Posts Tagged 'science fiction'

Brung up to it: 19th, 20th, and 21st-century morality.

In H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, written in 1898 (revised in 1910), a man named Graham, an ordinary middle-class schmoe from the late Victorian age, falls into an unexplained trance and wakes up naked in a display case 200 years in the future.

It turns out that during his long sleep his assets were placed in trust, the trust acquired other assets, grew to a monopoly, supplanted the obsolete nation-states – and in short, Graham has become de jure owner of the world.

The council that has been ruling in his name isn’t too happy to have him awake and possibly meddling with their arrangements – particularly since a legend has grown up among the oppressed labouring masses that “the Sleeper”, like King Arthur or Frederick Barbarossa, will someday awake and right the world’s injustices.

While the council debates how to dispose of him, they lock him away in a well-appointed private apartment. Killing time, he fiddles with a curious apparatus in the corner and, on stepping back, realizes that its forward surface is a screen upon which miniaturized dramatic plays appear:

It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.

He deduces that the curious little cylinders shelved along the wall represent different dramas that can be played on the machine. Swapping in a cylinder at random, he is treated to an adaptation of the opera Tannhäuser, its opening act set in something called a Pleasure City.

wagner tannhauser venusberg royal opera 2010

The Venusberg scene in Tannhäuser, Act I, The Royal Opera, 2010.
Photo by Clive Barda, The Guardian.

At first Graham enjoys the opera, but its frank eroticism soon offends his old-fashioned sensibilities:

He rose, angry and half ashamed at himself for witnessing this thing even in solitude. He pulled forward the apparatus, and with some violence sought for a means of stopping its action. Something snapped. A violet spark stung and convulsed his arm and the thing was still. When he attempted next day to replace these Tannhauser cylinders by another pair, he found the apparatus broken . . . .

He struck out a path oblique to the room and paced to and fro, struggling with intolerable vast impressions. The things he had derived from the cylinders and the things he had seen, conflicted, confused him. It seemed to him the most amazing thing of all that in his thirty years of life he had never tried to shape a picture of these coming times. “We were making the future,” he said, “and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!”

No doubt an Englishman of the 19th century, reawakened in the 21st, would be awed by our technological accomplishments, which are far more marvellous than even H.G. Wells foresaw. But many of the social changes that we accept with a shrug, if we don’t outright applaud their implementation, the 19th-century man would regard as horrific regressions to savagery.

I picture the 19th-century man seated beside me on the patio of the coffeeshop I frequent here in suburban Vancouver. He watches the parade of pedestrians, cheaply and garishly clothed, their tattoo-covered limbs exposed, rings in their noses and lips, men and women alike shouting obscenities into their handheld magic mirrors. More foul language floats from the open windows of passing cars, accompanied by music of staggering loudness and primitivity.

A vagrant clatters by with a shopping cart, reeking and muttering to himself. I mention to my companion that my city is considered a model of prosperity and good government, and that its gravest problem is that it’s so attractive to outsiders that its residents are unable to afford the soaring rents.

But my Victorian friend isn’t shocked by the sight of vagrants, merely mildly troubled that an additional century of social reform seems not to have improved the lot of the poorest of the poor. What shocks him is the girls in yoga pants and low-cut t-shirts, the crudity of manners among citizens that I’ve assured him are of the middle or upper-middle classes, the universal vileness of speech. I explain patiently that we have our own speech taboos, just as strictly enforced, they’re merely different from the ones of his era – and while we’re on the topic, would he please refrain from commenting on the number of Chinamen. He laughs, uncomprehending.

At some point, I know, the 19th-century man is going to get hold of a newspaper, and learn of the mobs tearing down the statues of his contemporaries, and of men asserting their right to declare themselves women, and of gay marriage, and abortion on demand, and “medical assistance in dying”, and a hundred other developments which I can predict will outrage him. But what worries me is all the things that will outrage him that I can’t predict, because they’re invisible to me.

In The Sleeper Awakes, the two developments that most offend Graham are the decline of motherhood – babies are now tended by robots in vast antiseptic crèches, freeing their mothers to pursue their careers and pleasures – and the fact that the restless white masses of Europe are kept in line by black riot police from Africa. It is the imminent arrival of a squad of African police in London that triggers the final battle of the novel, in which the Sleeper, heretofore a fairly feckless protagonist, finally steps into the heroic role that legend has assigned to him.

No doubt the casual intermingling of the races is one of the things that would unnerve my visitor from the Victorian age. The dissolution of sex roles is another: the notion that it is a “liberation” for mothers to trundle their infants off to daycare, and to share with their men the duty of bread-winning, he would find highly questionable. But I suspect that just as it was that sexed-up Tannhäuser that first aroused Graham’s sense of “archaic indignation”, it is modern pornography that would strike the man of the 19th century as the most obvious sign of our descent into barbarism. “Look, look what your ‘liberated’ mothers and daughters have been reduced to!” he’d exclaim, and I’d mumble and blush and change the subject.

***

In the Washington Post a few weeks back, book critic Ron Charles celebrated the purging of “racially offensive content” from old and not-so-old movies and TV shows, while expressing some ambivalence about extending the purge into his own area of specialization:

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs.

We may snigger at the palpitations of those 19th-century schoolmarms who thought that children would be harmed by frank reference to bodily functions: mere “silliness”, per Ron Charles. But those 21st-century pedagogues who think children will be harmed by “the n-word”, well, their “critical arguments have been illuminating”.

But is it possible that the harms of exposure to taboo language were exactly as dire for the children of the 19th century as for those of the 21st? If you’re brought up to believe that certain words are dangerous, then hearing those words can induce stress, fear, a lingering state of nervous agitation. Certain groups – in olden times women and children, nowadays “people of colour” among others – are thought to be especially susceptible to such extreme emotional responses, so that knowingly exposing them to these dangerous words amounts to an attack on their composure – an act of violence.

From a Halifax music festival’s public apology for permitting a white presenter to speak aloud the titles of some works by the black composer Julius Eastman:

This event caused direct harm to those involved, those in attendance and to the broader communities surrounding our organization, particularly QTBIPOC folks. [1] We recognize and name this as an instance of anti-black racism. … This resulted in surprise, shock, violence, discomfort, harm and a number of associated experiences for the presenters and those in attendance.

I’d intended to balance the above apology with the complaint of the Brooklyn librarian who in 1905 was “shocked” by Mark Twain’s earthy language. But it turns out that the librarian’s crusade to protect the community was, by 21st-century standards, pretty half-hearted: declaring that Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were inappropriate for children, she simply kicked them upstairs to the adults’ department.

On hearing of this, Twain drily observed that,

I wrote Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn for adults exclusively, and it always distresses me when I find that boys and girls have been allowed access to them. The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean; I know this by my own experience, and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardians of my young life, who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. None can do that and ever draw a clean sweet breath again this side of the grave.

I suspect that many 21st-century progressives would assent unironically to the proposal that the Bible, to say nothing of Huckleberry Finn, is too problematic to be read by children unsupervised.

***

In 1950, just shy of the chronological midpoint between the publication of Huckleberry Finn and today, Lionel Trilling observed that:

Huckleberry Finn was once barred from certain libraries and schools for its alleged subversion of morality. The authorities had in mind the book’s endemic lying, the petty thefts, the denigration of respectability and religion, the bad language, and the bad grammar. We smiled at that excessive care, yet in point of fact Huckleberry Finn is indeed a subversive book–no-one who reads thoughtfully the dialectic of Huck’s great moral crisis will ever again be wholly able to accept without some question and some irony the assumptions of the respectable morality by which he lives, nor will ever again be certain that what he considers the clear dictates of moral reason are not merely the customary beliefs of his time and place. [2]

That “great moral crisis” to which Trilling refers is Huck’s mounting sense of guilt over having abetted the escape of Miss Watson’s slave:

I tried to make out to myself that I warn’t to blame, because I didn’t run Jim off from his rightful owner; but it warn’t no use, conscience up and says, every time, “But you knowed he was running for his freedom, and you could a paddled ashore and told somebody.” That was so–I couldn’t get around that, no way. That was where it pinched. Conscience says to me, “What had poor Miss Watson done to you, that you could see her nigger go off right under your eyes and never say one single word? What did that poor old woman do to you, that you could treat her so mean?”

huckleberry finn dan pearce illustration octopus books 1978

Huck and Jim, by Dan Pearce, ©1978 Octopus Books.

