact I used to be something of a blowhard, replying to my friends’ terse comments with rants of a thousands words or more. Now I confine my rants to the overlooked corner of the internet where they belong. My blog was never a secret, but I haven’t advertised it to my friends. I believe some of them were unaware it existed.

The other day, one of my list buddies followed a trail of links from one of my music videos back to this blog. He then emailed the group some flattering comments about the essays he’d found here, linking to several of them. I found myself mildly annoyed. I started to compose this reply, but luckily recognized in time that I was falling back into my old ranting habit.

Why should I be annoyed that my friend drew attention to my blog? I suppose I’m ashamed of it. In olden days there was a kind of flinty dignity in self-publishing: humping your crudely photocopied comix around to the hippie bookstores; flogging your homophobic tracts on street corners; or, like high-school-age Michael, selling an ad under false pretenses to the management of the Lawson Heights Mall to finance your underground student newspaper. The self-evident futility of it limited participation to a few doughty eccentrics.

Nowadays any lazy schmoe (like grown-up Michael) can set up a free WordPress blog in five minutes, and Google will supply a steady trickle of visitors to validate his dronings, and incidentally to glance at the Google ads seeded ever more densely around his site, each glance reaping Google a fraction of a penny. At least Uber and its imitators, when they eventually destroy the taxicab business, will still be obliged to pay their drivers some bare percentage of what a taxi driver once earned; no-one drives random strangers around town as an act of self-expression. But narcissists like me are happy to undercut our professionally employed brethren by churning out copy for nothing. Then we bitch about the deteriorating quality of journalism.

So why do I keep it up? I have no illusions about the urgency of my contributions to human knowledge. When I was twenty I thought I was awfully smart; now I realize what I thought were carefully reasoned-out opinions were really only attitudes I’d picked up from the magazines and books I was reading at the time. Since then I’ve reversed nearly every one of those opinions, but I’m pretty sure that’s just a matter of reading a different set of magazines and books. It’s highly possible that I’ll revert to my earlier opinions by the time I’m sixty.

Often I forget exactly why I believe what I believe, and when I try to trace an opinion back to its foundations I realize it’s balanced on a lattice of worm-eaten two-by-fours: I don’t really know how national wealth is calculated, or how reliable crime statistics are, or how much I’m personally to blame for whatever’s going on in Syria. Occasionally I’ll attempt a bit of research to try and shore up the structure, but these topics are contentious, there are ten conflicting answers, and each one needs to be traced back to its foundations before you can decide which to put your trust in. In short, thinking is exhausting, and I’m a lazy man. To my credit, unlike most people who opine on the internet – including those who opine for money – I’m pretty upfront about my ignorance. But that doesn’t excuse my recklessly broadcasting arguments that I’m aware are no better than 50% likely to be true.

I should therefore probably shut this blog down, and maybe I will someday, once I’ve dialled my ego down another notch or two. In the meantime, strangers and friends are welcome to poke around.

M.

No harm done: Racism and rape in Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board.

There’s a small subgenre of mid-20th-century fiction concerned with black or brown men being railroaded by white authorities on charges of sexually assaulting white girls. Or at any rate, there are two famous instances that came easily to my mind, besides the much obscurer novel I came here to discuss – which together should be enough to wring a couple thousand words out of.

Set yourself to guessing which two famous novels I’m thinking of, while I tell you about Nevil Shute’s The Chequer Board, published in 1947. A lower-middle-class Englishman of no great brains or imagination learns that an old war injury will kill him inside of a year. He resolves to get in touch with three fellow soldiers who were kind to him in the hospital while he was recuperating from the wound. At the time all four had been at low points in their lives; the hero wants to see if the other three made it through all right, and if not, to attempt to repay their kindness during the time he has left.

It’s a pretty moving book, by the way. Among Shute’s several tales of stolid, decent, ordinary joes being dragged out of their routines into the wide romantic world, it’s the best I’ve read so far.

One of the men our hero tracks down, and the one whose story concerns us here, is a black ex-GI named Dave Lesurier.

Flashing back to the war years, we find Lesurier stationed near a village in Cornwall. He and his fellow black Americans, used to condescension and scorn from whites in their own country, are surprised to find that the English villagers treat them decently, and even tolerate them “walking out” with their white daughters. When a new white commanding officer arrives, he decides that these coloured boys are getting above themselves, and implements a more exacting regime to keep them in their place. The villagers side with the blacks, grumbling at the unfairness of the new rules.

Meanwhile, shy, tongue-tied Lesurier has developed a crush on a village girl, not quite seventeen, who works in the shop where he buys his cigarettes. Finding her friendly, but never having an opportunity to speak a private word to her, he approaches her on the street one night, intending to ask if she’d like to go for a walk. But when he tries to speak, things go awry…

Reading The Chequer Board, I wonder how the next generation, raised on current feminist orthodoxies, will interpret the scene where Lesurier “assaults” the girl. But before I get to that let’s consider the parallel cases in (did you guess?) Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and E.M. Forster’s A Passage To India.

***

We never receive an objective account of what happened to the accuser, Mayella Ewell, in To Kill A Mockingbird. Our narrator, Scout Finch, can only report what she hears from the balcony overlooking the Maycomb County courtroom where Mayella, her father, and her supposed assailant give their testimony.

