Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Passion for Science Fiction

Some thoughts about a novel that may not be well known but has a lot to tell us about the art of writing and the art of reading….

There is a wonderful point in many stories which comes after the characters and general lines of action are set, when things begin to move by themselves. This is where the unconscious takes over. All the writer's submerged beliefs and fears and hopes come surging joyfully to the surface to take full charge, and the writer's only function is to type fast enough to keep up. This happy state unfortunately isn't common. But when it does come, there are few greater pleasures in life.
The reason, of course, is that (besides the necessary money) such stories bring their writers that glorious free-fall sensation which is a kind of catharsis of the unconscious. Characters personifying one's deeply felt beliefs and values test them out in a fictional world. You don't know at the time what's happened. You just know you feel wonderful. Long afterward, rereading the work, you can see what lies just under the surface.
There’s an obvious passion for writing in those words, and yet you won’t find them in a manual about writing, or in the autobiography of some world-famous writer. They’re in the introduction to a 1972 Lancer Books paperback edition of Fury, a classic sf novel that was first serialized in Astounding Science Fiction in 1947 under the pseudonym Lawrence O’Donnell, came out as a hardcover book three years later as by Henry Kuttner, and had been retitled Destination: Infinity for a previous 1958 paperback.
Fury’s publishing history makes the novel seem purely a matter of commerce rather than art. And yet it is a work of art, as we can tell from the work itself as well as that introduction by Kuttner’s widow C. L. Moore – who therein reveals that she wrote some of the scenes, and could still recognize her part in their collaboration 25 years later. Henry and Catherine Kuttner, who frequently wrote together in relays as “Lawrence O’Donnell” and under other pen names, shared a love for sf that transcended the seemingly cynical imperatives of what was often regarded by outsiders as nothing but pulp fiction.
Moore related that she and Kuttner were driven by thematic imperatives that went beyond sf itself. “Hank’s basic statement was something like, ‘Authority is dangerous, and I will never submit to it.’ Mine was, ‘The most treacherous thing in life is love.’” These worked their way into Fury, set on a Venus to which the human race has fled after destroying Earth in a nuclear holocaust. But mankind on Venus has abandoned any effort to tame a savage planet, instead retiring into a “luxurious Eden” of undersea Keeps – and, “with no challenges left, would slowly strangle in its own inertia if, out of nowhere, a deliverer did not come with a flaming sword to drive them back to life.”
That deliverer is Sam Harker/Reed, a monstrous freak unknowingly robbed of his heritage as one of the elite of Immortals who rule Venus. Reed is driven only by hatred and a lust for vengeance. He was Kuttner’s creation, and Moore couldn’t identify with him at the time. But on re-reading the novel, she came to understand that to make the premise work – to make the story work – “he had to be what he was—utterly ruthless, terribly intelligent, terribly vulnerable, fighting every hour of his life by every savage form of trickery, betrayal and murder, to reach a goal he was never truly aware of.”
The story of Sam Reed is headed with a quotation from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, the scene where MacBeth learns that Macduff, his nemesis, “was from his mother’s womb Untimely ripp’d.” Reed himself is “untimely ripp’d,” cruelly mutilated and abandoned at the behest of his enraged father after his mother dies in the Caesarian, thus setting the stage for a life out of a Shakespearian tragedy. But the reference to a classic of English literature tells us something else.
“You can't write science fiction well if you haven't read it, though not all who try to write it know this. But nor can you write it well if you haven't read anything else,” Ursula K. Le Guin remarked on the occasion of a British Library sf exhibition, regarding what she had learned from reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) at age 17. “Genre is a rich dialect, in which you can say certain things in a particularly satisfying way, but if it gives up connection with the general literary language it becomes a jargon, meaningful only to an ingroup. Useful models may be found quite outside the genre.”
It is often assumed, perhaps even by Le Guin, that genre sf writers generally don’t read anything but sf, let alone find any “useful models” outside the field. But that isn’t true of leading writers today, and it wasn’t true of Kuttner and Moore back in the 1940’s. Ray Bradbury, in his introduction to The Best of Henry Kuttner (1975), sets things straight, recalling his elder’s role as a mentor – and not just by helping him put out a fanzine:
Along the way, he also sneaked me the names of people who might influence my life. Try Katherine Ann Porter, he said; she’s great. Have you read Eudora Welty? he suggested, and if not, why not? Have you re-read Thorne Smith? Get to it. How about the short stories of Faulkner, or—here’s one you never heard of—John Collier.