The “right” thing to do, Huck’s conscience tells him, is to come clean, write Miss Watson with the whereabouts of her runaway slave, and slouch home to Missouri to live down the shameful reputation he’s earned. Huck goes so far as to write the letter, and immediately feels better – “all washed clean of sin” – but his complacency is disturbed by memories of Jim’s kindness and friendship. He plucks up the letter – his salvation:

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, for ever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell” – and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. [3]

***

Having grown up in the 1970s and ’80s, when free speech assumptions were ascendant, and having consequently had my mind soiled in youth by exposure to subversive works by Heinlein, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, and yes, Mark Twain, I can’t help rolling my eyes at the efforts of censors of all political stripes to safeguard children – and increasingly, college-age adults – against upsetting words and ideas.

But in fairness to the scruples of the 21st and 19th centuries, I should acknowledge that perhaps my desensitization is nothing to boast about. As H.G. Wells’ friend and sparring partner G.K. Chesterton once put it:

Do not be proud of the fact that your grandmother was shocked at something which you are accustomed to seeing or hearing without being shocked. There are two meanings of the word “nervous,” and it is not even a physical superiority to be actually without nerves. It may mean that your grandmother was an extremely lively and vital animal, and that you are a paralytic. [4]

Contra Chesterton, at present it’s the grandparents who are the paralytics, while their grandkids hone their nerve endings to ever finer degrees of receptivity. But never mind, old-timers: your grandkids will someday be despised by their grandkids as coarse-skinned barbarians; while long-vanquished barbarisms will re-establish themselves unopposed, in new guises flattering to those who profit from them.

M.

1. QTBIPOC: “Queer / Trans / 2-spirit / Black / Indigenous / People of Colour.”

2. Trilling’s essay “Huckleberry Finn” appears in his book The Liberal Imagination, from 1950.

3. Though Huck has resigned himself to being a sinner for Jim’s sake, this doesn’t mean he judges other people’s sins less strictly. When Tom Sawyer unexpectedly turns up, Huck is appalled at how eagerly his old friend agrees to assist in Jim’s liberation:

I’m bound to say Tom Sawyer fell, considerable, in my estimation. Only I couldn’t believe it. Tom Sawyer a nigger stealer!

4. That Chesterton quote is from an essay called “About Shamelessness”. It’s included in his 1936 collection As I Was Saying and in his 1949 Selected Essays.

Swap in Brave New World for The Sleeper Awakes and I wrote this very same essay four years ago. Come to think of it, the old one is tighter and better. Read that instead. At other times I have considered works by Wells’ frenemies Bertrand Russell and G.B. Shaw.

Eleonora Duse: “I had the feeling that I understood every word.”

Early in Robert Heinlein’s 1958 sci-fi adventure novel Have Space Suit – Will Travel we meet a lemur-like alien called the Mother Thing, whose language resembles the “endlessly varied songs of a mockingbird”.

robert a. heinlein have space suit will travel

When she is introduced to Kip, our youthful hero, he is surprised to realize that he understands her twitterings:

I would have been an idiot not to know that the Mother Thing was speaking to me because I did understand and understood her every time. If she directed a remark at Peewee alone, it was usually just birdsongs to me – but if it was meant for me, I got it.

Call it telepathy if you like … I never read her mind and I don’t think she read mine. We just talked.

As Kip, Peewee, and the Mother Thing are in the middle of escaping from some nasty space pirates, he is obliged to postpone examination of the mystery. Later, on the Mother Thing’s homeworld in the Vega system, Kip finds that he is able to communicate, though somewhat less consistently, with others of her species. He theorizes:

The Vegans have a supreme talent to understand, to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. I don’t think it was telepathy, or I wouldn’t have gotten so many wrong numbers. Call it empathy.

… I once read about an actress who could use Italian so effectively to a person who did not understand Italian that she always made herself understood. Her name was “Duce”. No, a “duce” is a dictator. Something like that. She must have had what the Mother Thing had.

I had never heard of this legendarily expressive Italian actress, but Heinlein’s story bumped along so irresistibly that within a couple pages I’d forgotten my vague intention of looking her up. It was only by chance that a few days later, in an essay by the novelist and critic Max Beerbohm – whom I’ll return to later – I came across the name Eleonora Duse.

While her elder rival Sarah Bernhardt to this day occupies a small but lively alcove in the popular imagination, Duse has been pretty much forgotten by everyone except historians of the theatre. But to American writers of Heinlein’s generation her name would still have been familiar. From the 1890s until the rise of silent pictures, the Italian Duse contended with the French Bernhardt for the position of world’s most famous actress. At the height of her fame she toured the United States and, at a time when actors were still seen as a tad declassé, was hosted by Grover and Mrs. Cleveland in the White House. Later she had the mixed luck – bad for her, but good for her American reputation – to die in Pittsburgh.

In an 1895 essay George Bernard Shaw commemorated an unusual head-to-head acting battle between Bernhardt and Duse when, in the same week, in competing West End theatres, they performed the same role in the same play. In Shaw’s judgement, the contest wasn’t even close:

[Bernhardt]’s stock of attitudes and facial effects could be catalogued as easily as her stock of dramatic ideas: the counting would hardly go beyond the fingers of both hands. Duse produces the illusion of being infinite in variety of beautiful pose and motion. Every idea, every shade of thought and mood, expresses itself delicately but vividly to the eye; and yet, in an apparent million of changes and inflexions, it is impossible to catch any line of an awkward angle, or any strain interfering with the perfect abandonment of all the limbs to what appears to be their natural gravitation towards the finest grace.

What’s noteworthy about the above review is that Shaw doesn’t see it as necessary to mention that the parallel productions were in, respectively, French and Italian – for Bernhardt and Duse performed only in their native tongues.

Most educated Londoners of Shaw’s era would have been (like Shaw) literate in French – though not in Italian. But an inability to follow the dialogue wasn’t seen as an obstacle, in those days, to relishing a performance by a foreign touring company. The modern reader will no doubt share my dubiety at this anecdote from one of Bernhardt’s tours of the American West:

On February 22, 1913, she performed for the two thousand-odd inmates of California’s San Quentin state prison a one-act drama, Une Nuit de Noël sous la Terreur (“A Christmas Night under the Terror”). “For an hour,” read a letter from the prisoners, “through your wondrous personality and entrancing art we have been, in soul and in mind, at perfect liberty – captive only of that remarkable force and fire which have made men call you divine…”

Yes, the inmates wrote those words, so transported were they by this sixty-nine year old Frenchwoman’s performance, in French, of an hour-long play about the French Revolution.

As for the legend of Eleonora Duse, that she could make herself understood even to non-speakers of Italian, it gets some support from Anton Chekhov, who wrote after seeing her in St. Petersburg:

I don’t understand Italian, but she played so beautifully that I had the feeling I understood every word. A remarkable actress. I’ve never seen anything like it.

max beerbohm selected prose

On the other hand, Max Beerbohm, who saw Duse in Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in 1903, argued that the rapture that had greeted her performance was insincere:

[It would] be an impossible feat not to be bored by the Italian version of Hedda Gabler. Why not confess your boredom? … [T]here seems to me no form of humbug sillier or more annoying than the habit of attending plays that are acted in a language whereof one cannot make head nor tail.

Beerbohm attempts to project himself into the minds of those who pursue such masochistic pleasures:

Perhaps they really do feel that they are taking a means of edification. “We needs must praise the highest when we see it”; Duse is (we are assured) the highest; therefore we needs must see her, for our own edification, and go into rhapsodies. Such, perhaps, is the unsound syllogism which these good folk mutter. I suggest, of what spiritual use is it to see the highest if you cannot understand it?

…And goes on to imagine the mesmerized playgoer flapping away self-doubts:

“Oh, Duse’s personality is so wonderful. Her temperament is so marvellous. And then her art! It doesn’t matter whether we know Italian or not. We only have to watch the movements of her hands” (rhapsodies omitted) “and the changes of her face” (r. o.) “and the inflections of her voice” (r. o.) “to understand everything, positively everything.” Are you sure? I take it that you understand more from the performance of an Italian play which you have read in an English translation than from the performance of an Italian play which never has been translated. There are, so to say, degrees in your omniscience. You understand more if you have read the translation lately than if a long period has elapsed since your reading of it. Are you sure that you would not understand still more if the play were acted in English?

