Wednesday, November 12, 2014

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away from Common Sense

Interstellar may well be the worst “serious” and “major” science fiction movie ever made. It’s certainly the most pretentious (True, there was Battlefield Earth [2000], but that was a flop, and I don’t think anyone but Scientologists ever took it seriously, or thought that it was a major motion picture. Earlier this year, there was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which was way over the top, and did a lot better at the box office, but it doesn’t seem to be have been taken any more seriously.).

Based on mixed reviews, I was ready for Interstellar to be a disappointment. The capsule descriptions suggested it might be a mish-mosh, an uneasy juxtaposition of the disaster and space travel sub-genres. Yet Christopher Nolan, the director, had come off a series of cinematic triumphs as varied as Memento, Insomnia, The Dark Knight, The Prestige and Inception. He was a wunderkind, and even if his latest movie was flawed it was sure to have something good about it, beyond the razzle dazzle of special effects essential to a Hollywood blockbuster (It did well as such its first weekend – although not as well as Disney’s animated Big Hero 6.).

Well, it has some great special effects, all right, but a lot of them don’t make any sense. None of the story makes sense, either. If Interstellar had been a low-budget film by some unknown director, it might have been compared to Plan 9 from Outer Space, the atrocious movie by Ed Wood that became a camp cult phenomenon decades after its 1959 release when Michael and Harry Medved dubbed it “the worst movie ever made.” Only Wood never took himself seriously, whereas Nolan obviously does. Interstellar isn’t the first example of auteur hubris in sci-fi films, but it may be the culmination of that sort of hubris. Science fiction is supposed to be about ideas, but the people who make movies, unlike the best sf writers, don’t really know or care much about science.

What they do know all about, or think they know all about, is the Meaning of Life, of Human Existence. Their movies are full of Deep Thoughts, and they don’t seem to realize these are the sort of things that Jack Handey sent up on Saturday Night Live (“If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.”) and later turned into a series of books (He still has a website.). In Interstellar, Nolan turns clichés into pretended great insights (“Love is the one thing that transcends time and space.”) or indulges in pretentious posturing (“Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here.”).

So here we are in a near-future America where some sort of blight has killed off all the food crops but corn, and the countryside is ravaged by dust storms. Does this have anything to do with, say, global warming? The early scenes of Interstellar don’t give us a clue. For that matter, neither do later ones. But what we see doesn’t make any sense on its own terms. There are endless fields of corn, but nary a sign of any barren expanses that dust would have to come from. People seem to be healthy eating nothing but corn – the only hazards seem to be lung conditions from all that dust. Civilization has supposedly broken down, and high tech is suspect (the official government line in schools is that the Apollo moon landings were faked: “I believe it was a brilliant piece of propaganda, that the Soviets bankrupted themselves pouring resources into rockets and other useless machines,” says a teacher.), but everybody still drives cars and trucks, even if tires are hard to come by – fossil fuels must be coming from somewhere.

Cooper, a widowed former NASA pilot, lives with his son Tom and daughter Murphy on a farm somewhere in the Midwest. Murph is in trouble at school because she has an old book about how there really were moon landings. She also thinks the house is haunted, which turns out to be the key plot point. In another scene, Cooper chases by car (with a flat tire) after a stray Indian (intelligence?) drone – which he can take control of by laptop and bring down next to a pristine lake (It hasn’t dried up, like all those lakes and reservoirs recently in California; what about that drought?) and scavenges some solar cells from it (Guess those are as hard to come by locally as tires.). This is all before he discovers the “ghost” Murphy believes in is a secret message, encoded in gravitational waves (!), and he manages to decode it as directions to the secret headquarters of NORAD, which seems to be just a short drive away.

Nobody there expects him, but he discovers that he’s found the remnants of NASA and he is welcomed by his old professor. Dr. Brand is now in charge of a project to find a new home for humanity on the other side of a wormhole that has conveniently appeared near Saturn – and leads, it seems, to another galaxy (as if there couldn’t be any potential planets in our own!). Manned missions have already been sent through, and messaged back about three target planets, but nobody has heard anything further from the astronauts involved.

After a minimum of soul-searching (and, seemingly, without the need for any further training), Cooper agrees to lead a more ambitious follow-up mission as pilot of the Endurance, an experimental spacecraft that looks more like the space station from 2001, and – leaving his family behind, much to the distress of Murph – sets off with Brand’s daughter Amelia and others (a physicist, a geographer and a robot). A huge two-stage booster launchers a Ranger, which carries them to the Endurance. Just how NASA managed to build and launch the Endurance itself is never clear. Not only that, but it turns out that the Ranger (and a smaller shuttle) can land on and take off from planets on its own, so why couldn’t it do so from Earth?

Theoretical physicist Kip Thorne is credited with having developed the rationale for the wormhole, a gigantic black hole, and the exposition of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. But reality seems to have been lost in translation to the screen. A classic situation in science fiction, for example, is that people traveling in a starship at nearly the speed of light will experience time dilation: in what seems to them to be just a short time, many years can have passed back on Earth. Robert A. Heinlein’s Time for the Stars (1956) is one of many sf classics to deal with this paradox. Only, in Interstellar, that paradox doesn’t apply, because the explorers travel through a wormhole rather than normal space, where the speed of light is an absolute – the crew of the Endurance can even exchange messages with Earth. 

But Nolan wanted to get in a time dilation effect by other means, and (as reported by Dennis Overbye in The New York Times) prevailed on Thorne to come up with a planet to close to a super-massive black hole that time would be speeded up by a factor of 60,000 – an hour there is the equivalent of seven years back on Earth;  23 years go by during a brief visit, and even on the Endurance (Does that compute?) during their brief visit to Miller, first of the potential colony sites. The bottom line is that the black hole called Gargantua was written into the story purely for the sake of a plot contrivance. One would think that any worlds orbiting it might be torn apart by tidal forces or, in any case, be too deadly to even visit, let alone colonize. In any case, there are a lot of other really ludicrous elements, including references to a Plan B: if it isn’t possible to send shiploads of colonists to a new world, send fertilized eggs instead and have them raised… somehow.  One Meghan O’ Keefe takes on that absurdity, and there is also a website devoted to other gaping plot holes:

Whatever. Cooper and Amelia and the others get where they’re going, but the worlds they encounter are as implausible as anything else in the movie, and so are the plot contrivances.