In Fury, then, allusions to the classics are intertwined with science fictional concerns about the fate of humanity:
Blaze and Bessi – it was a Romeo and Juliet story with a happy ending, up to the time Sam was conceived. They were casual, purposeless hedonists. In the Keeps you had to choose. You could either find a drive, an incentive – be one of the technicians or artists – or you could drift.
For lesser drifters, there are escapes like dream dust and happy cloaks – the latter, derived from a native life form, slowly consume their addicts. But Sam Reed, born Harker, isn’t a drifter; he is a driven man, as driven as any of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, hating himself and hating the Immortals – never knowing until the end that he is one. Only, there’s no coven of witches or a Greek chorus to set the plot in motion or comment on its import. Instead we have the Logician, an Immortal unknown to the other Immortals – a man born on Earth who understands what happened there (“It wasn’t atomic power that destroyed Earth. It was a pattern of thought.”). He can foresee the future on Venus, but he is powerless to intervene – except in the subtlest ways.
Fury is actually a sequel to “Clash by Night” (1943; the title is an allusion to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”), set centuries earlier, when rival Keeps fight proxy wars on the surface through the Free Companies: bands of mercenaries bound by a strict code of honor. The Keeps themselves are never attacked, and should any ship of any warrior band break the taboo on atomic weapons, the others will turn on it and destroy it without mercy.
Scott commands one unit in a war for economic advantage between the Montana and Virginia Keeps. But his loyalty to the Doones comes to seem a foolish one; the romantic ideals of the Free Companies are delusions: “Blind, stupid folly!” He longs for the hedonistic comforts of the Keeps. In the end, however, he cannot abandon his company, for it helps serve an objectively necessary end: preserving the Keeps from the danger of war, until the Keeps themselves tire of war and make the mercenaries objectively unnecessary:
The Doones meant nothing. Their ideal was a false one. Yet, because men were faithful to that ideal, civilization would rise again from the guarded Keeps. A civilization that would forget its doomed guardians, the waters of the seas of Venus, the Free Companions yelling their mad, futile battle cry as they drove on – as this ship was driving – into a night that would have no dawn.
In Fury, the season has changed: rot rather than fire is the greatest threat to mankind. The Keeps have turned inward, refusing the challenge of conquering the land; in their decadent hedonism, they have surrendered to a cultural entropy that can lead only to extinction – ”it wasn’t the individual who paid. It was the race that was paying.” And so Sam Reed is just what the race needs.
Motivated only by envy and rage, he turns to crime, at which he succeeds so well that the Immortals themselves seek him out for a murder contract against Robin Hale, a veteran of the Doones whose crusade for colonization of the land is upsetting the social equilibrium. Their mistake: Reed almost instinctively sides with Hale and therefore with Hale’s cause. A ruthless cunning that once served him in the underworld now serves him in the struggle to defeat a savage environment and thus win the survival of mankind.
Only, that is never his motivation; he never thinks of anything but his own survival and vengeance against the Immortals. His crimes range from blackmail to murder; when his false promise of Immortality for colonists is exposed, he sabotages the Keeps, forcing millions to abandon them or die. He has saved mankind, but now the Logician, following an allusion to Moses – who was suffered to see the Promised Land but never to go over thither – delivers his judgment:
Men like you are mighty rare, Sam. When they get to the right position, at the right time, they’re the salvation of the race of man. But it’s got to be the right time – a time of disaster. The drive never stops, in a man like you... If you can’t conquer an enemy, you’ll conquer your friends. Up to now, the enemy was Venus, and you licked it. But what have you got to fight now? ….
If you hadn’t been born, if Blaze hadn’t done what he did, mankind would be in the Keeps yet. And in a few years, or a thousand, say, the race would have died out. I could see that ahead, clear as could be. But now we’ve come landside. We’ll finish colonizing Venus. And then we’ll go out and colonize the whole universe, I expect.