Setting the language question aside, Beerbohm proceeds to doubt Duse’s heretofore unchallenged acting chops. While Shaw had asserted that “behind every stroke of [Duse’s acting] is a distinctively human idea”, the trouble as Beerbohm saw it was that those human ideas had little connection to the characters they were meant to vivify:

I have seen her in many parts, but I have never (you must take my evidence for what it is worth) detected any difference in her. To have seen her once is to have seen her always. She is artistically right or wrong according as whether the part enacted by her can or cannot be merged and fused into her own personality.

And he closes by complaining that throughout the performance of Hedda Gabler he could hear Duse’s prompter hissing her lines to her, “like the continuous tearing of very thick silk”.

Duse’s genius, if such it were, is lost to us. A proposed collaboration with the American director D.W. Griffith never got off the ground. A recording of her voice made by Thomas Edison in 1896 was somehow misplaced. The only extant record of her acting is a silent film called Cenere, from 1916, when she was fifty-eight years old and in semi-retirement. Surviving prints are extremely degraded. The intertitles are in Italian. I couldn’t sit through it.

For whatever reason, Duse’s stage persona was electrifying to turn-of-the-century audiences. But the notion that she could dissolve the language barrier by force of charisma, or emotional expressiveness, or body language, or what-have-you, I think we can consign to the realm of science-fiction.

M.

In previous essays I’ve discussed G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan (and the toleration of heresy) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (and the demographic death-spiral).

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

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”.

robert a heinlein to sail beyond the sunset

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.

***

robert a. heinlein i will fear no evil

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.

robert a. heinlein the cat who walks through walls

• 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.

robert a. heinlein time enough for love

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.)

robert a. heinlein the number of the beast

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.

Update, August 4, 2020: Added cover images and linked to Bibliography page.

Breakfast of Champions: Unsanitary ideas.

As I’ve explained already, over the last few years I’ve been systematically making my way through the books I own that, for one reason or another, I’d never gotten around to reading. It’s taken longer than it might have because simultaneously, but less systematically, I’ve been revisiting some of the books I loved as a teenager, trying to decide whether they’re worth re-reading – or whether they were worth reading the first time around.

A few days ago I came to Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which was among the first “grown-up” novels I ever read – if it is a grown-up novel – aged twelve or thereabouts. [1]

kurt vonnegut breakfast of champions

If you’ve read Vonnegut at all, you probably encountered him, like me, pretty young, when his idealism, irreverence, and offhand eschatology seemed deep, and the Duplo-brick clarity of his prose made him a welcome alternative to Camus or Dostoyevsky or whatever woolly tome your older sister was lugging around in her backpack. As you aged up a bit maybe you spotted a Vonnegut paperback poking out of the rear pocket of your little brother’s low-hanging jeans and thought, gosh, well, maybe I’m too grown-up for that now. And maybe you’ve at last reached the age where you can un-self-consciously revisit the pleasures of your youth, but you’re not sure you’re capable of hearing Vonnegut’s voice over the stirrings of half-buried adolescent angst.

Or maybe that’s just me. I’ve now re-read Vonnegut’s novels in chronological order from Player Piano through Breakfast of Champions­ – roughly the first half of his career, when his most famous stuff was done – and, to my surprise, a couple of them I had trouble even finishing. But I’m not sure whether my impatience is with Vonnegut’s writing, or with extraneous factors.

Here’s how Martin Amis, in a generally sympathetic appraisal of Vonnegut’s career through the early eighties, summarized his subject’s reputation in highbrow circles:

[H]is work has remarkably little currency among the card-carrying literati; his pacifistic, faux-naïf “philosophy” is regarded as hippyish and nugatory; he is the sort of writer, nowadays, whom Serious People are ashamed of ever having liked. Cute, coy, tricksy, mawkish – gee-whiz writing, comic-book stuff. [2]

Why, then, might adult-me be resistant to Vonnegut?

Hypothesis One: The Serious People are right, and he’s not very good.

Hypothesis Two: The Serious People are wrong, but I’ve internalized their disdain, via sources like Martin Amis, and whenever I start to get caught up in Vonnegut I’m distracted by a tiny, haughty “pff” from my subconscious.

That was as far as my hypothesizing had taken me, until the other day, when I got started on Breakfast of Champions – which, to summarize, is about a successful Midwestern auto dealer who, under the influence of severe mental illness and a satirical science-fiction novel he unluckily reads, decides that he’s the only person in the universe with free will, all others being soulless robots placed on earth to test him.

Breakfast of Champions is probably best-known for the juvenile doodles that litter its pages:

breakfast of champions doodles

Some of them serve as punchlines for jokes, but the rest have no apparent purpose except as large-scale punctuation marks, places for the eye to rest. (I’m sure the doodles were a big part of what made the novel so inviting to twelve-year-old me.) Vonnegut explains in the preface:

I am programmed at fifty to perform childishly – to insult “The Star-Spangled Banner”, to scrawl pictures of a Nazi flag and an asshole and a lot of other things with a felt-tipped pen….I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there – the assholes, the flags, the underpants. Yes, there is a picture in this book of underpants.

At several points, Vonnegut suggests that Breakfast of Champions is the record of some real-life spiritual crisis he has survived:

I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbors believed.

He writes an avatar of himself into his novel, lurking in the bar of a Holiday Inn where his characters have assembled, watching them through mirrored glasses (leaks – don’t ask):

“This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself behind my leaks.

“I know,” I said.

“You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I said.

“I know,” I said.

(In the Amis profile, Vonnegut discusses the “legacy” of his mother’s suicide:

“As a problem-solving device, it’s in the forefront of my mind all the time. It’s like walking along the edge of a cliff. I’m in the country and the pump stops. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll kill myself. The roof is leaking. What’ll I do? I know: I’ll blow my brains out.”)

In his previous novel, the fabulously successful Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut had outlined a philosophy of perfect resignation, as expressed by his alien Tralfamadorians, who could see all points in time simultaneously:

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.

“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will’. I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Kilgore Trout, co-hero of Breakfast of Champions, writer of the sci-fi novel that will tip the mentally-ill auto dealer into violence, has arrived at a Tralfamadorian perspective on the misery and banality of modern American life:

But his head no longer sheltered ideas of how things could be and should be on the planet, as opposed to how they really were. There was only one way for the Earth to be, he thought: the way it was.

…While the Vonnegut avatar, watching his creations go about their mundane business in the bar of the Holiday Inn, follows the same logic to its pitiless nadir:

I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide.

But by the end of the novel, the words of one of his characters have convinced the author that he’s wrong – that human life, all life, has value; while Kilgore Trout has learned from the auto dealer’s rampage that the ideas in his books, good or bad, have consequences in the real world. Trout becomes a crusader for mental health, “a fanatic on the importance of ideas as causes and cures for diseases”, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine, and dies a revered humanitarian.

Here’s the speech that jolts the Vonnegut avatar from his nihilistic despair. It’s delivered to the denizens of the Holiday Inn by a self-promoting abstract-expressionist painter in defense of his work The Temptation of Saint Anthony, a narrow day-glo orange stripe on a vast canvas of avocado green:

“It is a picture of the awareness of every animal. It is the immaterial core of every animal – the ‘I am’ to which all messages are sent. It is all that is alive in any of us – in a mouse, in a deer, in a cocktail waitress. It is unwavering and pure, no matter what preposterous adventure may befall us. A sacred picture of Saint Anthony alone is one vertical, unwavering band of light. If a cockroach were near him, or a cocktail waitress, the picture would show two such bands of light. Our awareness is all that is alive and maybe sacred in any of us. Everything else about us is dead machinery.”

So the ego, soul, self-awareness, whatever you want to call it, of every human, along with every other living creature on down to the cockroach, may be sacred – according to this fictional character who his creator admits is pretty much a baloney artist. You’d have to be awfully deep in the cosmic weeds for this insight to count as optimistic, but if it really did the trick for Vonnegut, good for him.

That’s about as uplifting as Vonnegut’s oeuvre gets. But I’m at least as big a sourpuss, so that can’t be my complaint about him.