Nevertheless, no sane reader is going to come away believing that the accused is anything but perfectly innocent. In the Ewells’ version of events, Mayella hailed a random black man, Tom Robinson, as he passed their yard, offering him a nickel to “bust up this chiffarobe” – chop up an old wooden wardrobe for kindling. Tom entered the yard and, when Mayella stepped inside to retrieve the nickel, followed her in, jumped her, and viciously beat and raped her. Her father arrived home to find a man “ruttin’ on” his daughter, and chased him away.

In Tom’s much more detailed account, he’d been well known to Mayella already, having done various small chores free of charge out of pity for the dirt-poor, lonely white girl. Mayella invited him inside, threw her arms around him, and:

“She reached up an’ kissed me ‘side of th’ face. She says she never kissed a grown man before an’ she might as well kiss a nigger. She says what her papa do to her don’t count. She says, ‘Kiss me back, nigger.’ I say Miss Mayella lemme outa here an’ tried to run but she got her back to the door an’ I’da had to push her. I didn’t wanta harm her, Mr. Finch, an’ I say lemme pass, but just when I say it Mr. Ewell yonder hollered through th’ window.”

What Mr. Ewell hollered, according to Tom, was “You goddamn whore, I’ll kill ya.” Tom ran off, leaving his supposed victim completely unharmed. What happened to her after she was left alone with her father, we can infer.

Mayella’s story seems to require her assailant to have been able to seize her by the neck while simultaneously beating her about the right side of her face, which Tom’s attorney Atticus Finch argues Tom, with his shriveled left arm, couldn’t have done. I doubt that a modern jury would disbelieve Mayella just because she was fuzzy on the details of her beating, or be moved by Atticus’s assertion that as a “strong girl” she should have been able to fend off her crippled but much larger attacker.

In fact, the reason we assume she and her father are lying, and that Tom Robinson is telling the truth, is simply that the narrator paints the Ewells as repellent racist cretins, and Tom as a noble victim. The same testimony presented minus the character portraits might lead to a different interpretation.

***

A Passage to India leaves more room for speculation, but not about the guilt of the accused: we’re told exactly what Dr. Aziz is doing at the time of Miss Quested’s ordeal in the Marabar Caves. Embarrassed over a moment of social awkwardness with his new acquaintance – Miss Quested has innocently asked whether Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, has one wife or several – Aziz ducks into the nearest cave to hide his confusion. Meanwhile the young Englishwoman wanders into a different cave, where…

“[T]here was this shadow, or sort of shadow, down the entrance tunnel, bottling me up. It seemed like an age but I suppose the whole thing can’t have lasted thirty seconds really. I hit at him with the glasses, he pulled me round the cave by the strap, it broke, I escaped, that’s all. He never actually touched me once. It all seems such nonsense.”

For all their blustering about this being the sort of thing that comes of mixing socially with the natives, the British authorities have every reason to assume Aziz’s guilt. He attempts to flee the arresting officers in a guilty-seeming way. The victim’s field-glasses, their strap broken, are discovered in his pocket. And he is found to have told his friends several small lies to smooth over the strangeness of Miss Quested abandoning the group without a word, scrambling down a hillside, and flagging down a passing car for a ride back to town.

Luckily for Aziz, the “queer, cautious” Miss Quested doesn’t share the prejudices of the local Anglo-Indians, and almost as soon as she recovers from her panic she begins to doubt her own memories.

I was reminded of Miss Quested while reading in the British press about three recent well-publicized rape cases that fell apart when exonerating evidence turned up. The barrister for one of the defendants commented:

I can’t talk about the psychology of those who make false accusations, but I do know that once a complaint is made and video evidence is recorded it is very difficult for a complainant to withdraw their allegations without facing prosecution. The whole thing snowballs. You can’t just go into a police station and say: “I was in a bit of an emotional mess at the time, I want to take it back.”

Despite her second thoughts, Miss Quested allows the prosecution to go forward: a skeptical observer comments that “[s]he has started the machinery; it will work to its end.” It takes great courage for her to dramatically recant her accusation mid-trial; she is shunned by the white community that had rallied to her so credulously, and exposes herself to the danger of a lawsuit from the outraged Dr. Aziz.

Still, something made the sensible young woman run in terror from the Marabar Caves that day. The question of whether she was in fact assaulted by a third person – perhaps the guide who disappeared immediately afterward, or “one of that gang of Pathans who have been drifting through the district” – or whether she hallucinated the whole thing, is left unanswered, and ultimately dismissed by Miss Quested as unimportant. She wasn’t harmed, after all.

***

One thing the accused have in common in A Passage to India and To Kill A Mockingbird is a complete lack of sexual interest in their supposed victims. Dr. Aziz feels it a disgrace “to have been mentioned in connexion with such a hag” as Miss Quested. Tom Robinson only feels sorry for Mayella Ewell, and is unwise enough to say so in his testimony; the comment doesn’t go over well with the white jurors.

The Chequer Board is a different case. Here’s what happens when Dave Lesurier, after standing around all evening waiting for her to pass by, finally spots the village girl he has a crush on:

He stood in front of her, and said, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped.