You’re the one who did it, Sam. We owe you a lot. In your day you were a great man. But your day’s over. You got your power by force, and, you’re like most dictators, son, who reach the top that way. All you could think of was repeating the things that made you a success – more fighting, more force. There wasn’t any way but down for you, once you’d reached the top, because of the man you are. You had the same drive that made the first life-form leave water for land, but we can’t use your kind any more for a while, Sam.
And so, Sam must be put to sleep, at the very moment of his triumph, lest he endanger mankind. Yet Kuttner thought he might be needed again, although he never told Catherine what he might have had in mind when he wrote the two-word epilogue: “Sam woke—”
We feel for Sam because Kuttner felt for him when he created the character. We are caught up in the story of Fury because Kuttner and Moore themselves were caught up in it. In telling that story, they put everything of themselves, of their reading of the classics and science fiction alike, of their experience of life and knowledge of history and evolution and much else, into their work. And somehow, everything they put into their novel, the reader can get out of it. That’s what true reading is all about.
In An Experiment in Criticism (1961), C.S. Lewis argued that books should be judged by how they are read, rather than readers being judged by what they read. “Literary” readers, he proposed, simply don’t approach reading in the same manner as the “unliterary.” First, Lewis wrote, the unliterary never read a book more than once, whereas the literary return to great works repeatedly. Secondly, even if they read a lot, the unliterary don’t set much store by reading, whereas the literary feel impoverished if they don’t have a chance to read for even a few days.
Thirdly, the first reading of some literary work is often, to the literary, an experience so momentous that only experiences of love, religion or bereavement can furnish a standard of comparison. Their whole consciousness is changed. They have become what they were not before. But there is no sign of anything like this among the other sort of readers. When they have finished the story or the novel, nothing much, or nothing at all, seems to have happened to them.
Finally, and as a natural result of their different behaviour in reading, what they have read is constantly and prominently present to the mind of the few, but not to that of the many. The former mouth over their favorite lines and stanzas in solitude. Scenes and characters from books provide them with a sort of iconography by which they interpret or sum up their own experience. They talk to one another about books, often and at length. The latter seldom think or talk of their reading.
Victor Nell, in Lost in a Book (1988) makes a similar distinction between what he calls Type A and Type B reading, Type B readers seek “entrancement” in great works whereas Type A readers are after only momentary distraction. Nell cites a number of theories in trying to explain the nature of what he also calls the “ludic reading” experience of Type B readers, and his own studies in which readers evaluated how they responded to various kinds of fiction and non-fiction. He even conducted experiments to monitor the physiological effects of ludic as opposed to non-ludic reading, and out of all this concludes:
The consequences of the interplay of reader needs and book selection criteria is that Type B readers will read fewer books but will experience some deep involvement in all or nearly all of them while Type A’s will read many books and find involvement in only a few of them. We have, however, repeatedly emphasized that although the distinctions between Type A and Type B readers are real, the boundary between the two types is permeable.
Nell cites W. Somerset Maugham’s confessed addiction on reading indiscriminately, flying to books “as the opium-smoker to his pipe.” Just as paradoxically, Nell reveals, responses to his Reading Mood Questionnaire revealed that nearly half the reading matter of his ludic readers consisted of what they themselves believed would be dismissed as “trash” by English teachers. How are we to account for this?
At the outset of Lost in a Book, Nell comments at length on the long-standing prejudice against reading for pleasure that goes with the Puritan ethic. Perhaps the ludic readers who find guilty pleasures in “trash” have simply internalized the judgments of authorities motivated by that Puritan ethic. It’s hard to be certain, for, among other things, Nell’s subjects were white readers and librarians in apartheid South Africa, where the culture was not necessarily representative of Western culture generally.
What may actually be the case is that while Nell’s ludic readers, like Lewis’ literary readers, do indeed find entrancement in great literature that can be found nowhere else, they can also find pleasure in popular fiction for what it is – they can enjoy both Shakespeare and, say, Agatha Christie on their own terms. And they don’t read popular fiction indiscriminately without any sense of taste or judgment. They can tell good mysteries from bad mysteries, good romances from bad romances and… good science fiction from bad science fiction. They can point to works that are classics of their genres, even if they don’t appeal to the kind of critics who set themselves up as gatekeepers to the Heavenly Kingdom of literature. They are the kind of readers we need most.