***

Vonnegut dedicated Breakfast of Champions to an old mentor in the ad copywriting business:

She was funny. She was liberating. She taught us to be impolite in conversation not only about sexual matters, but about American history and famous heroes, about the distribution of wealth, about school, about everything.

I now make my living by being impolite. I am clumsy at it. I keep trying to imitate the impoliteness which was so graceful in Phoebe Hurty.

Here are a few of the things Breakfast of Champions is impolite about:

  • 1492: “the year in which sea pirates began to cheat and rob and kill [Native Americans].”
  • “The Star-Spangled Banner”: “pure balderdash.”
  • Thomas Jefferson: “a slave owner who was also one of the world’s greatest theoreticians on the subject of human liberty.”
  • West Point: “a military academy which turned young men into homicidal maniacs for use in war.”

I doubt if even in the early 1970s there was any penalty attached to being impolite about these subjects. The New York Times review quoted on the back cover of the paperback – “He wheels out all the complaints about America and makes them seem fresh, funny, outrageous, hateful, and lovable, all at the same time” – suggests not. By the time I encountered it a decade and a half later, it never occurred to my baby boomer father that his twelve-year-old son should be protected from a book filled with drawings of assholes and “wide-open beavers”, let alone from rude comments about American heroes and institutions.

As for 2017…well, here’s a screencap from a recent Google News search for “star-spangled banner”:

The Star-Spangled Banner actually is racist so here are some (Ebony.com) ... Americans like me are programmed to respect the national anthem (The Independent)

Here’s what came up for “christopher columbus”:

Woman arrested in vandalism of Christopher Columbus statue (Los Angeles Times) ... Another Christopher Columbus statue gets vandalized in NYC (New York Post)

Which leads me to:

Hypothesis Three: Whatever the Serious People may feel about his writing style, Vonnegut’s philosophy, politics, and humour are so mainstream nowadays that he has lost whatever ability he once had to surprise us.

***

I share, or rather sometimes I share, Kilgore Trout’s belief that bad ideas are a kind of sickness. For every essay I post on this blog there are four or five I discard, often after many long hours of work, because I worry that the arguments I’ve made are untrue, or, even if true, unhelpful.

Here’s a premise for an essay I’d hesitate to upload, for fear it might infect some innocent bystander: that writers should be held responsible when their ideas are misinterpreted by weak-minded readers who go on to commit destructive acts.

Here’s another idea I’d be reluctant to disseminate: that even a fuzzy, apparently harmless platitude like “be kind” can lead to disaster, as people may choose to interpret “be kind” in crazy and unsustainable ways; and that therefore writers should just shut their traps altogether.

I’m uncomfortable with another idea, yet it’s one that Kurt Vonnegut was unafraid to promulgate in many famous and profitable novels: that the heroes, institutions, and symbols our culture holds most sacred should be mercilessly razzed, noogied, and farted upon.

Vonnegut, who despite the reservations expressed in Breakfast of Champions was apparently much more cavalier with his ideas than I am, didn’t worry that this one might backfire terribly. He seemed to think that once those old symbols were thoroughly trampled down and covered with profane graffiti, our culture would somehow end up wiser, saner, and more peaceful. I believed it myself for many years – because I had been exposed to the idea, by Vonnegut, at a very young age, when my immunity was low.

Over the years I noticed that while we were ever more free to ever more viciously ridicule the same old symbols Vonnegut had taken aim at – the national anthem, the Founding Fathers, the Bible – a new set of symbols had arisen which, for some reason, were exempt from ridicule. Try farting on the rainbow flag, or Anne Frank, or the Prophet Muhammad, and see how far it gets you.

I’m torn between two ideas: that we should feel free to fart on every symbol, no matter whom it might offend; and that we should be respectful of symbols, because people’s feelings can be hurt when we fart on them, and agreeing not to deliberately hurt each other’s feelings is one of the ways we make living together bearable.

I definitely don’t like the idea that we should consult the latest list, which can be updated by any maniac at any time, specifying which symbols are currently to be farted on, and which ones are exempt. I think that’s a terrible way to run a culture.

I’m not sure how Kurt Vonnegut or Kilgore Trout would have felt about it. I suspect they would’ve thought it was hilarious, and pretty much what us boobs deserved.

***

Getting back to Hypothesis Three: I shouldn’t claim that Vonnegut has lost his power to surprise “us”. As far as I know, his books are still pretty popular. The fact that he aims mainly at safe targets is hardly likely to limit his potential audience. And there’ll always be his unchallenging prose style and funny pictures to draw new readers in.

So let me move on to:

Hypothesis Four: Whatever I may feel about his writing style, my own viewpoint was so shaped by Vonnegut from an early age, that I have lost the ability to be surprised by him.

But that’s not quite right either. This essay proves that Breakfast of Champions still gives me lots to think about, and might do so again, in ten or twenty years, when I get around to reading it again.

M.

1. I’d probably read some science-fiction already – H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Robert Heinlein – and maybe Gulliver’s Travels and The Princess Bride, before arriving at Breakfast of Champions.

2. The Vonnegut profile is included in Amis’s 1986 collection The Moronic Inferno.

Update, July 28, 2020: Added book cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

I previously found Catch-22 to be less great than I’d remembered and posted an unflattering picture of myself revisiting Catcher in the Rye.

The Know-Nothing.

If I had to choose a passage to introduce you to Scott Alexander’s terrific blog Slate Star Codex, this isn’t the one I’d go with. But it happens to be one I want to riff on, so here it is…

Imagine a space-time rift brings a 19th-century Know-Nothing to your doorstep. He starts debating you on the relative merits and costs of allowing Irish people to mix with the rest of American society. And you have a hard time even getting the energy to debate him. You’re like “Yeah, there are some Irish people around. I think my boss might be half-Irish or something, although I’m not sure. So what?” And he just sputters “But…but…Irish people! It’s not right for Irish and non-Irish people to mix! Everyone knows that!” And not only do you not think that Irish people are a Big Deal, but you’re about 99% sure that after the Know-Nothing spends a couple of months in 21st-century America he’s going to forget about the whole Irish thing too. There’s just no way someone seeing how boring and ordinary Irish-Americans are could continue to consider worrying about it a remotely good use of their time.

The rest of this old post (from 2013) has nothing to do with the Irish. Alexander is a practitioner of polyamory, you see, which is some kind of modern offshoot of what used to be called free love, and he’s making a point about how unthreatening polyamory is, once you get to know the people who practice it. That subject doesn’t interest me at all – I endorse wholeheartedly his title (if not necessarily his argument): Polyamory Is Boring. But his analogy got me wondering. Would the Know-Nothing really come around as easily as Alexander imagines?

Let me extend the scenario. After your fruitless conversation with the time traveller, you part ways. A few months later, after he’s had time to settle in, read the newspapers, catch some TV, strike up conversations with cab drivers and strangers in bars, you run into him again. “Well, what do you think now?” you say. “The Irish aren’t so scary, are they?”

He shakes his head sadly. “You poor fool,” he says. “Everything we warned you about has come true. Irishness has completely overwhelmed the country. It surrounds you. And you can’t even see it.”

Of course, you ask the Know-Nothing to elaborate. But here my imagination fails – I have no idea what he’s observed in the intervening weeks to make him so depressed. I, like you, grew up in a culture so marinated in Irishness that its effects are totally invisible to me.

If you or I were to shimmer across the invisible space-time boundary that separates us from the alternate-history 2016 where the Know-Nothings successfully kept out the Irish, who knows what we’d find. I suspect we wouldn’t much care for the place. We’d find it stuffy, and exclusionary, and most importantly, in some indefinable way, insufficiently Irish.

But the fact that we prefer having been brought up in our own universe doesn’t mean that our side’s arguments (I mean, the arguments of the 19th century folks who took what we interpret to be “our side” in this long-dead dispute) were correct.

It just means our side won.

***

A few years back, in a post about cratering American birthrates (which I somehow tied in with a discussion of Robert Heinlein’s 1950 sci-fi novel Farmer in the Sky), I wrote that

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers.

I then went on for a few paragraphs about the downsides of large-scale immigration – problems of assimilation, mainly. But, I brightly concluded,

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves.

Recently I re-read that passage and I thought – wait, what? Do I have any empirical reason for believing that we will be “fortified” by new immigrants? What does that even mean?

