This blog at various times years ago produced multitudinous posts that railed against fiction. I had at the time read very little (I have now read little more), but the thoughts were not entirely unfounded, even if I didn't have a good reason for the at the time. I mostly just enjoyed kicking up dust, but now I intend to say something more substantial.
When I graduated from college, I intended to do a lot of pleasure reading, but I had no idea where to begin. I asked around for recommendations and was shocked how few came. I began proclaiming very loudly that I had ample time for reading and nothing to fill it with, so a helpful friend lent me a copy of his favorite book: The Name of the Wind.
There is no genre of fiction I lambasted more than fantasy, and I had no interest in reading any upon graduating--particularly not something so big as the book offered me, especially since it was book one of a series (a trilogy, I think, though I'm not entirely too sure and too hurried to verify). But I am a man of my word, and I really did want to read something, so I gave it a good faith effort.
It was a long and mostly painful experience. My friend once asked me how I was doing, so I confessed that I wasn't enjoying it all that much, but he encouraged me, ensuring me that, though it started slow, it would get better. Under these circumstances, I did eventually make it all the way through it.
It would be wrong for me to say that I did not enjoy it at times. The author has an enjoyable voice, which I have always and still consider the most crucial part of any book, fiction or not, and I jotted down my favorite sentences in a notebook, which I enjoy glancing through occasionally. But I had a revelation as I read that book, and I discovered the reason why it is that I can be so confident that I will never really enjoy fantasy.
It has to do with the way my brain operates, though I can't be sure if this is conditioning or personality (if those things are significantly different). I am a curious person; I like to learn things, especially when a modest amount of investigation is necessary. I get great satisfaction about deepening my knowledge of specifics. Broad knowledge doesn't really appeal to me as much. Oh, I'm a dabbler, no doubt, but I like to dabble deeply.
This was hit home to me as I read The Name of the Wind. The narrator would passingly reference some historical figure or event, and my immediate inclination was always to set the book down and see if I could learn more about these people and happenings on Wikipedia. It was an impulse I had to learn to resist. This was high fantasy and had no overt ties to the real world. These people and events had no bearing on reality, and more information would only be available if the author indulged himself in writing it himself or if fan forums did it for him. Neither appeal to me.
And that's the problem with fantasy. Novelists pride themselves on "world building," and the best of them do this very well, but I love Earth and its attending universe. The world we live in is so marvelous and weird and beautiful and dreadful that I can't on any level understand why anyone wants to escape it. I want fiction that is grounded in reality. Everything else is, quite frankly, worthless.
Like that Oz movie that came out a year or two ago with what's-his-face Franco in the titular role--it was lousy for a whole host of reasons, but offensive for only one: it seemed to assume that CG landscapes are more magical and bizarre than what dear Mother Earth can provide. I can't countenance such thinking! I consider myself made from the dust of this earth--there is no particle in me that came very recently from any other place--and earth and its inhabitants define beauty in my mind. Anything that is not a part of typical earthling experience is undesirable to me.
(As an aside, if people wish to colonize e.g. Mars IRL, let them go--Earth will be happy to rid itself of any who are unhappy here. Leave me here with the snakes and spiders and fatal diseases--I do not love them, but they are my brothers. I prefer them to the heretics who think that they'll find a better home elsewhere. Let them find a rainbow anywhere else in the solar system, if they can.)
Anyway, I'm off topic. The point is, I can't enjoy fantasy--even setting aside my beyond-hippie love for the planet I was born on, I hate being teased with passing references to people, places, and events that have no ties to reality as I comprehend it. I feel like the founding principle of the modern fantasy genre is to actively divorce itself from all such things, so I am clearly not its target audience. I do not hate so much as pity the people who enjoy such pastimes.
Enough of piety. That's all background to what I have to say next:
I'm currently reading Stranger in a Strange Land. It's hard for me to say how I feel about the book as a whole--there's a lot of it I don't "grok," I suppose--but I will say emphatically that I love Jubal Harshaw. He is, I think, my favorite character in all of fiction. Every sentence he says is so well wrought, whether it's scathing or humorous or insightful or whatever--I love Jubal Harshaw. The book was exciting, I suppose, before he showed up, but the chapters in which he's played a prominent role have been delightful. In the latter half of the book, we're off on adventures with the actual protagonist (Valentine Michael Smith, the man from Mars), and we don't see Jubal for long passages. My interest waned as my suspicions that we would not return to Jubal grew, but return we did, and that's the best part:
Jubal obtains a collection of statues--replicas of famous sculptures--that another character (Ben) calls them vulgar, which causes Jubal to launch into what I considered a very moving defense of a few of his favorites. Allow me to quote at length:
"Well, that hideous thing I've seen before...but when did you acquire the rest of this ballast?"
Jubal ignored him and spoke quietly to the replica of La Belle Heaulmiere. "Do not listen to him, ma petite chere--he is a barbarian and knows no better." He put his hand to her beautiful ravaged cheek, then gently touched one empty, shrunken dug. "I know just how you feel...but it can't be very much longer. Patience, my lovely."
He turned back to [Ben] and said briskly, "Ben, I don't know what you have on your mind but it will have to wait while I give you a lesson in how to look at sculpture--though it's probably as useless as trying to teach a dog to appreciate the violin. But you've just been rude to a lady...and I don't tolerate that."
"You know I wouldn't be rude to the old woman who posed for that. Never. What I can't understand is a so-called artist having the gall to pose somebody's great grandmother in her skin...and you having the bad taste to want it around."