Miller is a planet covered entirely by water, but where the shuttle lands, it’s very shallow water – barely ankle deep. But suddenly our explorers are menaced by a huge tsunami; one of them is killed, and Amelia (who is trying to retrieve wreckage from the first ship to land there) has to be rescued by the robot. Mann, the second planet they visit, is no prize, either: it’s all frozen. For some reason, there are huge icebergs hovering in the air, rather like the floating mountains in James Cameron’s Avatar. Also, the ice fields the explorers tread aren’t really the “surface,” whatever that means to the original explorer, Dr. Mann, who has managed to survive by zipping himself into a suspended animation pod, like those used on the Endurance for the journey to the wormhole. And he’s a real piece of work; he had lied about the habitability of his world in a message to Earth; now he tries to kill Cooper and steals the shuttle to make his escape.

Amelia comes to our hero’s rescue in the Ranger, but the Endurance is so short of fuel (not to mentioned seriously damaged by Mann’s attempt to dock with it) that they decide to use Gargantua in a slingshot maneuver to free the ship for a further journey. They’ve known about Gargantua all along, of course, and known that the worlds Miller and Mann were close to it – not exactly a Goldilocks zone. Amelia, indeed, had favored Edmunds, the third planet, but only because she was in love with Edmunds and love is the best way to find the truth. Cooper had balked at that. Now, in an act of seeming contrition, he decides to reduce the mass of the Endurance, and thus give her a better chance of survival, by taking the shuttle, heading it into the black hole. Only he ejects at the event horizon.

Suddenly he finds himself in five-dimensional space, through which he is linked to the past – and through which he becomes the “ghost” who sent the gravitational wave message decades ago in Earth time (There’s also something about using wristwatches to communicate across dimensions… or whatever.). It’s a circle-in-time plot: Cooper is the first cause of everything that’s happened, and there were never (as NASA had thought) any aliens tipping us off about the wormhole. It is the future humanity in the colony on Edmunds that will reach back in time to create the wormhole, and will thus make it possible for humanity to survive. Deep stuff, all about the power of love. Also about the power of raging against “the dying of the light” – Brand likes to quote Dylan Thomas.

In a final bit of prestidigitation, Cooper is somehow found by NASA and brought to a space colony orbiting Saturn, modeled on the country around his old home – which has been transplanted there. He is briefly reunited with Murph, now an old woman on her deathbed – that’s supposed to be touching. But the conclusion of the movie doesn’t touch on how Earth managed to build that space colony, which seems to be about the same size as Babylon 5 in the TV series, and can’t have that great a population. Is it the only one of its kind? Does anyone still survive on Earth, and have a chance to emigrate? How happily can we take this ending, knowing so little?

The website devoted to plot holes in Interstellar includes a link to Tyson’s tweets, which refer to a book by Thorne. I remember that there was a book about the science of The X-Files, but that left out anything from the TV series that wasn’t scientific. I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that Tyson may be relieved/impressed that concepts like relativity are “real” in the movie, regardless of how the details may be represented or misrepresented.

Below, I’m including links to accounts of several other sci-fi movies that seem to bear on the issue of cinematic pretentiousness.

Ridley Scott, who directed the classic Blade Runner (1982) has since gotten into religion – his next movie is a Biblical epic, Exodus: Gods & Kings. Prometheus (2012), a follow up to his Alien (1981), may have been a step in that direction; he was so obsessed with the idea of humanity being created by and then threatened with destruction by the alien gods there called Engineers that he didn’t seem to notice the idiot plot elements in his screenplay.

Avatar (2009), the much-praised New Age sci-fi epic directed by James Cameron, likewise suffered from an idiot plot (As Darrell Schweitzer pointed out in The New York Review of Science Fiction, those Big Bad Earthmen could have simply nuked the natives if all they wanted was the unobtanium.). The natives themselves were too good to be true – and then there were the silly visual details like the floating mountains (with waterfalls, even!), Cameron and Scott are bosom Hollywood buddies, who influence each other a lot – there are sure to be sequels to Avatar and there might be one to Prometheus.

Brian de Palma, who isn’t in the same league as Scott or Cameron (a friend of mine once quipped that he was “the world’s oldest film student” for having borrowed shamelessly from Alfred Hitchcock and other directors) was just as pretentious in his Mission to Mars (2000), which turns on the Big Idea that we are actually descended from ancient Martians. Compared to Interstellar, it is otherwise very pedestrian; it seems to take forever to get past the scenes of everyday life on Earth and into the mission.

M. Night Shyamalan is a once-promising director whose career seems to have gone steadily downhill since he wowed critics and audiences with The Sixth Sense (1999) and Unbreakable (2000). I don’t think I have to add anything to what Wikipedia has to say about his alien menace movie Signs (2002), with the entry’s references to the silly business of the baby monitor and the baseball bat.

But Interstellar still takes the cake.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Malice and Mindlessness in Missouri


Today is Sept. 10. A lot has happened since I posted a rant August 16 about the furor over the shooting of a black teen by a white cop in Ferguson, Missouri. But one thing hasn’t changed in more than three weeks since then: the dishonesty and cynicism of partisans on both sides who seek to aggravate and exploit the situation.