She said, “Oh, it’s you.” She smiled at him, a little nervously.

He said again, “Say, Miss Grace…” And then he stopped again, because it suddenly seemed silly to ask her to take a little walk with him one evening, at ten o’clock at night. And because he was uncertain what to do, and because he had to do something, he put his arms round her and kissed her.

For a moment she yielded, too surprised to do anything else. For a moment he thought that it was going to be all right. Then fear came to her, irrational, stark fear…

She started to struggly madly in Dave’s arms, to free herself. She cried, “Let me go, you beast, let me go.” And she cried quite loud.

Chagrined, and already ashamed, he released her. He said, “Say, I didn’t mean…Miss Grace, I guess I did wrong…” But she was gone, half running, sobbing with emotion and with fright.

When Dave hears the whistles of the American military policemen, he decides that the safest course is to scram – quite sensibly, as the MPs are prepared, in fact eager, to shoot the black rapist on sight. Eventually he’s cornered, and slashes his own throat in an unsuccessful suicide attempt, which is how he ends up in hospital with the hero of The Chequer Board.

The American officers are none-too-secretly pleased to have a black soldier to make an example of, but the locals don’t think much of the ruckus. A village girl brushes off the incident:

“[A] girl what’s got her head screwed on right doesn’t have to get assaulted, not unless she wants to.”

Even Grace’s father thinks it’s a lot of fuss over nothing:

“Be all right if her mother’d stop putting a lot of fool notions in her head. After all, many a girl’s been kissed in a dark corner before now, and will be again.”

***

Maybe it’s tacky to conflate these fictional cases, streamlined for dramatic and moral effect, with ugly real world crimes; but reading these blithe dismissals of Grace’s complaint, I thought of a story told by British Columbia’s then-premier, Christy Clark, a few years back.

In 1974, fourteen-year-old Christy was walking to her job as a waitress when she was grabbed from the sidewalk by a stranger and pulled into the bushes. She resisted, the stranger lost his footing, and she wriggled free and ran off. Arriving at work she slipped into her apron and went on with her day, never mentioning the attack to anyone. She later wrote:

I suppose I felt that if I hadn’t been physically hurt, people would think I was self-absorbed, overly upset about something that was just part of life for my half of humanity.

I told myself: Get over it. Bad things happen. It was trivial.

If this is really what Christy Clark thought at the time, it’s consistent with the ethos communicated by the authors of A Passage to India and The Chequer Board, who deem it a sign of moral fortitude among women as well as men to suck it up and move on. A kiss and a squeeze from a stranger? A little tug-of-war in a dark cave? No harm done, dearie. Get over it.

Maybe this ethos really did discourage girls like young Christy Clark from reporting “bad things” when they happened, but I’m pretty sure no grown-up even then would have advised her to keep her mouth shut about the attack. No doubt 1970s police were more skeptical when women turned up with unsupported sexual assault allegations, but in no era have cops been okay with strangers dragging young girls off the street. They might have decided that Clark’s story was too vague to pursue (she remembered nothing about her attacker’s appearance), but they might also have received other reports of a pervert skulking in the bushes, and pieced together something about his habits and whereabouts.

I’m not convinced that our modern culture of therapy and oversharing is actually healthier than the old one of swallowed emotions. Maybe Clark would have benefited from the psychological support that a modern police force would have scurried to provide, but the worst consequence of her silence wasn’t her mental trauma; she obviously turned out fine. It’s that a potential rapist was left free to traumatize other girls.

As for Dave Lesurier – we know he meant no harm, but Grace had no way to know. Nor did the military policemen summoned by her screams.

***

After Dave’s suicide attempt, the local innkeeper, concerned about the growing tensions between the black and white soldiers who patronize his pub, is moved to write a letter to General Eisenhower, describing the attempted rape charge as “a bit of humbug”. This results in a level-headed officer from the US Army’s Staff Judge-Advocate’s office being dispatched to investigate the case. He questions Grace about the kiss:

“What happened when you started struggling? Did he let you go, or did he hang on?”

She said, “I was ever so frightened. I don’t really know.” She thought for a minute. “I ran round the corner and bumped right into another man, that fat policeman.”

“That’s not what the lieutenant put in his report. He said that the Negro didn’t let you go until the policeman came. It makes a big difference,” he explained, “whether he let you go at once or not until the policeman came.”

She said, “I think he must have let go. I think he must have done. He wasn’t all that bad.”

With a little bit of time to reflect – and away from the influence of her overbearing mother – Grace decides that it was only a harmless misunderstanding after all. The charge is withdrawn; Dave stays in the army and, when the war is over, remembering the kindness of the villagers, makes his way back to Cornwall. When the hero tracks him down at the end of the novel, he’s living near the scene of the fateful kiss – and married to Grace.

M.

I’ve previously written about Nevil Shute’s autobiography Slide Rule (and evolving linguistic taboos) and his novel In The Wet (and the strange electoral reform scheme described therein).

A discerning elimination.