I suppose I was making the same assumptions that underlie Scott Alexander’s parable of the time traveller. Strength in diversity! A nation of immigrants! The cultural mosaic! Irish, Ukrainians, Jews, Chinese – they’ve all successfully integrated, so why shouldn’t the next batch?

Only…if I were to extend the above list of immigrant ethnicities I would pretty quickly arrive at a few that have, as yet, integrated noticeably less well. (Depending where you live, you probably have a different unsuccessfully-integrated group in mind.) Maybe these groups aren’t to blame for their exclusion; maybe they’ve been discriminated against by the native-born. Maybe “integration” isn’t even a desirable goal. I’m not interested in arguing those points right now. I only mean there are differences between Irish immigration in the 1850s and Jewish immigration in the 1910s and (say) Syrian immigration in the 2010s. Differences in “them”, obviously, but just as importantly, differences in “us” – how many of us there are, what kinds of communities we live in, what jobs are available, and perhaps most of all, what we believe.

Some of those differences should make integration less painful. We’re certainly less overtly racist than we used to be, and we pay lip-service (sometimes without knowing exactly what we mean) to tolerance and diversity and so forth. On the other hand, we’ve adopted views on things like public displays of sexuality, and sacrilegious speech, and gender norms, that increase our cultural separation from some of the immigrants we’re welcoming. The observant Muslim parents of a teenage girl in 1950s Toronto might have worried about their daughter being picked on because of her headscarf, but they wouldn’t have had to worry about her being exposed to Snapchat or Keeping Up With the Kardashians or the new Ontario sex ed curriculum.

People who demonize conservative immigration skeptics like Mark Steyn and Steve Sailer as racists and Islamophobes and so forth tend not to actually read what they write, so it doesn’t register that their skepticism might be rooted in a concern for the fragility of our common liberal values – basic things like freedom of speech, religious toleration, and the right of uncovered women to go for a walk without getting harassed. Perhaps their paranoia is overheated, but at least it acknowledges that integration works both ways. The Irish didn’t just come to America and become more American; America became more Irish. And the same will happen with today’s immigrants.

Maybe we’re cool with that, or maybe we’re just confident that the changes in “us” will all be for whatever we define as the better. But in the long run, it hardly matters what we think. The citizens of the future will uncritically adapt to the culture we bequeath them, and find arguments like this one as unfathomable as we find the frettings of the Know-Nothings.

***

I went off on a bit of a tangent there – I didn’t set out intending to write about immigration, not exactly. What got me thinking about Scott Alexander’s Know-Nothing was this passage in Brave New World.

Early on we’re introduced to Helmholtz Watson, lecturer at the College of Emotional Engineering. Helmholtz is troubled by an inchoate sense that, despite the state of universal contentment society has achieved in the year 632 After Ford, something vital is missing. He tries to explain to a friend what he means:

He was silent, then, “You see,” he went on at last, “I’m pretty good at inventing phrases – you know, the sort of words that suddenly make you jump, almost as though you’d sat on a pin, they seem so new and exciting even though they’re about something hypnopaedically obvious. But that doesn’t seem enough. It’s not enough for the phrases to be good; what you make with them ought to be good too.”

“But your things are good, Helmholtz.”

“Oh, as far as they go.” Helmholtz shrugged his shoulders. “But they go such a little way. They aren’t important enough, somehow. I feel I could do something much more important. Yes, and more intense, more violent. But what? What is there more important to say?”

I shut the book and reflected how in every generation, people complain that things are getting worse – morals are deteriorating, the scope of personal freedom is shrinking, tastes are coarsening, the best and highest works of our culture gather dust while the mob lavishes praise on ephemera. Optimists point to the fact that pessimists have been tolling the same doleful themes since at least Plato’s time as proof that the pessimists can be safely ignored: According to those old farts we’ve been driving off a cliff for two and a half millennia. Yet here we still are!

I share their optimism much of the time. Indeed, here we are! We’ve got it pretty good! Food is cheap, yoga pants are amazing for all sorts of reasons, and it appears euthanasia-on-demand will win the race against my accelerating decrepitude. Go toll your bell somewhere else, Gloomy Gus!

But reading Helmholtz’s report from the distant future, it occurred to me that perhaps the Gloomy Guses have been right all along. Every one of them.

In every generation things are lost. Some of those things are deliberately buried, because manners change, and people will no longer put up with blackface dance routines or teen sex comedies where the boys spy on the girl’s locker room. Often, in an excess of scrupulousness, good stuff gets buried with the bad. But most of the good stuff isn’t even deliberately buried, it just gets left behind and forgotten. And the people who’ve forgotten it don’t even know what they’re missing.

You might say it’s nothing to worry about. Our culture keeps generating new stuff to replace what’s lost, and if that new stuff isn’t as good as the old stuff, that’s fine, the culture will just adjust its definition of quality and future folks won’t know the difference.

Assuming, that is, that the conditions enabling us to generate new stuff will always prevail. But what if they don’t? What if historical progress actually has an end point?

Brave New World illustrates one way we could put a stop to history: we could actually bio-engineer creativity out of the human race. Helmholtz Watson, with his vague urges toward individual expression, is an aberration in the world of 632 A.F. – a genetic mistake of a kind society is working to eliminate. Another hundred years of tweaking the mix in the test tubes, and socially destabilizing brooders like Helmholtz might be done away with entirely.

I wish I could say confidently that we’ll never elect to bio-engineer our humanity away like that. But even if the human race remains inwardly human, external conditions might impede our creativity. Overcrowding. Technological dependency. The sheer bulk of our past achievements has already made it impossible to be a generalist in the manner of Newton or Goethe or Ben Franklin; if you want to add anything significant to the corpus of cultural knowledge, you now have to specialize. We might reach a point where the number of ideas you have to know already in order to conceive a new idea is so immense that no human brain can handle it; we’ll have no choice but to turn the process of ideation over to computers. Even demoralizing reflections like this one, the fear that all the good ideas have already been thought up, might increasingly lead to torpor and civilizational paralysis.

In the worst case, humanity might go the way of the famous mouse utopia experiment at NIMH – mouse decadence, then mouse apathy, then mouse barbarism, then total population collapse. But I suspect we’ll settle instead into something not far removed from Aldous Huxley’s prophetic satire – maintained by robots, pacified by porn and marijuana, stimulating the atrophied remnants of our thymos with virtual status-seeking – unlocking special achievements in video games and the like. I mean, we in the West aren’t too far from that already, except that the robots haven’t taken quite all the jobs yet so some of us still have to work. And you know what, it’s not that bad. We can’t regret what we don’t know we’ve lost.

When the Know-Nothing time-traveller arrives on our doorstep, we’ll listen with raised eyebrows to his crazy harangue. “The arts? Philosophy? The struggle for distinction? Geez, it all sounds awful. Why don’t you go for a walk, old man, take a look around. You’ll see how much better we have things now.”

M.

PS. I was re-reading Brave New World to celebrate the recent wrapping-up of my own novel on a similar theme. More about this soon…

 

Robert Heinlein and the basic theorem of population mechanics.

It’s been a project of mine, over the last few months, to catch up on some of Robert Heinlein’s less-famous books that I never got around to reading as a youthful sci-fi fan. That’s how I happened to be reading his 1950 novel Farmer in the Sky on the same day that I saw this Jordan Weissmann article on the Atlantic website about solving America’s demographics problem.

The problem is that the fertility rate in the United States has recently fallen below replacement level. That level in developed countries is around 2.1 children per woman – one baby to replace the mother, one to replace the father, and an extra fraction of a baby to cover accidental deaths. Below that level, barring immigration, a population will gradually contract. The problem isn’t contracting population per se. It’s that as fewer children are born, the ratio of working adults to non-working senior citizens tips toward the latter. With fewer workers, the economy can’t produce enough wealth to support its growing complement of seniors in the state of comfortable retirement they’ve come to expect.

Weissmann’s solution is straightforward – America just needs to bring in more immigrants. He needles the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat for his recent musings on the fertility problem which declined to endorse the open-borders approach Weissmann favours.