One example is a widely-circulated photo purporting to show serious injuries inflicted on Police Officer Darren Wilson by Michael Brown before Wilson shot him. It was soon exposed as disinformation; the man in the photo was not Wilson but a race car driver, already deceased:

It hasn’t been determined, as far as I can tell, just who was responsible for circulating this disinformation, but I think it was probably done in support of a Fox News story posted Aug. 20 by Hollie McKay. I don’t know whether McKay was duped by somebody in the police department trying to spin the story, or just by some troll trying to pour fuel on the fire. But as of Sept. 10, she hadn’t taken down her original story, only the comments. Does that mean she still stands by it?

Another example of deliberate disinformation was a racist rant, supposedly by the wife of Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. Jackson himself has a lot to answer for; it was his release of a video showing Brown’s strong-arm theft of cigars from a convenience store, with its implied message that Brown deserved to be killed, that touched off major riots by black people in town – rather than the shooting itself. But the alleged rant was actually by some woman in St. Petersburg, Florida, with no connection to Jackson or Ferguson.

Not only that, but David Emery at About News observed: “ writer Aaron Sharockman traced the original tweet attributing the quote to the police chief's wife to a Twitter account associated with the hacktivist group Anonymous.” That’s right, a group that purports to fight for truth and justice was smearing Jackson’s wife, obviously in hopes that people would harass her – and maybe stage further riots.

Incidentally, I checked today, and Anonymous still hadn’t retracted an earlier assertion that the cop who shot Brown was Bryan Willman rather than Darren Wilson. One black activist who accepted that story posted that there was a communications specialist by that name with the St. Ann police department, and I see he hasn’t taken down his post – for all I know, Willman is still being harassed. A conservative campaign to defend Willman in the Brown case still has a Facebook page, but the conservative focus now is, naturally, to defend Wilson, but after collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars, that effort turned out to face legal and other embarrassments:

You all know that the White House made a show of force at Brown’s funeral, and that Attorney General Eric Holder has launched an investigation of the Ferguson police – which may be expanded to other police departments in St. Louis County. Like, there aren’t any other police departments in the whole country that have problems with race? New York, for example? But it’s Ferguson that has made the national headlines, and with the Democrats facing trouble in mid-term elections, the party wants to exploit that to get out the black vote – as the liberal New York Times reported quite bluntly:

You can be sure the Republicans, Fox News and right wing bloggers will be working just as hard get out the conservative white vote – and even limit the black vote. But the lines have been drawn in Ferguson itself: tempers are so high that, regardless of the facts of the case, anything short of a murder conviction and a long prison term for Darren Wilson will be seen as a miscarriage of justice by blacks – and anything short of his total exoneration likewise seen as a miscarriage of justice by whites. As Ferguson goes, so goes the nation, and few seem to dare challenge those who spread distrust and division for political gain:

Below is my original rant, posted August 16:

You all know what happened Friday [Aug. 15]. Ferguson, Missouri Police Chief Thomas Jackson made a big thing about releasing a video of Michael Brown, the young black man later killed by an officer he identified as Darren Wilson, pulling a strong-arm robbery at a convenience store. Within hours, angry young blacks were looting and vandalizing that very store:

Things had been peaceful since Missouri Governor Jay Nixon had the Highway Patrol take over security in the town, and appointed a black officer, Capt. Ron Johnson, to supervise the operation. When Chief Jackson released the video, he implied that Wilson had been on the lookout for Brown and his friend Darian Johnson, rather than picking them out at random. Jackson later admitted that Wilson hadn’t been aware that Brown was a robbery suspect, but by then the damage had been done: people believed that he had released the video only to give the impression that Brown was a hardened criminal who deserved to be killed. It turns out that the Justice Department had feared just that, warning Jackson that it would “roil the community further:”

Jackson claimed that he released the video only in response to pressure by the media, but that can’t be credited. Few if any of the press people even knew about the robbery, let alone its connection with Brown. I strongly suspect that the real reason was pure spite – that Jackson was pissed off about the Highway Patrol taking over “his” town. But the spitefulness wasn’t limited to Jackson and the white establishment. I Googled a bit, and came across a website that shows an instance of the radical black reaction: Look for the comment by Matt S. Bashaw:

Bashaw: “Wow cool a black cop marching with the crowd. He's just like guy from BP that comes on tv and kisses everybody's ass whenever they dump a million or gallons of oil somewhere. Fucking Uncle Tom and they're buying it.”

Chances are there is more vitriol like that spread by the social media, or just word-of-mouth. One thing I’ve noticed is that some of the rioters were wearing black ski masks – just like the kind of cops who smash their way into homes and apartments (sometimes the wrong ones) looking for drugs… or even the “soldiers” of Hamas and other radical Islamist groups.

One thing about the world of the Internet is that people take anything that appears on it for gospel – at least, if it ties in with a gospel they already believe. When Anonymous, which revels in exploiting any news of violence that is perpetrated or excused by the authorities only in hopes of instigating further violence, falsely identified Bryan P. Willman as the shooter, people on both sides took the bait. Below is a post by a black man who figured he’d located that Willman, a communications supervisor for the police department in St. Ann, a 13 to 15-minute drive from Ferguson. Right, this Willman would suddenly hop in his car and drive to another town just to shoot somebody there? DDot Omen’s post was still there late Saturday afternoon, long after the Anonymous story had been discredited. 