We’ll begin with Sam Spade sneakily entering a room in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon:

He put his hand on the knob and turned it with care that permitted neither rattle nor click. He turned the knob until it would turn no farther: the door was locked. Holding the knob still, he changed hands, taking it now in his left hand. With his right hand he brought his keys out of his pocket, carefully, so they could not jingle against one another. He separated the office-key from the others and, smothering the others together in his palm, inserted the office-key in the lock. The insertion was soundless. He balanced himself on the balls of his feet, filled his lungs, clicked the door open, and went in.

In Rex Stout’s The League of Frightened Men, the reclusive criminological genius Nero Wolfe answers a criticism from his assistant that he has neglected to follow certain promising leads in their current case:

“In the labyrinth of any problem that confronts us, we must select the most promising paths; if we attempt to follow all at once we shall arrive nowhere. In any art – and I am an artist or nothing – one of the deepest secrets of excellence is a discerning elimination. Of course that is a truism.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Yes. Take the art of writing. I am, let us say, describing the actions of my hero rushing to greet his beloved, who has just entered the forest. He sprang up from the log on which he had been sitting, with his left foot forward; as he did so, one leg of his trousers fell properly into place but the other remained hitched up at the knee. He began running towards her, first his right foot, then his left, then his right again, then left, right, left, right, left, right…As you see, some of that can surely be left out – indeed must be, if he is to accomplish his welcoming embrace in the same chapter. So the artist must leave out vastly more than he puts in, and one of his chief cares is to leave out nothing vital to his work.”

Wolfe is obviously correct, at least insofar as his observation applies to the art of writing. (How it applies to the art of detection, I couldn’t say.) But I would extend it by adding that the amount of detail the artist elects to put in or leave out is a question of style.

I’m not sure if the theorists of literature have devised a name for this element of a writer’s style, so let’s call it granularity. The fine-grained writer will include more details of his characters’ actions, of their inner thoughts, of their surroundings, while the coarse-grained writer will include fewer. The parodic extreme of the fine-grained technique would be Wolfe’s narration of the hero’s tortured progress toward his lover in the forest: “First his right foot, then his left, then his right again…”

(…Which, as shown by that excerpt from The Maltese Falcon, is not that much of a parody.)

Its polar opposite, the quintessence of coarse-grainedness, would be a bare plot outline: “She meets him in the forest. They make love. Afterward…”

This isn’t to say that the fine-grained style is more precise, let alone better. A fine-grained but clumsy writer will include every detail of a character’s action but the one that matters; a talented coarse-grained writer will include that detail and no others, and the reader will be perfectly satisfied.

The famous quip about Henry James, that he “chewed more than he bit off”, could be applied to most fine-grained writing. But while James may too often have tried to stretch a stare, a blush, and a fluttered eyelid into a four-course meal, he was no more fine-grained than hard-boiled, hard-drinking Dashiell Hammett. Fine-grained writers are alike only in their high estimation of their readers’ level of wakefulness. One may be fine-grained on matters of psychology, another on sociology, another on technology. The one who transcribes every flicker of a character’s flow of consciousness won’t say a word about that character’s appearance, while the one who’ll specify which hand the hero uses to pluck his keys from his pocket will expect you to deduce said hero’s emotions from actions alone.

Assuming a work of finite length, the more fine-grained the writer’s treatment of any aspect of the story – internal or external, personal or historical, metaphysical or concrete – the more coarse-grained must be the treatment of all the others. The trick is to choose the degree of magnification, adjusting to the length of readers’ attention spans and to the overall size of the story you want to tell.

By these means, a story of any size can be shrunken or enlarged to fill any number of pages. Nicholson Baker’s intensely fine-grained 1988 debut The Mezzanine describes an office worker returning from lunch, crossing his building’s atrium, and heading up the escalator to the mezzanine floor, reflecting on the mundane events of his morning. Many a science-fiction work has narrated the rise and fall of a galactic civilization in fewer words.

You might quibble with my use of the word “size”; you might say that The Mezzanine‘s visit to the CVS for a new pair of shoelaces is no bigger or smaller, literarily speaking, than Frodo and Sam’s march to Mordor. To me it’s obvious that stories do come in different sizes – that Ulysses’ wanderings around the Mediterranean are bigger than Leopold Bloom’s wanderings around Dublin in Ulysses, that To Kill A Mockingbird is bigger than Catcher in the Rye. A “normal-sized” story would involve two or three main characters, take place in an area no smaller than a neighbourhood but no larger than a city, encompass a timespan of between a few days and a few weeks, and have an outcome affecting people besides the characters themselves…but not too many people.

These parameters, you’ll notice, are distantly descended from Aristotle’s three unities, but unlike Aristotle I don’t mean to suggest that stories adhering to these rules are somehow superior. They are, I think, easier to write. To successfully tell a very small or very large story requires special skill as an author; for large stories, Nero Wolfe’s discerning elimination – knowing what to leave out – and for small stories, what I’m calling magnification – the enchanted lens that allows a Nicholson Baker to expand a broken shoelace or a stop at the men’s room to chapter size without losing his readers.

The master of magnification is that proverbial padder of word counts, Charles Dickens. In an old post on Sentimental Education I compared Flaubert unfavourably with Dickens:

[When Flaubert’s hero] fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicrous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on.

