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Heinlein et al

Meh. When I was a juvenile I read some Heinlein, including The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (I suppose, I don't remember the book very well so I guess I didn't find it all that memorable much less the earth-shattering, life-changing opus that libertarians did). But the bloom wore off, I haven't read any Heinlein since (my favorite science fiction authors are Andre Norton and Jack Vance, if you must know). This retrospective on Heinlein by Steve Sailer reminds me why.

Heinlein seems to be revered mainly by men. I sometimes joke about being a man in a woman's body, but I guess I'm a real girl after all. Jack Vance has a standard manly, fighting-machine kind of hero, but there is a remote, ironic, and philosophical tone to his writing that adds layers to the surface conventions of his stories that Heinlein's lack. Andre Norton was, of course, a woman, but her heroes (and heroines) tended to be anything but weaklings -- yet her stories, even though they all ended on hopeful notes, lacked the rather overbearing optimism that made Heinlein ultimately unpalatable for me. In her more recent books she got into goofy New Age-ish feminist magick stuff, at least for plots, and her stories suffered accordingly. Her best stuff was written in the 60s and 70s.

Oddly enough, all three writers are/were Americans, and wrote or still write (Vance is still alive, if ancient) science fiction, but that is about all they have in common.

By the way, whenever I'm sick (so far -- knock on wood -- with nothing worse than strep throat, or the flu) I read stuff like H.P. Lovecraft. Really, for some reason reading Lovecraft just seems to be the thing when sick in bed. Somehow all that stuff about "unnameable horrors" and the "sunken city Rl'yeh under the sea where dead Cthulhu lies dreaming" is just comforting. I wouldn't read Heinlein in that case -- I think all that stuff about genetically-enhanced Super-Mid-Americans striding surefooted (though wisecrackingly) across space would just make me tired.

(Via Kathy Shaidle.)

Update: I wrote all this before reading all the he-manly comments from the manly men on Sailer's blog. Steve Sailer is a normal guy (he reminds me a lot of me, in a way), but some of the libertarians and other... people who frequent his blog comment thread remind me of Florence King's dismissal of macho English majors as the sort of people who "carried razor blades to cut the pages of European paperbacks." Betcha they can drink whiskey straight without even coughing (much).

Comments (10)

BAW [TypeKey Profile Page]:

Wow - haven't thought about Andre Norton for years. She was a staple of my junior high sci-fi exploration, until I pretty much figured out that fantasy/horror were more my genre cup of tea. I may have to revisit her early stuff - sounds like the later stuff went into Ursula Le Guin territory. And I HATE Ursula Le Guin.

I ended up with Bradbury. Maybe my attention span is lacking, but his stories freak me out and stay with me longer than most novelists' efforts do.

Heinlein makes my teeth itch. For some reason he's sufficiently "highbrow" enough for the English major's guilty pleasure reading list; I find him boring as all hell.

And all hail the sleeping Nameless Ones! Spent an afternoon playing a Cthulu-based RPG one time; it remains one of my fondest memories of role-playing, mainly because no matter what you did in the game, you ended up a naked, gibbering idiot by the end of it.

I can't stand current modern horror myself. Too fastidious, I guess. (Dean Koontz and Stephen King make Lovecraft look positively subtle.) Ray Bradbury makes my teeth itch. It's definitely his writing style I can't stand -- his stories aren't bad in themselves. And when I picked up one of his paperbacks at the store (the one about that carnival of doom or whatever that rolls into that early 20th century American town, I can't recall the name right now), I realized where King got his writing style -- he is totally channeling Bradbury. Which is why I can't stand Stephen King either.

Lately my attention span has been shot. I've been reading lots of home decor magazines. I guess the next step is naked, gibbering idiot.

It's funny what sticks with you. I don't remember much of what actually happened in Norton's books, mostly read in my early teens, but there was a spooky flavor or mood that became part of me. I suspect I could still enjoy her early stuff, though I haven't tried. Bradbury seemed like a much bigger deal at the time, but now I can't read him. And actually I would want to shake him, and say, "Fool, you squandered the talent God gave you!"