But guess what. A conservative named Robert Rich also took Anonymous’ word for it that Willman was the man. Like Omen, he posted the picture supplied by Anonymous – only to promote a Facebook page intended to rally fellow conservatives to Willman’s defense. Rich had the wrong man, but he was absolutely certain what had gone down. And like Omen, he hadn’t made any update or correction as of Saturday afternoon:

As of 4:12 p.m. Saturday afternoon, the Facebook site had attracted 378 likes. You’d think there wouldn’t be even that many stupid people. But our times have encouraged a trend that seems to unite too many self-professed conservatives and liberals, and advocates of any number of causes: a deadly combination of malice and mindlessness. 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Reading William Patterson on Robert A. Heinlein

The Story on the Heinlein Story

I’ve just finished reading Volume 2 of William H. Patterson Jr.’s Robert A, Heinlein: In Dialogue with his Century. There are a lot of things to say about it, and others have already said some of them. In the Washington Post (June 25, 2014), for example, Michael Dirda touches the familiar bases of the juvenile novels, Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, and the strange turns in Heinlein’s thinking – he could celebrate military service and the virtue of sacrifice and hippie-style free love, “be a confirmed nudist and member of several Sunshine Clubs as well as a grass-roots Barry Goldwater Republican.” Dirda sums the book up thusly:

Like his fascinating but long-winded first volume, the second half of Patterson’s biography is difficult to judge fairly. Packed with facts both trivial and significant, relying heavily on the possibly skewed memories of the author’s widow, and utterly reverent throughout, volume two emphasizes Heinlein the husband, traveler, independent businessman and political activist. Above all, the book celebrates the intense civilization of two that Heinlein and his wife created. There is almost nothing in the way of literary comment or criticism.

Dirda’s on target for the most part, but he’s off the mark when it comes to the matter of literary comment and criticism. Patterson goes practically hog wild in trying to apply currently fashionable ideas of criticism, or at least the jargon associated with them, in his defense of Heinlein’s later works that garnered him a mainstream best-seller audience but which genre sf fans regarded (in Dirda’s words) as “bloated, preachy, cutesy and dull.” So I’ll start with that.

1. Postmodern Posturing by Patterson

I’d written the passage below, part of my update of Imagination and Evolution, long before I read Patterson’s biography:

Beyond the issues of Theory with a capital T as opposed to the actual experience of literature, there are a number of common problems with the study of fiction in general and science fiction in particular. One is the issue of canonicity, and that has been argued almost to death. It is tied in with what might be called a Calvinist approach to fiction. Unconditional election, as preached by John Calvin in the 16th Century, was the notion that some people are destined for salvation, others for damnation – and that there is nothing they can do to alter their fate. Shakespeare is the most obvious literary counterpart, even if some critics may grudgingly admit to his “difficult” plays.
The most prominent example of Calvinist canonization in genre science fiction is Philip K. Dick, whose every word now seems to be treated as sacred writ. His religious visions as well as his novels are taken seriously, and he has been an influence on postmodernist thinkers like Jean Baudrillard. A number of his works have been filmed – reverently if not too faithfully – and more are on the way. He is the subject of not only biographies but TV documentaries. None of the other contenders for canonization, like Ursula K. Le Guin, Stanislaw Lem or Gene Wolfe come even close to his acclaim.
One challenge to Calvinist canonicity is what might be called the Whig theory of literature. Just as the Whig theory of history assumed inevitable progression to the ultimate fruition of liberal democracy, critics often assume a similar progression in literature to the culmination of… once it was the 19th Century novel as exemplified by Leo Tolstoy, then the social novel of Henry James, later the experimental novel exemplified by James Joyce, or the modernist novel of Virginia Woolf, and so on. Nowadays the Whig theory favors fabulists and postmodernists like Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon; for any contemporary writer to be compared to them is high praise, and perhaps even a sales boost.
Both the Calvinist approach and the Whig theory fly in the face of common sense. Any well-read science fiction fan knows, for example, that Heinlein, who wrote some of the best sf ever, also wrote some of the worst. That same fan also knows that Neal Stephenson hasn’t rendered Heinlein obsolete, any more than Pynchon rendered Joyce or Woolf obsolete, or Joyce and Woolf replaced Tolstoy and James, or Tolstoy and James turned Jane Austen or Charles Dickens into mere relics. The evolution of literature is a cumulative process.

I’d naturally expected the biography to be sympathetic, and that it is — so much so that a lot of it borders on sycophancy. What I hadn’t expected was that Patterson, who himself died shortly before it came out, would embrace both the Calvinist and Whig theories in his discussion of Heinlein’s fiction. Not only did Heinlein rarely if ever write a bad story or a bad book, but in his later years he was an “experimental” writer and postmodernist par excellence. Here is Patterson on The Number of the Beast (p. 406):

 …just as experimental, just as different, as anything he had ever done—only more so. Metafictive in a postmodern way, the distinction between reality and the worlds of fiction was not just blurred, it was obliterated.

In previous instances, he praises I Will Fear No Evil for “crafting a New Wave kind of story that worked as a story” (p. 304), and goes on to proclaim it “his first postmodern novel, that plays with several metafictive levels of storytelling” (p. 311) because the events may be real or just a hallucination. He is just as fulsome about Time Enough for Love: “more of a virtuoso turn than anything Heinlein had ever done before—some of the finest pure writing he had ever done” (p. 334), and singles out for praise an opening riff on Vincent McHugh’s Caleb Catlum’s America, blank verse in the style of James Branch Cabell and the “tremendously affective” story of adorable Dora.
I can still remember my disappointment when Time Enough for Love came out, because it was supposed to be the finale of the future history series. Heinlein’s original chart for it had indicated a story called Da Capo, which would have been about “civil disorder, followed by the end of human adolescence and beginning of first mature culture.” Nothing of that materialized in the novel, and even the loose ends and challenges to humanity raised in Orphans in the Sky and Methuselah’s Children (the fate of those who left the generation ship, the Jokaira gods) were casually “resolved” off-stage. No, the “story” was all about the “wisdom” of Lazarus Long, and his experience with all the ways of love — including traveling back in time to fuck his mother.
A Freudian would have had a field day with that back in the fifties, but by the seventies it wasn’t even shocking — only silly. The whole novel suffers from what a friend and fellow Heinlein fan called “acute sentimentality and terminal logorrhea.” I quipped in a review of my own that “anyone hunting for ways to improve the novel should have declared open season on ‘dear.’” That endearment recurs in Friday, a better novel which Jo Walton, in a 2009 retrospective, called “the worst book I love” (What Makes This Book So Great, pp. 209-11) — mainly because she could admire the title character (an artificial person passing as human) and the complex background (a balkanized world where multinational corporations fight wars). Even so, Walton balked — as many readers did — at the idea of the tough action heroine getting raped and later forgiving and even marrying her attacker. But she had an overall problem with the storytelling… or lack of same:

Every sentence and every paragraph and page and chapter lead on to the next, but it’s just one thing after another, there’s no real connection going on. It has no plot, it’s a set of incidents that look as if they’re going somewhere and don’t ever resolve, just stop. It doesn’t work as an emotional plot about Friday growing up, though it’s closer to working as that than as anything else. (Even as that—well, I really have problems with the way she forgives the rapist, if that’s supposed to be maturity.)  It really doesn’t work on any of the other levels you can look at it on.