But whether you’re eliminating or magnifying, the key is to do it discerningly. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones compares a good writer to a tourist,

who always proportions his stay at any place to the beauties, elegancies, and curiosities which it affords. […] The woods, the rivers, the lawns of Devon and of Dorset, attract the eye of the ingenious traveller and retard his pace, which delay he afterward compensates by swiftly scouring over the gloomy heath of Bagshot or that pleasant plain which extends itself westward from Stockbridge, where no other object than one single tree only in sixteen miles presents itself to the view[.]

Inappropriately fine-grained writing, then, we might visualize as a slow, rattling buggy-ride across the naked prairie, with an overfamiliar driver directing our attention to every shrub and hillock as it passes.

Fielding is in my view guilty of the opposite impropriety, whipping his horses too briskly through the final chapters of Tom Jones, crammed as they are with revelations and reconciliations which the reader would enjoy the luxury of examining at greater length. Take the reaction of Squire Western upon learning that the penniless bastard Jones, whom he has been damning and blackguarding through the preceding 800 pages, is to be reinstated as Squire Allworthy’s heir. Western’s profane rants against those who would undermine his sacred right to tyrannize his daughter are some of the novel’s most hilarious passages; we chuckle as we wonder how he will step down from his habitual perch of enraged dignity. But Fielding only informs us that

No sooner, then, was Western informed of Mr. Allworthy’s intention to make Jones his heir than he joined heartily with the uncle in every commendation of the nephew, and became as eager for [his daughter’s] marriage with Jones as he had before been to couple her to Blifil.

One sentence! This is the same Fielding who expended four entire chapters on the life story of a random hermit Jones encountered on a hilltop outside Gloucester. Discerningly, my good man, discerningly.

M.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Crazy Years.

Before Stranger in a Strange Land made him a household name in the early sixties, Robert A. Heinlein was best known as the author of a string of juvenile sci-fi adventure titles – still worth reading – and a loose sequence of short stories taking place in a single timeline, now known as the Future History.

The chronology stretched from what was then the immediate future – the mid-20th century – out to the year 2210. Somewhere between World War II and the first man on the moon Heinlein prophetically placed the Crazy Years – “a gradual deterioration of mores, orientation and social institutions, terminating in mass psychoses in the sixth decade”.

In 1987’s To Sail Beyond the Sunset the heroine gazes back from the distant future on that era of mass psychoses:

So many casual killings in public streets and public parks and public transports that most lawful citizens avoided going out after dark…

Public school teachers and state university professors who taught that patriotism was an obsolete concept, that marriage was an obsolete concept, that sin was an obsolete concept, that politeness was an obsolete concept – that the United States itself was an obsolete concept…

Cocaine and heroin called “recreational drugs”, felony theft called “joyriding” … felonious assault by gangs called “muggings”, and the reaction to all these crimes was “boys will be boys”, so scold them and put them on probation but don’t ruin their lives by treating them as criminals…

Millions of women who found it more rewarding to have babies out of wedlock than it would be to get married or to go to work…

As disgusted as he was by hooligans, bums, and tenured anti-intellectuals, Heinlein actually cheered on most of the cultural changes that emerged from the sixties. He was an emphatic anti-racist, disdained organized religion, practiced nudism, and favoured open marriage. He foresaw and foreliked the reformation in sexual morals that progressives are now working to lock in: open homosexuality, gender fluidity, “sex work” as a respected career. Going by Heinlein’s prognostications, we shouldn’t expect the taboos against incest and polygamy to endure much longer.

But when I talk about Heinlein’s Crazy Years, I’m not talking about his politics or philosophy or sex practices, but the way those obsessions colonized and undermined his storytelling, starting in the late sixties – coincidentally or not, around the time the success of Stranger in a Strange Land meant he no longer had to tailor his writing to please anyone besides himself.

Heinlein had always specialized in seat-of-the-pants stories that careened his characters from one implausible scrape into another. This had led to a lot of efforts in the forties and fifties that would start out full speed, zip along at high efficiency, then suddenly break for the nearest exit as an arbitrary word limit drew near. In his best and most popular works he’d somewhat curbed this picaresque tendency – for example, he mentions (in an essay in Expanded Universe) that Stranger was one of the rare stories in which he’d “plotted every detail before writing it, and then stuck precisely to that plot.” And it shows! I’d guess Starship Troopers, Farnham’s Freehold, and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress were also mapped out in advance. But sticking to maps had never really interested Heinlein – and it turned out, once he was liberated from commercial concerns, that even telling stories was only of secondary interest. What he really wanted to do was imagine his characters chilling in a future free-love Utopia, getting naked and bantering about sex.

The major flaw with late Heinlein, therefore, isn’t that his books became kind of aimless – they’d always been like that. The problem was that their already aimless plots were now broken up by lengthy scenes of characters bathing each other, trying on sexy clothes, and arranging who was to bed down with whom tonight. If that froth had been swiped away by an unforgiving editor, his final seven novels could have been every bit as good, on average, as his fifties and sixties classics. Heinlein never lost his knack for whiz-bang storytelling – he just grew bored with demonstrating it. Here are the first paragraphs of 1985’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls:

“We need you to kill a man.”

The stranger glanced nervously around us. I feel that a crowded restaurant is no place for such talk, as a high noise level gives only limited privacy.

I shook my head. “I’m not an assassin. Killing is more of a hobby with me. Have you had dinner?”