Stephen King too. They approach, repeatedly, the mysterious things that lie just under the surface of life, and then always end by sort of nudging us in the ribs and saying, "Ha ha. Just kidding! I make millions off this hokum."

I think my main problem with both King and Bradbury is the inappropriate language styles they give their characters, especially children. King isn't as bad as Bradbury at this -- none of the characters in any Bradbury story I ever read sounded remotely like a normal human being, and I'm sorry but horror and weird tales need a note of normalcy in them for the weirdness and horror to work -- but they both do things like have frightened children say "My God!" and so on. Children don't say "My God!" when frightened. They just don't.

Oh, and I meant to address Ursula K. Le Guin, and I forgot -- I really liked her early books for "young adults" as they ghettoized her. I thought her pinnacle was the Earthsea Trilogy. I also liked her early-70s collection of essays on writing, The Language of the Night. I still have a copy, in fact. But then she started getting into a particularly kind of noxious Indian-worshipping, anti-Western-Civ, anti-industrial feminism, and her fiction skills just went down the tubes. The rot set in, as far as I can place it, with the commendation she received for The Left Hand of Darkness, a political thriller set on another planet populated by an androgynous race of humans. That was a good book, but the praise seemed to have gone to her head, as did the criticism by idiots; she actually wrote an essay apologizing for referring to the main characters as "he," as if the restrictions of the English language and the lack of imagination of her critics were her fault.

Then it only got worse. Everything else she wrote started to have that apologetic crouch white liberals get when they imagine they've fallen short of pleasing their brown, female, minority gods. Then she decided to write a couple of sequels to the Earthsea books. In the first one, Tehanu, we find out that the main female character of the second Earthsea book had become a farmer's wife (and also we find out that sometimes ordinary lives don't make interesting stories), and also Ged, the wizard hero of the Earthsea books, loses his magickal powers but gets something better -- he loses his virginity, which as all good feminists and teenage boys know, is the pinnacle of human life. I didn't read the second Earthsea sequel, though I skimmed through it enough to find out that Le Guin thinks it's novel to describe a female character as warmly emotional and thus superior to coldly rational males by the way she speaks broken English and waves her hands around. I believe her most recent book was a scifi called The Telling, set on a planet to which has come a warm, emotional, spicy-food-and-colorful-clothing-loving Indian (from India this time) female scholar/scientist character. I skimmed through this too before putting it back on the shelf as unbearable -- for instance, Le Guin has her planetary natives say of a heroic action by another that probably saved their lives "But that was wrong!" Also there are bad jokes instead of her once-subtle humor -- the natives, all imitating Earthmen instead of living their own wonderful indigenous culture, have taken to drinking something called "Starbrew," and so on.

Well, "Political correctness lowers your effective IQ".

You are so dead-on on Le Guin. I think I dropped her when she came out with some book in which Northern California splits off to become an eco-hippie paradise. Clang.

She makes the mistake of trying to turn her ideas into a real world, and merely reveals how silly they are. (At least it's just on paper, and nobody's actually in the boxcars heading to the re-education camps.) Most SF writers are more subtle, and shy away from taking positions on the big questions. But I think that leads to a kind of paralysis, and I seem to see it a lot right now. Maybe it's my imagination, but all my favorite writers seem to have hit a wall, and it's been years since they've come out with anything that dazzled me. Nothing since the 90's I'm sure.

And the only new author I've discovered, Thomas Harlan, came out with two good things that were part of a projected trilogy or series (Wasteland of Flint) and then stopped about 2002......and nothing since!

My hunch is that SF really wants to be about Original Sin, or Why-The-New-Planet-Is-Just-As-Messed-up-As-The Old-Planet. And of course SF often is, but if you are a Libertarian or a Leftist, you can't probe too deeply in that direction without running into problems. SF's been coasting on the momentum left over from the 40's and 50's, but I'm thinking there's not much of that left...

The 40s and 50s, I believe, were the "Golden Age" of Science Fiction -- and it was mostly a golden age of hard scifi. In the 60s a counterculture influenced "movement" started up that was supposedly more attune to people (or creatures like people) instead of machines. At least, that was how it was talked about -- also, "social justice" science fiction got real big, as well as stories permeated with weird alien sex (or just weird human sex in "enlightened" future societies) and drugs that altered mental states. Then in the 70s, as things got suckier and suckier in the real world, apocalyptic scifi was popular. (There was some of this in the Fifties, but less than you would think considering how humanity was supposedly laboring under Cold War terrors.)