Patterson (p. 426) faults Marxist critic H. Bruce Franklin for having missed the riffs on Robinson Crusoe (Friday’s name, and her relationship with Kettle Belly Baldwin) and Candide (after her travels in the balkanized world, she is cultivating her garden at the end.). He might make the same complaint about Walton. But he misses the real point: doing riffs on old classics doesn’t necessarily make for a new classic. And Patterson is disingenuous in arguing that the only reason genre sf fans didn’t admire Heinlein’s later works is that they had “taken him outside genre comfort zones” (p. 426) — as if that had never been done by Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Alice (“James Tiptree”) Sheldon, Thomas M. Disch, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison, John Varley, David Gerrold and Samuel R. Delany… not to mention the British New Wavers like J.G. Ballard.
Walton was harder on Heinlein’s later books for their solipsism, and for effectively trashing some of his classics. There had been a foreshadowing of this in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, in which one of the characters turns out to be Hazel Stone, “later” to appear in The Rolling Stones. Silly, but no great harm. Kettle Belly Baldwin had appeared earlier in “Gulf.” More serious, but still nothing to complain about. In The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, however, Heinlein brings back Lazarus Long (who had previously co-starred with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter in The Number of the Beast), Jubal Harshaw, Hazel Stone (Again, under a cover name, serving in something called the Time Corps — which is trying to rescue Mike the computer), and walk-ons from Glory Road and Starship Troopers. But Walton was especially put off by his very last novel:

To Sail Beyond the Sunset spoils the short story “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” which is one of my favourite of Heinlein’s short stories. If you want me to hate something, give me a sequel to something I love that invalidates the original work. I do not believe that George [Strong, D.D. Harriman’s business partner] from “The Man Who Sold the Moon” was involved with Maureen [mother of Lazarus Long], the central character from To Sail Beyond the Sunset. If he had been, the story would have been different. No. No, no, no. This is a retcon that absolutely repels me.

Literary solipsism is a stupid idea, and Heinlein isn’t the only offender: the worst thing Isaac Asimov ever did was to combine the robot and Foundation series, which end up with Hari Seldon being kibitzed by R. Daneel Olivaw and even marrying a robot. It’s even more annoying than the seemingly endless sequels and sidequels and prequels to Dune by Frank Herbert and others, ditto those to Ringworld by Larry Niven and Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (Both have taken on collaborators). I don’t think any of these have been treated as masterpieces. And I can’t imagine that the likes of Jonathan Lethem (who embraced Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow as a model for the genre) would be persuaded by Patterson’s use of academic jargon that the late Heinlein was a postmodernist experimental writer.