Two pages later, the stranger slumps over the table, murdered by an explosive dart fired from offstage. Intriguing! But another two pages on, Heinlein is already making excuses, as the narrator – disgraced ex-military, now a hack fiction writer – grouses to his girlfriend:

“The total stranger who gets himself killed while he’s trying to tell you something – a cliché, a tired cliché. If I plotted a story that way today, my guild would disown me.”

A bad sign. Heinlein is able to simulate enough interest in his age-worn scenario to animate a couple hundred pages of entertaining space-hopping, as the hero and his girl escape from an orbiting space habitat, crash-land on the moon, shoot their way out of a moon-buggy ambush, and so on. It’s fast-paced enough that you can overlook the protagonists sharing a bed with an underage moon-maiden who snuggles up to the hero and asks to be spanked. But then around page 250, with our heroes under fire in a Luna City hotel room, the girl shouts something into a communicator, a portal opens up in the bare rock wall – and we’re whisked away to Heinleinland, the story waved to the background, while our hero spends the last third of the novel submitting to the advances of gorgeous naked lady geniuses.

***

How did it come to that? Let’s skip back to 1970’s I Will Fear No Evil, set in the Crazy Years (though not in the Future History timeline). The well-off have retreated into walled compounds, going out for an unprotected stroll being a virtual invitation to murder. An immensely aged, ill-humoured billionaire tycoon, on the verge of death, hires a mad scientist to transplant his brain into a healthy young body. (Brain-dead bodies being a cheap commodity in this anarchic world.) Against all expectations, including his own, the operation is successful, and the billionaire wakes up in the body of…wait for it!…his gorgeous secretary.

We can predict that the sexist tycoon will resent being stuck in this voluptuous female body…erm, no, actually, he adapts to it pretty quickly. He’ll struggle comically to walk on high heels, apply makeup, pee sitting down…no, it turns out Eunice’s consciousness is somehow in there with him, giving him instructions on how be a lady. He’ll attempt to reconcile his attraction to girls with his body’s contradictory sexual urges…no, he starts hitting on dudes pretty much right out of the gate.

One more try: the tycoon will track down his secretary’s murderers, uncovering evidence that he himself gave the orders that…oops, forget it. Eunice’s bodyguards took care of the random muggers already. The tycoon shows her gratitude by having sex with them.

Okay, okay. My ideas are all pretty humdrum. But they at least offer the potential for drama, conflict, suspense. What happens instead in I Will Fear No Evil?

The billionaire eagerly screws everyone. The end.

I’m only slightly exaggerating. One source of drama is a lawsuit filed by the billionaire’s parasitic grandchildren, claiming that the supposed brain-swap is a hoax being perpetrated by the secretary. That’s promising – how does our heroine prove she’s really who she says she is? But this subplot takes place mostly in the background and is wrapped up by the two-thirds mark.

The billionaire goes to pay her condolences to Eunice’s bereaved husband, whose new live-in girlfriend resents the arrival of what she sees as her predecessor’s reanimated corpse. Drama! …But this lasts only a page or two, before the three meditate together to chase off the bad vibes. Then they all get naked.

Look, I’m a fan of E.M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot. I can verify that you don’t need spaceship crashes, blaster duels, and telepathic aliens to supply drama. But in the absence of those things, you need something – for instance, characters with clashing personalities and objectives.

Heinlein’s biggest weakness as a writer is his odd lack of interest in interpersonal conflict. When the action lets up, his characters don’t really have anything to do except get naked.

***

Overgeneralizing recklessly, I’d say Heinlein had three and a half character types at his command. Their names, professions, and biographies change from book to book, but their beliefs and behaviours don’t: any non-plot-related exchange between Richard and Gwen, heroes of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, could be swapped into a Zebby-and-Deety scene in 1980’s The Number of the Beast and the reader would never notice.

(Am I being too hard on Heinlein? Philip Roth and P.G. Wodehouse got by with four or five characters. Kingsley Amis could draw on a multitudinous supporting cast but his narrators were all the same guy. “More characters” doesn’t equal “better”. If you like an author’s characters – find them interesting, I mean – you don’t much mind when they reappear under new names in a new book and a new predicament.)

The Omnicompetent Lunkhead is the basic-model Heinlein hero. He’s got a hands-on trade – engineering, soldiering, space-piloting – or, if still a teen, displays a precocious aptitude for one of the above. He can calculate the profit in a three-way business deal or the trajectory of a flight to Venus. When in danger of losing his temper, he’ll count backward from ten in an exotic foreign language.

Despite the OmniLunk’s evident near-genius IQ (which he would humbly disclaim), he’s weirdly clueless about history, politics, and philosophy. If another character (usually the Patriarch, see below) attempts to discuss one of these topics at the level of your average undergraduate lecture, the hero will reply “Huh?” or “You’ve lost me” or “I must be dense”.

The Genius Sexpot is the female version of the Heinlein hero. If the main character, she’ll have all the traits of the OmniLunk, plus fashion sense, maternal instinct, and an even greater distaste for abstract philosophy. If romantically paired with an OmniLunk, she’ll defer modestly to his masculine leadership, but in at least one skill – often math – she’ll surpass him.