If America wants to stay productive, it’s hard to see how it (and other developed countries in the same demographic boat, like Canada) can avoid taking in more newcomers. As Weissmann argues, in the short run it’s probably necessary. But in the long run, reversing demographic decline isn’t a simple matter of slapping a welcome mat by the abandoned border checkpoints. First off, the decline isn’t limited to the developed world. The United States, Canada, and Western Europe are joined on the vanishing side of the 2.1 cutoff line by traditional people-exporters like China, Vietnam, and Iran. India’s fertility rate is 2.58 and falling fast – that’s about what the U.S. rate was in the 1960s. Mexico’s is down to 2.27.

In the past these countries were happy to watch their surplus population drained off via emigration to the West. If current trends continue, it won’t be long before they feel the demographic crunch too. They’ll begin offering incentives to keep their brightest and most ambitious young people at home. America will be obliged to compete against other rich countries, most of them in much direr demographic straits, for a shrinking pool of potential immigrants.

The West will have no difficulty recruiting newcomers, not anytime soon. But these newcomers will be harder to assimilate than ever before. If we want to bring them in sufficient numbers to counter demographic trends, there will simply have to be more of them than we’re used to – a larger lump dropped in the melting pot all at once. And the composition of the lump will resist mixing. Up till now we could take our pick of striving geniuses stifled by a lack of opportunity in their crowded home countries. Increasingly we’ll have to hustle for a share of the dissatisfied B-students whose countries couldn’t be bothered to make an effort to retain them. The easiest to recruit will be those from the poorest, most chaotic, and most fecund countries. They’ll be less literate, slower to pick up the language, more alien to the existing culture than previous immigrants. Being generally ill-educated, they’ll compete for jobs with the poorest slice of the native-born population, driving down the cost of unskilled labour and exacerbating income inequality.

Eventually, most likely, the West will absorb and be fortified by the immigrant wave, as it has previous waves. But it’s not such a cost-free operation as Weissmann implies. And once fully assimilated, the newcomers will be just as apathetic about reproducing as the rest of us.

robert a. heinlein farmer in the sky

What does all this have to do with Robert Heinlein? Here’s Paul du Maurier, an incidental character in Farmer in the Sky, discussing population projections with a fellow colonist on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. They’re debating how many ex-Earthlings their growing colony can accommodate:

“Studied any bionomics, Bill?”
“Some.”
“Mathematical population bionomics?”
“Well – no.”
“But you do know that in the greatest wars the Earth ever had there were always more people after the war than before, no matter how many were killed. Life is not merely persistent, as Jock puts it; life is explosive. The basic theorem of population mathematics to which there has never been found an exception is that population increases always, not merely up to the extent of the food supply, but beyond it, to the minimum diet that will sustain life – the ragged edge of starvation. In other words, if we bled off a hundred thousand people a day, the Earth’s population would then grow until the increase was around two hundred thousand a day, or the bionomical maximum for Earth’s new ecological dynamic.”

This lump of unleavened Malthusianism represents the best wisdom of the forward-thinkingest slice of the American intelligentsia circa 1950. In science-fiction from that era, unconstrained population growth is simply assumed. That was why all those intrepid space cadets blazed their trails to the stars in the first place – so that humanity’s teeming hordes could be deposited on the snowy plains of Ganymede, making room for more babies back home. It would never have crossed Heinlein’s mind that the Ganymede colony might have trouble attracting qualified geo-engineers because the aging home planet refused to let them emigrate.

I don’t read enough modern fiction to know if Heinlein’s successors are contemplating, as he did, the dystopian possibilities of current population trends. My sense is that the so-called demographic death-spiral has been relatively neglected, compared to the attention the population bomb got fifty years ago. I can think of a couple of recent-vintage sci-fi stories that are still built around population-bomb assumptions, but the only death-spiral story I know of is P.D. James’ allegorical The Children of Men, discussed in the article linked above. (I reviewed the entertaining but largely off-point film adaptation a few years back.)

Why has the death-spiral been neglected? For starters, many well-informed people seem oblivious to the direction the demographic arrow is now pointing. Secondarily, there’s an ideological bias at work. While death-spiralers are noticeably clustered on the political right, population-bombers tend to be on the left. Among the latter, there seems to be a widespread feeling that if we do dwindle away, hell, who’d miss us. Take this recent article in the New Yorker on the ethical implications of having children. Elizabeth Kolbert blandly quotes the philosopher David Benatar, who is untroubled by the prospect of human extinction:

“Humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth,” he writes. “The amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more” of us.

…But she’s openly skeptical of the economist Bryan Caplan’s suggestion that maybe having kids is, you know, a good thing:

“More people mean more ideas, the fuel of progress.” In a work that’s full of upbeat pronouncements, this is probably his most optimistic, or, if you prefer, outrageous claim.

Until recently that “outrageous claim” was held nearly universally. In a few rich countries it appears already to be the minority view. How much longer will it hold sway in the rest of the world?

The United Nations’ 2004 report World Population to 2300 projects the planet will peak at 9.22 billion people in 2075, then stabilize at around 9 billion. But that projection assumes fertility rates will do something weird:

[F]ertility will fall in all countries below replacement (in the medium scenario) and rebound to replacement after a period largely similar across countries of a century or so.

It’s obvious enough why the UN is projecting fertility rates to fall – that’s what they’re doing already, pretty much everywhere; the only question is whether they’ll plummet in the developing world to the depths they’ve reached in the rich countries. But what about the UN’s assumption that after a seemingly arbitrary period of “a century or so”, fertility will “rebound”? Is there any reason to suppose this will happen in the countries that have already fallen below replacement level?

Is it reasonable to expect fertility to rise from current levels? It is impossible to tell, but one can consider the implications if it does not. … By 2300 … [a]bout half the countries of Europe would lose 95 per cent or more of their population, and such countries as the Russian Federation and Italy would have only 1 per cent of their population left. Although one might entertain the possibility that fertility will never rise above current levels, the consequences appear sufficiently grotesque as to make this seem improbable.

As near as I can tell, this is the only explanation in the report for the assumption that in the long term, fertility rates will “rebound” to replacement level: It would be “grotesque” if they didn’t. Well, there you go.

The UN recognizes, and Farmer in the Sky demonstrates, that you can’t simply project current trendlines until they slope off the edge of the graph. Who knows, maybe there’s another baby boom right around the corner. Or maybe not. Robert Heinlein imagined that mankind was cursed with a biological imperative to overbreed, and that with a little gumption we would escape this curse by conquering the stars. But what if our imperative is nothing more than a polite suggestion, and our real curse is that, given the choice, few of us bother to heed it?

M.

I’ve been kvetching about this issue for years, most recently in a 2010 post about how the future will belong to fast-breeding religious conservatives.

Update, July 27, 2020: Redirected a couple dead links, added cover image, and linked to Bibliography page.

Peter Watts is a jerk.

He’s a crank too. But I’ll get to that.

First let me tell you about his brilliant novel Blindsight.

I first heard of it two days ago in this article in io9’s Mad Science blog, Six scientists tell us about the most accurate science fiction in their fields. Terry Johnson, a bioengineer at UC Berkeley, volunteered the following:

I thought that Peter Watts’ Blindsight did a great job of reinventing vampires as an extinct subspecies of humanity. Humanity pieces together what the vampire genome must have been and then resurrects them using genetic engineering.

As Johnson’s endorsement would suggest, Watts has obviously put a lot of thought into his scientific account of vampirism. In the novel’s detailed Notes and References it’s explained that vampires acquired their “Crucifix Glitch” as a result of

a cross-wiring of normally-distinct receptor arrays in the visual cortex, resulting in grand mal-like feedback seizures whenever the arrays processing vertical and horizontal stimuli fired simultaneously across a sufficiently large arc of the visual field. Since intersecting right angles are virtually nonexistent in nature, natural selection did not weed out the Glitch until H. sapiens sapiens developed Euclidean architecture; by then, the trait had become fixed across H. sapiens vampiris via genetic drift, and – suddenly denied access to its prey – the entire subspecies went extinct shortly after the dawn of recorded history.

The novel’s main vampire character counteracts the effects of the Crucifix Glitch by injecting himself with “anti-Euclideans”, drugs that alter his brain chemistry so that he can glance at the rungs of a ladder without foaming at the mouth.

The funny thing is, it turns out Blindsight isn’t about resurrected vampires as much as it is about brain chemistry. Particularly, it’s about the nature of consciousness. What does it mean to be self-aware? Does self-awareness necessarily correlate with intelligence? Is it even an adaptive advantage, when so many species get along just fine without it? The vampires play a crucial but only a small role in Watts’ exploration of these questions.