2. Heinlein: Always Right… Or Only a Blight?

Patterson’s hagiography goes beyond the fiction: Heinlein has to be right about everything. This becomes absurd at times, as in the straight-faced reporting of his obsession beginning in 1958 that America was being sold out to the Communists, and that the Soviet Union was sure to take over the country in a few years — or else nuke us unless we all built fallout-shelters. Not only that, but Patterson invites us to share Heinlein’s sense of personal betrayal by other sf writers who came out against those ideas or, later, the Strategic Defense Initiative — Arthur C. Clarke was among them. (It’s ironic that one well-known sf writer of the Heinlein school with the same mind-set but the opposite ideology has been devoting a lot of his time and energy lately to warning that the Tea Party is on the verge of imposing a religious-capitalist dictatorship akin to that of Nehemiah Scudder in the future history.)
Patterson casually mentions that Heinlein believed that Roosevelt had deliberately allowed Japan to attack Pearl Harbor in order to get America into World War II (p. 114-15), and flirted briefly with the John Birch Society because he believed some of its ideas (p. 174) — only, decades later, regarding I Will Fear No Evil, he quipped: “With any luck it will be condemned both by the [Students for a Democratic Society] and the John Birch Society.” (p. 311). But Patterson also points out that Heinlein actually opposed the war in Vietnam as a “proxy war ... fought with conscripts.”(p. 291). He had also opposed a foreign policy of “arming one set of dictators against another” (p. 128) — Yugoslavia’s Marshall Tito was the case in point at the time, but Patterson suggests he later agreed with Jerry Pournelle about the folly of “propping up anti-Communist dictatorships in the Third World.” (p. 422). While Heinlein described himself as a libertarian, he found fault with the types who had come to his works via Ayn Rand as too “doctrinaire” to be worthy of any respect (p. 390).
Of course, it’s widely believed today on the Left that Heinlein was a fanatic racist/fascist, largely on the evidence of Farnham’s Freehold, which combined his fallout shelter mania with a botched attempt to do a Swiftian reversal on racism — centuries after a nuclear holocaust, blacks rule over whites and even practice cannibalism. It was supposed to be ironic, but it was so simple-minded it was a godsend to the kind of critics who could congratulate themselves on seeing he’d shown his true colors. But Patterson informs us that Heinlein had admired Harry Truman for integrating the U.S. military and standing up to the Southern racists in the 1948 Democratic convention and general election. He also details his fight with Alice Dalgleish at Scribner’s over inclusion of non-whites in his juvenile novels — in the case of Tunnel in the Sky, he had to work around her to drop hints that the hero was black. We had already known that the protagonist of Starship Troopers was a Filipino, and that in Tramp Royale, written in the fifties, he had denounced South African apartheid. Can we seriously believe that a dyed-in-the-wool racist would have gone to that much trouble to concoct a cover story?
And then there’s the story behind the story of what was to become Heinlein’s most famous — and in some quarters infamous — novel: Stranger in Strange Land. Patterson recounts that it went through a number of false starts and seeming dead-ends before it finally gelled more than ten years after it was first conceived as a variation on Rudyard Kipling’s story of Mowgli, only with a boy raised by Martians instead of wolves. It soon became a cult classic, introducing “grok” to the language and being embraced by hippies who fancied themselves as water brothers — and even inspiring a religion based on The Church of All Worlds of its hero Valentine Michael Smith… But after the grisly Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, there were claims that it was the inspiration of Charles Manson. 
As Patterson notes, Vincent Bugliosi, who prosecuted Manson, couldn’t find any such connection, and Heinlein isn’t even mentioned in Bugliosi’s account of the case, Helter Skelter — which took its title from one of the Beatles songs that obsessed Manson, who read into a prophecy of race war. Bugliosi went into great detail about how Manson interpreted or misinterpreted the lyrics of that and other Beatles songs, and also theorized that Manson might have borrowed some ideas from the Process Church, a splinter group of L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology cult that had nothing to do with Stranger. But rocker/poet/social activist Ed Sanders wrote a book called The Family (1971), asserting Manson was indeed a disciple of Heinlein, even carrying a copy of Stranger in his backpack; and when the uncut version of Stranger finally came out after Heinlein’s death, sf contrarian Rudy Rucker took Sanders’ “cool” account for gospel in a piece for the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 23, 1990). That prompted a response by libertarian sf writer J. Neil Schulman (Jan. 20, 1991), who had written Manson in 1981 and been told by a fellow prisoner billing himself as “sort of Charles’ personal secretary” that Manson had denied ever having read the novel. As keeper of the Heinlein flame, one would expect Patterson to avoid any hint of a connection.
Only, he shares the startling revelation that Heinlein, in the late summer of 1969, got a crazed letter from a young woman in Inyo County, “the margins filled with decorative drawn fancies,” wanting his help because she and her friends were being chased by police helicopters— her name was “Annette or Nanette or something,” Virginia Heinlein recalled nearly 20 years later. Heinlein telephoned the sheriff’s office, which confirmed police were chasing down a group of young people, but wouldn’t elaborate. (pp. 312-13). As Patterson concludes, the woman was probably Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme. Her Wikipedia entry shows drawings from a wall in one of her apartments, and recounts that she later worked on a book about the Manson family that included “intricate drawings.” At the time Fromme wrote to Heinlein, Charles Manson had been arrested but not yet connected with the Tate-LaBianca murders. The thing is, the only possible reason she could have had for writing was that she knew of him as the author of Stranger. Another member of the Family, Mary Brunner, is reported to have named her son by Manson “Valentine Michael,” although that isn’t certain. She eventually split with Manson and turned state’s evidence, getting off with a seven-year jail term — after serving which she changed her name and she and her son dropped out of sight.
If Fromme and Brunner were familiar with Stranger, had they learned of it from Manson himself? It’s possible that Brunner, as a college graduate, environmental activist and librarian at Cal-Berkeley, had already read it before she even met him. Published too late for Patterson to have read, let alone comment on, is Jeff Guinn’s Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson (2013), which goes far beyond Helter Skelter in detailing the lives of Manson and his Family. In the London Review of Books (Nov. 7, 2013), Christian Lorentzen wrote that Manson had actually “read” Stranger while serving time at McNeil Prison for forging a check in 1961. But Guinn himself (p. 69, note p. 416)) didn’t believe that Manson had actually read Stranger or any other books (He was so close to illiterate that he was said to have thrown out his prison mail because he couldn’t read it!); rather, he must have listened to other inmates talk about “one of the most popular novels among the literate cons… Its themes of alienation, government deceit and redemption for the despised resonated with the incarcerated.” In a previous stint at another prison, Manson had taken a course on Dale Carnegie, and at McNeil he also heard about Scientology. But after summarizing Stranger, and the elements Manson apparently adopted from it, Guinn makes no further mention of Heinlein, moving on to Manson’s “most influential teachers of all” — the Beatles, of course.