Anyway, Le Guin talks about all this in Language of the Night, which I can still highly recommend. Needless to say even back then she had little time for Golden Age-era science fiction, but she was at least realistic about the pitfalls of shoehorning your story into the trendy political concerns of the day. (For instance, she got involved in anti-Vietnam protests but was stuck in London at the time where apparently she couldn't find anyone to protest with; frustrated, she wrote a White-Males-Are-Evil ecological science fiction novel called The Word For World Is Forest. At the time of her writing the essay she was able to see that she had let her anger get the better of her and it had damaged the story -- the villain is a cardboard cutout Bad Military Male. If she wrote it today she'd probably say it was her best story.)

PS: I forgot to add -- I think the story you are thinking of is Always Coming Home. Actually it wasn't a story, it was a "work" that can't really be classified -- a kind of extended essay scattered with poems and short stories all set in an imaginary future where industrial civilization has sort of vanished (though she scatters remnants of tech throughout -- the sort of delicate, electronic tech that she imagines we can keep without an industrial civilization -- if you didn't know she was an English major just from that you know now). I don't have my copy of the book anymore but obviously parts of it stuck in my mind. They are:

-- One of the stories was good -- I believe it was called "The Visionary." Its main character was the sort of person who would probably be in a mental hospital in the real world, at least temporarily, but in her imaginary world had a bit of prestige. (Though not much -- Le Guin has a revulsion towards the idea of anyone getting too much credit for any accomplishment that borders on the pathological. In one of her essays -- not in Language of the Night but written years after that, she actually says to women (the essay is one of those feminist things directed at all us Sisters™ -- it may even have been originally a speech) that she does not wish them success, just that they are clean and warm and all snuggly in the earth which birthed us all, or something -- it was weird and patronizing, especially coming from a much-lauded and successful author.)

-- The canoodling with imaginary languages (she was a great admirer of Tolkien though no doubt his male chauvinism and pre-V2 Catholicism made her cringe) was interesting, though ultimately too sparse. I also liked to fool around with imaginary languages and alphabets; she seemed to lose interest.

-- Le Guin clearly prefers Indian culture (especially that of the California tribes she grew up being told about by her anthropologist father) to that of her own people. She has one of the worst wannabe complexes in the country. (I wonder if the fact that Ward Churchill has actually had a successful career as a pretend Indian drives her nuts.)

This leads me to another Le Guin topic. A couple of years ago, the SciFi channel did a trashy miniseries based on her Earthsea Trilogy book. It was clear from the trailers that it was going to suck, so I gave it a miss. Le Guin hated it, of course -- but the funniest reason she had for hating it was that they didn't hire Indian actors to play the parts of the Earthsea-ers, all of whom (except for the Kargad, who were a blond, white, Viking-like tribe) she had described as being brown-skinned and black-haired (though the fantasy culture she cooked up for them was clearly European; castles, merchants, prices, wizards, etc.), and revealed were her way of writing about her beloved Indians in her favorite genre. Though except for skin color there was nothing remotely "native American" about any of the fantasy people in the novels. This is a turnaround of the usual liberal/progressive argument that actors can play anyone no matter their skin color -- we can have an all-Chinese cast do Macbeth in clown suits and speaking Gujarathi and it will be just as profound and meaningful as in Richard Burbage's day. It's funny how, suppress it how they may, the Judeo-Christian underpinning to a multicultural academic's worldview will pop out.

I remember stumbling onto Tehanu and thinking, "Hey, a sequel to one of my favorite childhood trilogies!" Egads, what piece of crap. I also own, through no action of my own, the second sequel. I'm saving it for my senility, figuring that it'll be more appetizing if my brain no longer functions properly.

Oh, and I loathed The Left Hand of Darkness. I much prefer her other trilogy: Rocannon's World, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions.

I thought Left Hand was okay, but a bit too heavy-handed. Also, her hero was much too passive for a Terran male.

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