All that, and aliens too! Blindsight is a top-drawer example of the subgenre ably taxonomized by an Amazon reviewer named Conrad J. Obregon:

There is a sub-genre of science fiction that I like to think of as the alien-encounter procedural. Among its most famous of members is Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama. Humans meet a new species of alien and must figure out what procedures to follow to make some kind of contact. Emphasis is on the technology of contact, with suspense created by the unknown nature of the aliens.

But forget about the literary antecedents. Forget about the science. The main thing is, Blindsight is a hell of a lot of fun. I scanned the opening pages after supper on Thursday, with the intention of maybe putting it next on my reading pile. Suddenly it was midnight, and I had to force myself to stop reading so I wouldn’t be a zombie at work the next day. I sped through the remaining hundred pages in a few hours on Friday night, stopping only once to use the bathroom.

Go read it. Thank me later.

***

Blindsight (and other novels and stories) are available on Peter Watts’ website for free download under a Creative Commons license.

***

I’m glad I read Blindsight before I read Peter Watts’ blog. Because based on his blog, I’ve concluded that he’s kind of a jerk. If I’d known that in advance, I might not have read the novel.

Watts was in the news recently. Last December he had a scuffle with US border guards during an “exit search” while trying to cross back into his (and my) native Canada at Port Huron, Michigan. From his blog:

If you buy into the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum physics, there must be a parallel universe in which I crossed the US/Canada border without incident last Tuesday. In some other dimension, I was not waved over by a cluster of border guards who swarmed my car like army ants for no apparent reason; or perhaps they did, and I simply kept my eyes downcast and refrained from asking questions.

Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.).

(I have no reason to disbelieve the above account of the incident. Although one of the border guards alleged that Watts choked him, that claim was apparently discredited in the trial. Here are more details of Watts’ arrest and eventual conviction; in the end he was fined a couple thousand dollars and banned from entering the States.)

I’ve driven across the Canada-US border a bunch of times since 2001. (Including, I think, at least once at Port Huron.) I’ve crossed into the US from Mexico twice. On several occasions I was stopped while driving alone on south Texas secondary highways by border agents who pawed through my luggage for traces of heroin or Mexicans. Through all these interactions, American authorities were unerringly friendly, even when obliged to shunt my vehicle to a side lane for more detailed disarraying of my underwear.

So when I read about Peter Watts’ experience, I wondered, Have I just been lucky? Or was Watts especially unlucky?

Then I read this anecdote from a recent appearance at a sci-fi convention in Toronto:

At some point I – as is my wont – used the word “fucking” as an adjective.

Exhibit A sat in the front row, two sprogs in tow (one 5-10, one possible preteen – my expertise in the age-determination of human larvae is not all it could be). She took strong exception: “Could we keep this PG? There are children in the audience, and if I hear that again I’m out of here.”

I explained that the word “fuck” has a 900-year history, throughout most of which it was considered completely inoffensive. “It only became offensive 100-200 years ago, when a bunch of bible-thumping prudes who couldn’t get laid decided to stigmatize anything with an orifice.” Sadly, this cut no ice: “Well, I find it offensive.”

Watts soon let fly another PG-13 adjective, and the woman gathered her sprogs and huffed out. This led to an encounter between the author and four convention organizers who reprimanded him for, basically, being a jerk.

All because Peter Watts just had to say the word “shit-kicking”. Now, how would a non-jerk have responded to this situation? Being one, I can tell you: with an inward eye roll, a deferential head nod (calibrated to convey a shade of irony without being overtly offensive), and a mental note to sprinkle some sugar on the salty language.

I don’t think this is a symptom of undue servility. It’s just a sense of proportion. No-one should be forced to kowtow for the mere maintenance of social harmony. But in the absence of overt coercion, when the stakes are so comically small – we make a slight bow.

Watts doesn’t bow. When someone waves a sceptre in his direction, he hops up, grabs the sceptre, and, well…jerks. That’s when coercive methods are applied. Authorities are summoned. Things spiral.

It’s worth mentioning that Watts is a bit of a crank, too. (This is another way of saying he lacks a sense of proportion.) He’s the kind of crank who writes about how we live in a “soft dictatorship“. Who posts a picture of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper with rifle crosshairs superimposed over his forehead. Who composes measured passages like,

British Petroleum – a criminal corporation with countless infractions and convictions already notched onto its bedpost – is already a serial murderer. It kills entire ecosystems as we speak, ruins countless lives. If any of us little people tried to repay even a fraction of that in kind the whole weight of governments and armies would try to squash us flat. I know first-hand the righteous outrage that inflames such cocksuckers when anyone tries to do to them the merest fraction of what they do to us on a daily basis. We all know the overwhelming force that would be brought to bear on the “anarchists” and “criminals” who dared to “take the law into their own hands”.

(In a comment below his original post, he clarifies that he’s “not advocating anything”.)

None of the foregoing is necessarily relevant. His arrest in Port Huron predates all the above comments; perhaps the incident radicalized him. Anyway, I know people who say even more intemperate things, yet are nevertheless meek and mild when approached by folks in uniform.

But if you’re the kind of guy who believes things like the above, and you’re a jerk to boot, is it a surprise when you get into a tussle with authorities?

I’m not minimizing the injustice of what Watts went through. No-one should be punched in the face, or pepper-sprayed, or prosecuted, let alone threatened with two years in jail in a foreign country, just for being a jerk.

I’m just saying I can picture how it happened. Border guards surround Watts’ vehicle. Instead of quietly rolling his eyes, the author – a big guy, not a weedy Carl Sagan type – jumps out to protest. A guard politely but firmly orders him back into the car. Watts mutters something ill-advised. The guard barks an order. Events spiral. Pepper is dispersed.

Now, we need border guards. (Not as much as they think we need them, but still.) They protect us from people far more dangerous than Peter Watts. But there aren’t many such dangerous people around, so the border guards have a lot of time on their hands. They use this time to peer up our tailpipes, to poke suspicious fingers into our shaving kits, and occasionally to pull over some random Canadian because something about his posture or haircut looks suspicious.

It would be better if border guards were astute enough to display a sense of proportion when dealing with jerks like Peter Watts. But they’re not always that astute.

Some of them, in fact, are real jerks.

M.

Update, April 1 2013: I’ve had a few critical comments on this post, like the guy who today accused me of “attacking” Watts over the 2009 border incident. I was going to defend myself, but on reflection, maybe those commenters have a fair point.

As I’ve now said repeatedly, I believe Watts’s description of what happened that day. Of course I wasn’t there. But the prosecutors’ scenario, where a middle-aged science-fiction writer physically assaults a group of border guards, strikes me as less plausible than Watts’s version, where he was merely slow to obey the guards’ instructions and they monstrously overreacted.

My argument was only that people with cranky and combative personalities (like Watts, as he has frequently exhibited on his blog) are more likely to get into scrapes like these. Conflict-averse weenies like me, when confronted with seemingly capricious displays of authority, rather than assume we are being unjustly handled, will pause to consider the possibility that there are factors at play which we don’t understand. On the few occasions when I have indignantly trumpeted my sense of victimization, I’ve always come to realize on reflection that I was getting worked up over nothing. I have no idea why US Customs would suddenly start conducting “exit searches”, like the one Watts was subjected to while trying to leave the USA. It strikes me as pretty absurd. But if I were pulled aside for such a search, I would sit in the car meditating on the absurdity, rather than leaping out to yap at the guards about it. Which is probably why I’ve never been punched by a border guard.

There’s something to be said for an attitude of quiet deference. It makes for a polite and law-abiding society, such as we have customarily enjoyed here in Canada. But there’s also something to be said for getting up in the faces of authority figures when they start bossing us around. If we sanction cops bashing the skulls of those who ask tough questions – even those who ask quite rudely – we will soon find ourselves living in a society where even polite questions are forbidden. A certain amount of jerkiness is necessary to keep us from subsiding into authoritarianism. So, although I frequently deplore his opinions, I’m grateful to Watts for being a jerk on my behalf.