3. The Heart of the Matter, and Matters of the Heart

Heinlein had groused about his problems with Scribner’s editor Alice Dalgliesh in Grumbles from the Grave, but Patterson goes into more detail. This may be the best part of the biography, for what were then considered mere boys’ books but are now called young adult novels were truly revolutionary in their treatment of family and society — from the teenage girl who has divorced her parents in The Star Beast to the young man in Red Planet who has to defy his parents when he learns the adults ruling a human colony on Mars are up to no good. In Farmer in the Sky, the hero has a troubled relationship with his remarried father, his stepsister later dies, and he ends up going against his father’s wishes — no matter that they are otherwise reconciled. In Starman Jones, a young man has to escape a wicked stepfather and his mentor is a criminal — yet the story is about coming of age and accepting responsibility in the best sense. Reading how hard Heinlein had to fight for the integrity of these novels shows him at his best.
Patterson also recounts Heinlein’s troubled relationships with other publishers, especially Shasta — which published the books of the Future History series but in shoddy editions, paying him very little and even selling subsidiary rights it didn’t own. There are also details that we haven’t read before of Heinlein’s involvement in the movie Destination Moon, which might have turned into a musical comedy or worse but for his persistence. Of less interest are accounts of Heinlein’s work with producers of projected sf TV series that never materialized (One did lead to another movie, Project Moonbase, about which Patterson seems to realize, the less said the better). We also learn that he didn’t think much of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, and early TV series loosely inspired his Space Cadet — although it was head and shoulders above other shows like Captain Video and Space Patrol. For some reason, Patterson doesn’t mention that “The Green Hills of Earth” “Requiem,” “The Roads Must Roll” and “Universe” were adapted for radio by Dimension X, and a loose TV version of ”The Green Hills of Earth” appeared on Out There. Patterson does mention minor non-sf works like a couple of stories about a teenage girl written for girls’ magazines. One annoying thing is that sometimes we don’t get any context the first time some minor work is mentioned, and that it may be confusingly cited by different working titles in different passages.
Another point Patterson makes is that Heinlein was quite catholic in his sf tastes. In 1953, he listed his favorite recent sf novels as Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe, Isaac Asimov’s Pebble in the Sky, L. Sprague de Camp’s Rogue Queen and George Orwell’s 1984. (p. 93). His mainstream tastes included Voltaire, Cabell and later John (Giles Goat Boy) Barth. He was generous towards fellow sf writers in need, as with loans to Philip K. Dick and free story ideas for Theodore Sturgeon. Nor did he see other writers only through a political lens: Asimov was poles apart from Heinlein in that regard, and I can remember a phone conversation in which he tried (in what he must have considered an “understanding” way) to account for that by Asimov being a “Rooshin Patriott.” Yet years later (1982), when he was writing Job: A Comedy of Justice, he still admired Asimov for his wit and imagination, and even wrote him a letter crediting him having supplied the inspiration (Way back in 1939!) for the novel by opining that Satan hadn’t gotten a fair shake in fiction. (p. 428), When Joe Haldeman came out with The Forever War, an obvious critique of Starship Troopers, Heinlein didn’t take offense but told Haldeman that his novel “may be the best future war story I’ve ever read!” (p. 368). Would any of today’s sf writers of the hard Right or hard Left offer such praise in the same or similar circumstances?
But the heart of Patterson’s narrative the story of Heinlein and Virginia Gerstenfeld, who from her letters and interviews that the biography heavily relies on must have been one of the most loving couples of all time. In theory, at least, theirs was an open marriage — Heinlein had believed in that sort of thing early on — but there isn’t any indication that either of them sought or took outside opportunities during their forty years together. Only, when he first became involved with Ginny — according to an Appendix based on correspondence at the time by Grace Dugan Sang, a friend whose name surfaced after the first volume of the biography was published — he told his then-wife Leslyn, who still lived with him, that it was “nothing more the other affairs which she had condoned” (p. 480); in any case it was over and he was still “terribly in love” with Leslyn even though she was an alcoholic who was making his life miserable. Leslyn moved in for a time with Sang (now Mrs. Howard Wurtz) and complained about how Heinlein “had carried on with Ginny and yet denied her both men and alcohol.” (p. 485) For many years to come, Leslyn deluged friends and acquaintances of Heinlein with poison-pen letters, trying to get even.
Once they were married, Bob and Ginny shared everything. Well, not quite. One revelation in the Patterson biography may relate to his fiction. Heinlein was always big on Motherhood, beginning with his juveniles. In Red Planet, the terms for coming of age are clearly defined: “[A]ny man old enough to fight is a man and must be treated as such—and any girl old enough to cook and tend babies is adult, too.” In Tunnel in the Sky, women take part with men in survival training, but they are evidently expected, like the sister of the protagonist, to throw over any career rewards of such training for the duties of childbearing. Then there’s adorable Dora in Time Enough for Love, and motherhood signals redemption for the heroine in Friday. Heinlein believed in survival of the fittest, but in strict Darwinian terms that means survival and reproduction — Heinlein never fathered any children, and John W. Campbell once berated him for shirking his “social responsibility” in that regard (p. 118). But Ginny knew at the time that he couldn’t have children: a test of his sperm had revealed that there were “no wrigglers living in it at all.” Fearing that he “would have been devastated,” she never told him, hoping he would believe it was just a matter of “mutual infertility.” (p. 119) But it’s hard to believe that he didn’t suspect the truth.
Patterson goes into great detail about other matters, including Heinlein’s innovative designs for their homes in Colorado Springs and, later, Santa Cruz, CA, their financial hardships before he hit the big time with Stranger, and their travels around the world — of which there were more after those recounted in Tramp Royale — appearances at sf conventions, and annoyances like a rather pretentious book about him by Alexei Panshin. And then there are their medical problems, especially his but also hers — the reason they had to move to California was the belated discovery that she suffered from anoxia on account of the thin air in Colorado. But while Heinlein’s own health crises are covered in clinical detail, Patterson doesn’t address the possibility that peritonitis and then a serious blockage of blood flow to his brain had something to do with the decline in the quality of his writing in I Will Fear No Evil and other works, or that his 1978 carotid bypass surgery helped him recover for a time with Friday and Job. And while reporting that he and Ginny had psychic experiences, Patterson downplays Heinlein’s acceptance — for a time, at least — of the notorious Bridey Murphy reincarnation story (Heinlein had believed, or wanted to believe, in reincarnation going back to Beyond This Horizon.).
So it goes. Patterson has had his say, and we’ll have to make of it what we will. But what are we to make of Heinlein? Should we go by what Patterson, or any other biographer or critic says about him? No. Should we even go by what Heinlein said about himself? Again, no. What we should go by is what Heinlein wrote in his stories, what made them appeal to us. Jo Walton gives an example in her blog  (Feb. 10, 2010): the opening of The Door into Summer:

One winter shortly before the Six Weeks War, my tomcat, Petronius the Arbiter, and I lived in an old farmhouse in Connecticut. I doubt if it is there any longer, as it was near the edge of the blast area of the Manhattan near-miss, and those old frame buildings burn like tissue paper. Even if it is still standing it wouldn’t be a desirable rental because of the fall-out, but we liked it then, Pete and I. The lack of plumbing made the rent low and what had been the dining-room had a good north light for my drafting board. The drawback was that the place had eleven doors to the outside.