She gets her name from her tendency – absent in her male counterpart – to discuss her sex urges in ickily straightforward terms:

“[T]here is nothing that beats the tingling excitement of lying back, legs open and eyes closed and bare to the possibility of impregnation.”
–Maureen Johnson, To Sail Beyond the Sunset

The Heinleinian Patriarch is the OmniLunk aged up and given a more philosophical turn of mind. In other words, the author’s mouthpiece. Given half an opportunity, he’ll ramble for a chapter or more about the problems besetting humanity – or formerly besetting humanity, back in the dark ages of the twentieth century. (People in the far future remain deeply interested in twentieth century affairs.) The Patriarch has retired from the active life and now writes, or teaches, or maybe bosses some large organization that puts him in the company of much younger people. A bachelor by temperament (whether or not he participates in some kind of plural marriage), he appreciates female beauty but doesn’t chase girls – they’re drawn to his rumpled charisma and constantly offering to crawl into his lap. He may harbour outmoded inhibitions about, say, walking around pantsless, or having sex with his female relatives. He knows these inhibitions are silly – he’ll tell you why at chapter length – and they’re easily shed.

(There are, of course, a handful of major characters that don’t fit into one of the above buckets – for instance, the All-Powerful Naïfs who propel the plots of Heinlein’s two best books, Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. But he tended to lose interest and kill off or sideline anyone who didn’t fit into one of the three categories above.)

The OmniLunk, the Sexpot, and the Patriarch will argue playfully. Sometimes they’ll even have genuine fights, which quickly end with one side or both apologizing for their bullheadedness. But they never really disagree about anything. If they don’t start out as gun-toting libertarian atheistic polyamorous nudist body odour fetishists, they take smoothly to the lifestyle when given the opportunity. Therefore all drama in Heinlein’s novels must arise from conflict with character type three-and-a-half:

The Booby is cowardly, conceited, irresponsible, and susceptible to gross mental deformations such as socialism, pacifism, race prejudice, and prudishness. Since the bulk of humans would be boobies in Heinlein’s eyes – I’m one; so, in all likelihood, are you – you’d expect this type to loom larger in his fiction. In fact, few of these feeble creatures are drawn with sufficient detail to qualify as “characters”. The brainless mass of boobies are there in the background, obstructing our heroes with their petty regulations, irrational taboos, and general unreason, but their representatives are rarely granted more than a line or two.

The trouble is that Heinlein can’t stand boobies. He finds them so exasperating that he’ll write them out of his stories as swiftly as he can. When a presumed ally or friend is revealed to be a secret booby, the reader perks up – maybe for once another character will stand up to our heroes, upset their assumptions, force them to defend their beliefs. The excitement never lasts. Boobies either get themselves quickly killed, or banished from the group, or are converted through firm yet compassionate discipline to non-boobyhood, at which point they cease to be interesting characters and fade into the scenery:

• In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw’s salt-of-the-earth employee Duke objects to the customs of Harshaw’s Martian-born houseguest – specifically, ritual cannibalism. This earns him a chapter-long rebuke from Harshaw which cures Duke of his boobyism – and banishes him to the background.

• In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress an earth-born booby named Stuart LaJoie nearly gets himself killed by responding too handsily to a Lunar floozie’s advances. Our hero is luckily there to intervene, and to lecture the new arrival on Loonie sexual etiquette. Stuart starts out as an interesting character, but once he commits to the Lunar lifestyle he recedes into complacent blandness.

• In To Sail Beyond the Sunset Maureen’s youngest daughter shows her boobyhood not by hooking up with her older brother (she does that too, but Maureen approves) but by whining, lying, using drugs, and catching a venereal disease – by acting, in other words, like a real-life teenage girl. Her rebellion lasts only a few chapters before Maureen sends her packing to live with the ex-husband whose lax discipline ruined the child.

• In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls a homeless ragamuffin named Bill is hired by unknown enemies to lure our heroes into a trap. Seeing through his clumsy deceit, they take him into their custody – then, feeling sorry for him, decide to bring him along on their escape. Bill tags along willingly and mostly silently until, on arriving in Luna City, he pipes up to complain about being expected to pay an “air fee”:

“Nobody should have to pay for the breath of life! It’s a natural right and the government should supply it free.”

As the hero can’t let such idealistic ravings go unopposed, he reminds Bill that he has a full belly, and is partaking of Luna City’s expensive oxygen, and is alive at all, only because of the heroes’ charity. This leads to a fight between the hero and his girl, whom he accuses of coddling the booby. Girl and Bill storm off one way, our hero the other. That happens on page 190-91.

On page 196-97, the girl returns and apologizes:

“But you were right, dear. Bill’s attitude about paying for air reflects his wrong-headedness in general. … Bill has the socialist disease in its worst form; he thinks the world owes him a living. He told me sincerely – smugly! – that of course everyone was entitled to the best possible medical and hospital service – free of course, unlimited of course, and of course the government should pay for it. He couldn’t even understand the mathematical impossibility of what he was demanding. But it’s not just free air and free therapy, Bill honestly believes that anything he wants must be possible…and should be free.” She shivered. “I couldn’t shake his opinion on anything.”