The role of the jerk-by-proxy is to get worked up over things the rest of us let slide. Nine times out of ten he makes himself look like an ass, and the rest of us steer wide and avoid eye contact while he stands on a street corner haranguing a weary cop over some wholly imaginary outrage. Occasionally, inevitably, our jerk-by-proxy pushes a cop or a judge too far, gets clapped in handcuffs, poked in the eye with a baton, hauled off to court. That means the jerk is doing his job. That’s not the time to cavil about what an uncouth fellow he is. That’s when you leap to the ramparts on his behalf.

I felt like by praising Watts’s book, while doing nothing to conceal my annoyance with the opinions expressed on his blog, I was doing him justice. But the events called for a bit more indulgence. I cavilled when I should have leapt. So I suppose I deserve some abuse from Watts’s defenders. As penance I’ve chipped in $20 to the tip jar on Watts’s website.

 

Dren / Not Dren: The unsatisfying ending of Splice.

Splice is four-fifths of a superior science-fiction movie. Then something goes wrong. In the paragraphs below, I’m going to talk about precisely what goes wrong, so if you haven’t seen Splice yet, you should head down to your local second-run movie theatre and watch it before reading further.

***

Perhaps we can better identify what’s wrong with the ending of Splice by comparing the movie with its most obvious antecedent, David Cronenberg’s The Fly. As you’ll recall, at the end of The Fly, the direly mutated Jeff Goldblum kidnaps Geena Davis from the doctor’s office to prevent her from aborting their baby. He takes her back to his lab and spells out his nutty plan to use the teleporter to combine himself, her, and their unborn child into a single being. Then his rotting flesh sloughs away and he turns into an animatronic monster.

I can understand why Cronenberg chose to do this. If you go to see a monster movie called The Fly, you expect to see a giant fly – not an actor swathed in lumpy latex. The problem is, we’re not only watching a monster movie, we’re also watching a movie about the relationship of Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. It’s the relationship that makes the movie interesting. And suddenly, right at the climax of the film, one of the two main actors disappears and is replaced with a slime-covered puppet.

This is a problem with The Fly. But it’s not that big a problem, because A) it happens a minute or two before the end of the movie, at a point of maximum tension, so we don’t have time to think about it, and B) in the puppet’s final scene, when it helps Geena Davis aim the shotgun at its own head, we’re willing to believe that the puppet is Jeff Goldblum. It’s a leap, but we can project our feelings about Goldblum’s character onto this pathetic creature.

At the end of Splice, a similar transformation occurs. The actress who plays Dren, the most sympathetic character and one-third of the romantic-incestuous triangle at the dramatic core of the movie, disappears, and is replaced with a totally different actor. [Correction – see update, below.]

At this point, I stopped caring. I felt gypped. Intellectually I can acknowledge that this spiny naked guy leaping through the trees is supposed to be Dren. But I can’t transfer my affections to him because he’s obviously not Dren. He’s some guy I’ve never seen before, and his fate doesn’t interest me.

Why is it easier for me to identify with puppet-Goldblum than with pseudo-Dren? I suspect it’s precisely because a puppet isn’t a person. It’s a thing – an empty vessel. Its eyes give us nothing, they’re only glassy orbs, and we can imagine that we see Goldblum’s busy mind at work behind them. But pseudo-Dren is very obviously a person. His eyes look back at us, and we say, “Who’s this dude?”

The ending might have worked better if they’d somehow retained Delphine Chanéac, the actress who plays Dren, to portray her post-transformation self. Still, I can’t help but think that the whole ending is a wrong turn. Splice sets up a fascinating, twisted relationship among its three lead characters, but the relationship is blown to bits before we get a chance to explore it.

M.

Update, August 22 2010: A few weeks ago, Niky posted in the comments that the male Dren was actually played by Delphine Chanéac. I had trouble believing this, but today was the first chance I’ve had to do a little more in-depth Googling – and it seems Niky is right. Here’s an interview with Delphine where she confirms it; the relevant discussion starts around 2:41.

Obviously, this revelation undermines the premise of my complaint about the ending. Therefore, I withdraw my objection: Splice is a perfect movie.

Spike Jonze’s I’m Here will melt your callous human heart.

Don’t wait for me to tell you why. Schlep your laptop to a quiet room, ask your roommate or spouse to keep out of your hair for a half-hour, and watch Spike Jonze’s new short film I’m Here. Then come back and we’ll discuss.

I'm Here by Spike Jonze

[Spoilers ahead.]

I think it’s a brilliant, sad little movie. On the surface it’s, as the website declares, a love story. But it’s also a story about deterioration and decay. The bittersweetness of the ending comes from the realisation that Sheldon must be aware that his sacrifice is futile – that the accident-prone Francesca isn’t going to have any more luck with her new body than she had with her old one.

What is going on with Francesca, anyway? We see her carelessly fall down early in the film, but every one of her subsequent accidents occurs offscreen. Presumably her arm was knocked off by careless humans in that mild-looking mosh pit. But when she subsequently loses a leg, and then has her torso horribly crushed, Sheldon never asks how it happened. The implication is that these injuries are inevitable – that once you give up the lonely, sheltered life that Sheldon was leading, once you start engaging fully, like Francesca, with the big scary world of imagination and creation, your destruction is pre-ordained.

I don’t think that’s true; there’s a current of artistic preciousness to Jonze’s story that irritates me slightly. I don’t see the world as a harsh place where fragile free spirits are torn apart when they dare to spread their beautiful butterfly wings. Why can’t Sheldon sit Francesca down and say, Listen, you crazy bitch, I love you and all, but I’ve got a limited supply of spare parts – go easy, for chrissake? Why can’t robots throw awesome parties and build things out of papier-maché while still exercising a bit of common sense? Do passion and practicality have to be mutually exclusive?

These are the quibbles, mind you, of someone who adored the movie. On a side note, kudos to Absolut Vodka for funding Jonze’s little experiment. It was a ballsy move, and I pray that other corporate sponsors will be as forward-looking when filmmakers drop by their headquarters with kooky and dubious ideas.

M.

John Wayne and Girl In Landscape.

When John Wayne spoke, there was no mistaking his intentions; he had a sexual authority so strong that even a child could perceive it.

That’s Joan Didion, in a 1965 essay called “John Wayne: A Love Song” from her collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, in which she confesses that “although the men I have known have had many virtues…they have never been John Wayne.” They have not – how could they have? – lived up to that standard of masculinity set for her at the age of eight when she first saw Wayne in War of the Wildcats.

Jonathan Lethem’s Girl In Landscape is about the child perceiving John Wayne’s sexual authority and figuring out what to do about it. The child is a thirteen-year-old immigrant from Earth, relocated with her father and younger brothers to a rickety frontier settlement on the Planet of the Archbuilders. Her dad is an earnest liberal, keen on reaching out to the planet’s natives, the remnants of a once-mighty race who now dwell in idleness among the ruins of their civilisation.

John Wayne appears in the character of the first settler in the valley, who has a far more ambivalent relationship to the natives. He is the only one who speaks their language, understands their customs, even participates in their rituals. But he has contempt for them, and he fears being corrupted by them. He is

tormented and tormenting. His fury is righteous and ugly – resentment worn as a fetish. It isolates him in every scene. It isolates him from you, watching, even as his charisma wrenches you closer, into an alliance, a response that’s almost sexual.

That’s Lethem writing (in his 2005 essay collection The Disappointment Artist) about John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, which he has acknowledged as the inspiration for his novel. Girl In Landscape is the The Searchers inverted, told from the point-of-view of the young girl rather than the cowboy antihero. But Lethem has softened and decomplicated the story for the comfort of modern readers. His natives are benign, meditative pacifists, rather than the murderous Comanches of the original, making the settlers’ terror of their sexuality seem paranoid and ludicrous.

Eventually, the young girl stands up to the cowboy, and although her motives are laudable, her methods are extremely dicey. In the final chapter we see the beginnings of a friendlier, stabler, more matriarchal society – the antagonistic male forces have been banished, at least temporarily, and order reigns. It’s a satisfying conclusion for modern readers, because we’re not really comfortable having John Wayne around – not the women, who (despite their lingering girlish ideals of maleness) aren’t eager to be tossed over his shoulder and carried off like chattel; not the other men who find themselves feeling shrunken and irrelevant in his presence. But of course, it’s convenient to banish John Wayne, when there are no Comanches around.

M.


Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

You can find a selection of his cartoons, music videos, and ads on the Gallery page.

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