"All right, Ben. Attend me. Anybody can look at a pretty girl and see a pretty girl. An artist can look at a pretty girl and see the old woman she will become. A better artist can look at an old woman and see the pretty girl that she used to be. But a great artist--a master--and that is what Auguste Rodin was--can look at an old woman, protray her exactly as she is...and force the viewer to see the pretty girl she used to be...and more than that, he can make anyone with the sensitivity of an armadillo, or even you, see that this lovely young girl is still alive, not old and ugly at all, but simply prisoned inside her ruined body. He can make you feel the quiet, endless tragedy that there was never a girl born who ever grew older than eighteen in her heart...no matter what the merciless hours have done to her. Look at her, Ben. Growing old doesn't matter to you and me; we were never meant to be admired--but it does to them. Look at her!"
The great thing is, not only can Ben admire the sculpture with new eyes, but you and I can, too--because it's real. Not only was Rodin a real artist (he did the ever famous "The Thinker"), but La Belle Heaulmiere is a real work, and here she is:
Ben then asks about another piece in Jubal's collection:
"How about this one? It doesn't bother me as much...I can see it's a young girl right off. But why tie her up like a pretzel?"
Jubal looked at the replica "Caryatid Who has Fallen under the Weight of her Stone" and smiled. "Call it a tour de force in empathy, Ben. I won't expect you to appreciate the shapes and masses which make that figure much more than a 'pretzel'--but you can appreciate what Rodin was saying. Ben, what do people get out of looking at a crucifix?"
"You know how much I go to church."
"'How little' you mean. Still, you must know that, as craftsmanship, paintings and sculpture of the Crucifixion are usually atrocious--and the painted, realistic ones often used in churches are the worst of all...the blood looks like catsup and that ex-carpenter is usually protrayed as if he were a pansy...which He certainly was not if there is any truth in the four Gospels at all. He was a hearty man, probably muscular and of rugged health. But despite the almost uniformly poor portrayal in representations of the Crucifixion, a poor one is about as effective as a good one for most people. They don't see the defects; what they see is a symbol which inspires their deepest emotions; it recalls to them the Agony and Sacrifice of God."
"Jubal, I thought you weren't a Christian?"
"What's that got to do with it? Does that make me blind and deaf to fundamental human emotion? I was saying that the crummiest painted plaster crucifix or the cheapest cardboard Christmas Creche can be sufficient symbol to evoke emotions in the human heart so strong that many have died for them and many more live for them. So the craftsmanship and artistic judgment with which such a symbol is wrought are largely irrelevant. Now here we have another emotional symbol--wrought with exquisite craftsmanship, but we won't go into that, yet. Ben, for almost three thousand years or longer, architects have designed buildings with columns shaped as female figures--it got to be such a habit that they did it as casually as a small boy steps on an ant. After all those centuries it took Rodin to see that this was work too heavy for a girl. But he didn't simply say, 'Look, you jerks, if you must design this way, make it a brawny male figure.' No, he showed it...and generalized the symbol. Here is this poor little caryatid who has tried--and failed, fallen under the load. She's a good girl--look at her face. Serious, unhappy at her failure, but not blaming anyone else, not even the gods...and still trying to shoulder her load, after she's crumpled under it.
"But she's more than good art denouncing some very bad art; she's a symbol for every woman who has ever tried to shoulder a load that was too heavy for her--over half the female population of this planet, living and dead, I would guess. But not alone women--this symbol is sexless. It means every man and every woman who ever lived who sweated out life in uncomplaining fortitude, whose courage wasn't even noticed until they crumpled under their loads. It's courage, Ben, and victory."
"Victory in defeat, there is none higher. She didn't give up, Ben; she's still trying to lift that stone after it has crushed her. She's a father going down to a dull office job while cancer is painfully eating away his insides, so as to bring home one more pay check for the kids. She's a twelve-year-old girl trying to mother her baby brothers and sisters because Mama had to go to Heaven. She's a switchboard operator sticking to her job while smoke is choking her and the fire is cutting off her escape. She's all the unsung heroes who couldn't quite cut it but never quit. Come. Just salute as you pass her [...]."
And we can. Come, readers; salute her and all she represents:
It goes on, but I will not. The point is, in reading fiction, I got a lesson about real works of art in the real world--my world. It makes me regret having lumped sci-fi in the same category as fantasy in the past. While they are both speculative, sci-fi sometimes speculates about the world I live in, which is the only world I care about. A tangent of this length would be reprehensibly indulgent in a fantasy novel, but in science fiction, it's educational--at least in this instance. I happily embrace any such tangent. I remember liking Hugh Laurie's novel (The Gun Seller, I think it was called?) because it had many edifying tangents in it. Since any time I read a work of fiction, I'm really just taking a tangent from my own life, I appreciate it tangenting back into reality as often as it can.
I don't know how widely I'd recommend Stranger in a Strange Land, since the plot has gone in directions I find rather uninspiring, but I do recommend Jubal Harshaw. My understanding is that he appears in other Heinlein novels as well. If he's just as good in those (which I can't vouch for, since I haven't read them), they may in fact be better books than this one. Regardless, if there was a a collection of Harshawisms published together under one cover, I would relish every word of it.
I know this post is old but I haven't stopped by for a while...if you're still looking for things to read, may I suggest The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran. Maybe you've read it already?ReplyDelete
I've read SIASL three times - once in high school, again as a young husband and then as an old man. It said different things to me each time.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this essay. I read that Jubal Harshaw (and all the other versions of Jubal that showed up in his fiction) was Heinlein's inserting himself into the stories, as a way to enter his own beliefs and prejudices.