The next time the booby appears, on page 208, he gets two brief lines, the last we’ll hear from him. On page 234 we learn he’s been secretly communicating with the bad guys. And on page 240 he’s among the gang of disguised assassins lurking outside the protagonists’ hotel room. The hero spots him and knocks him out – clear out of the story. Poor Bill! If he’d just kept his mouth shut about the stupid air fee, he too could’ve gone to naked lady heaven.

***

Let’s skip back again. The last entry in the Future History timeline, concerning the interstellar peregrinations of a cantankerous 213-year-old named Lazarus Long, was Methuseleh’s Children, originally published in 1941 and expanded to novella length in 1958.

In 1973 Heinlein picked up the adventures of Lazarus Long in a novel set two thousand-odd years later, Time Enough For Love. After lifetimes of intrepid roving, Lazarus has grown tired of the grind. Before he can kill himself he’s kidnapped by distant descendants living on a faraway planet – free-loving nudists, obviously – who insist that he record his life story for their archives. As he narrates his memoirs, and gets mixed up in the affairs of his extended family, his zest for life returns, and he accepts their offer to regenerate his body to youthful good health. Then, learning that they’ve mastered time travel, he decides to pop back to his own childhood in twentieth century Missouri where – obviously – he winds up having sex with his mother.

Time Enough For Love is quite readable, stands more or less on its own, and satisfactorily wraps up the saga of Lazarus Long. No-one – I assure you, absolutely no-one – has ever closed the book thinking, Gosh, I wonder what happens next to Lazarus, his crew of bare-ass time travellers, and their sassy sentient spaceship.

Therefore no-one was expecting The Number of the Beast, which came out seven years later, to reveal itself midway through as a stealth Time Enough For Love sequel. Beast starts out excitingly with four stock Heinlein characters – a widowed father, his adult daughter, and their respective love interests – narrowly escaping assassination by unknown enemies. The father has been working on a theory of six-dimensional spacetime, along with a practical method for hopping between parallel dimensions, the number of accessible dimensions being six to the power of six to the power of six, or:

6 to the power of 6 to the power of 6

Our heroes install the father’s gadget in their own sassy sentient spaceship and flee into the multiverse. Beast is heavy on clothes-doffing, open-mouthed kissing, and sexy dress-ups, but despite all that the first three hundred pages chug along pretty tolerably until our heroes materialize in what turns out to be the Land of Oz…and it becomes necessary, sadly, for me to describe to you the premise of what would come to be known as the World-As-Myth books. These are:

  • Time Enough For Love (1973, sequel to Methuselah’s Children, but can be read on its own)
  • The Number of the Beast (1980, sequel to the above)
  • The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985, sequel to the above, and to The Moon is a Harsh Mistress)
  • To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987, sequel to all the above)

Nothing about the World-As-Myth will be especially mindblowing to anyone who read those old DC comics where the Flash could vibrate into a parallel universe and interact with his creators, or for that matter the Merrie Melodies cartoon where Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator. In short, all imaginary worlds are real; Heinlein and his books exist in the Number of the Beast reality; therefore Lazarus Long is a character known to our dimension-hopping quartet. By the time they run into Lazarus they’ve already blundered through Lilliput, Wonderland, the Lensmen universe of E.E. Smith, and, as mentioned, the Land of Oz, where Glinda the Good installed a pair of fully-equipped magical bathrooms in their spaceship. (No writer has ever lavished as much attention on bathrooms as Robert A. Heinlein.)

By the end of The Number of the Beast, the protagonists have all married into Lazarus Long’s extended family, and using time-travel and dimension-hopping have roped characters from a half-dozen other Heinlein works into their far-future pool party. The final chapter, concerning a pan-universal gathering of famous characters and their authors, most of them referred to by first names only, is so dense with in-jokes it seems like something meant to be read aloud for yuks at a sci-fi convention, not shared with a general audience. This is the low point of the Crazy Years.

***

Things got better. The eighties brought Friday and Job: A Comedy of Justice, both of them entertaining and mostly fully-clothed standalone stories (though Friday turns out to be linked, superfluously, to the 1949 novella Gulf). The hero of Job was something new – a rube from a parallel-universe Bible Belt America who believes in the literal truth of the Genesis story and sees no problem with killing witches…who finds himself bouncing unpredictably into a series of alternate Americas with radically different customs and manners. Job is like The Number of the Beast reconceived as a good idea. It’s kind of miraculous that Heinlein didn’t assimilate Job into the World-As-Mythoverse and wreck it.

After that, Heinlein made it through half of The Cat Who Walks Through Walls before being hit with the brainwave that the hero’s girlfriend should be Hazel Stone, the feisty grandma from the 1952 juvenile The Rolling Stones who was also the feisty kid in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, regenerated to her youthful hotness and sent back in time by Lazarus Long because…you know what, forget it. The first half is fun.

Heinlein’s final novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, trots out another endearingly hoary premise – naked woman wakes up in bed with a corpse, with no memory of how she got there – but the woman turns out to be Lazarus Long’s mother, the one he went back in time to have sex with, and the bulk of the book retells the incest-fantasy parts of Time Enough For Love from her perspective.

It turns out – who’da guessed? – his mother was a polyamorous nudist all along.

M.