That’s from the fifties. But Heinlein could still write well in the sixties. One passage I particularly remember is from The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, where Manny muses about what to make of Mycroft, the computer that has woken up on his watch, and ends with a witty interjection:

Am not going to argue whether a machine can “really” be alive, “really” be self-aware. Is a virus self-aware? Nyet. How about oyster? I doubt it. A cat? Almost certainly. A human? Don't know about you, tovarishch, but I am. Somewhere along evolutionary chain from macromolecule to human brain self-awareness crept in. Psychologists assert it happens automatically whenever a brain acquires certain very high number of associational paths. Can't see it matters whether paths are protein or platinum.

("Soul?" Does a dog have a soul? How about cockroach?)



Friday, June 27, 2014

I Get By with a Little Help from My Friends


Dwight Decker is what some call an “independent scholar.” In science fiction fan circles, he might be called a “sercon” (serious constructive) fan.

Whatever one calls him, he’s the kind of researcher we need more of, in a time when a lot of academic sf criticism has bogged down in pretentious jargon and ideological cant and slant. I’m reminded of David Barton, who relies on selective quotations, specious logic and confirmation bias to “prove” that Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers were fundamentalists who believed in a Christian state. Academics also tend to privilege secondary sources over primary texts, resulting in tiresomely Talmudic commentaries on commentaries on commentaries that lose sight of the original subjects.

I’m an independent scholar myself, presently working on an update of my history of science fiction, Imagination and Evolution. I&E, as another independent scholar Harvey Satty (an authority on Olaf Stapledon) dubbed it, originally appeared in four volumes from Greenwood Press between 1987 and 1994. A lot has happened in sf since then, but a lot has likewise happened in sf research – thanks to Project Gutenberg and other online e-book sources, print-on-demand editions of proto-sf works of all sorts, and translations of a good deal of classic sf never before available in English, I can get a better impression of how the genre has evolved from its earliest years into today’s global phenomenon.

But I couldn’t manage without the help of other independent scholars, and Dwight is truly a prime example. He’s my expert on early science fiction in German, Danish and other languages that has not been translated, let alone studied. He has previously translated comic books and Perry Rhodan space operas, and has done a lot of business translation. He is presently working on a CreateSpace book centering on a translation of Eberhard Christian Kindermann’s Speedy Voyage of an Air Ship to the Upper World (1744), an obscure but historically important German story about a trip to Mars – well, actually a supposed moon of Mars that Kindermann thought he had just discovered (With help from a friend, Dwight himself discovered that on the date the German astronomer claimed to have observed the moon, which he described as rather fuzzy, Mars was right next to the Crab Nebula! There'll be more about the self-absorbed Kindermann in the new book.).

Five years ago, he broke entirely new ground in translating Vilhelm Bergsøe’s “Flying Fish ‘Prometheus’” (1870), a Danish work so much like today’s steampunk that he was able to sell it the next year to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s anthology Steampunk II (2010). In 2009, for The New York Review of Science Fiction, he wrote the first account of Julius von Voss’ Ini (1810), a major German sf novel that had fallen into obscurity but has since been republished. More recently, although few realize it yet, he has revolutionized the history of sf by discovering connections between two other German works, A.K. Ruh’s Garlands Around the Urns of the Future (1800) and Volume III of Heinrich Zschokke’s The Black Brothers (1795). Garlands appears to be the very first true sf novel set in the future, but it was clearly influenced by Zschokke’s work, which in turn was a variation of the futuristic utopia invented by Louis Sebastien Mercier with L’An 2440 (1771) – The Black Brothers III is still mostly lecture and philosophizing, but has elements of storytelling.

One language Dwight doesn’t know is Polish, but he has helped me a great deal with the Lunar trilogy of Jerzy Zulawski – On the Silver Globe (1903), The Conqueror (1910) and Old Earth (1911). That’s because the trilogy has been translated into German, and while it may not seem legitimate to translate from a translation, Ursula K. Le Guin has done that with the Spanish translation of Squaring the Circle, a collection of fantastic stories by Romanian author Gheorghe Sasarma. Zulawski may have been influenced by German writer Kurd Lasswitz, author of Two Planets (1897). Like Two Planets, the lunar trilogy is very philosophical – the humans who survive a trip to the Moon in the first volume migrate to the far side, where they find a hostile native civilization but also carry the evils of their own past with them, as the eldest among them realizes:

I left the room and contemplated for a long time the terrible irony of human existence that had followed us from the Earth to the Moon. I thought of O’Tamor, that poor old dreamer! As he had pictured it in his imagination, the children of Thomas and Martha, protected from the bad influences of earthly civilization, would grow up here on the Moon as an ideal kind of humanity, without the afflictions and without the differences that had been the source of all the eternal misery of mankind on Earth! I look at these children and it seems to me that the noble old dreamer O’Tamor left out of consideration the fact that the descendants of mankind would inevitably be the offspring of human beings and carry deep within them the seeds from which spring all the abominations of the earthly races. And isn’t the most terrible irony that Man takes his worst enemy deep inside himself along with him even to the stars? It’s a good thing that Tom doesn’t have a brother. So the age of war between brothers and slavery won’t dawn right away, and we will perhaps be dead by then and won’t have to witness it

In the second volume, another Earthman arrives hundreds of years later to find himself hailed as their liberator and redeemer according to a religion created by the daughter of one of the original settlers. But he meets an ironic fate, and becomes the center of a new cycle of legends. In the third volume, two lunar human make it to Earth and get involved in political intrigue. I don’t want to get bogged down in all the details here, but before I read Dwight’s summaries and excerpts, I had nothing to rely on but secondary sources – which offered a confusing and even misleading account of the events of the trology and their true meaning.

Dwight had already helped me with translations of some of Lasswitz’ essays, and he has done the same with some commentaries on sf by the French writer J.H. Rosny ainé. He knows his languages. But even more crucially, he knows enough about science fiction to tell what’s really important and what isn’t in an unfamiliar work, and to focus on the truly significant aspects.

When Dwight Decker writes about science fiction, he tells it straight.