Recent Reading

I have several half-finished book reviews sitting on my hard drive, all of books I liked quite a bit. They’re unfinished partly because my attention span for writing hasn’t been great, but mostly because of impostor syndrome: I’m having a hard time convincing myself these potential posts say anything intelligent or interesting. Since I ought to be getting some practice in, I’ve written a few paragraphs on books about which I have much less to say:

Agatha Christie, Appointment With Death and Murder in Mesopotamia

Christie’s second husband was an archaeologist and she often accompanied him on digs. Occasionally she worked her archaeological experience into her novels by sending Hercule Poirot off to stumble on murders in random middle eastern countries. She didn’t use nearly enough of her experience for my taste–for all that she knew her stuff, the settings of these novels read like a generic archaeological dig and foreign tourist site and could have been set anywhere in the world.

Trevor Baxendale, Fear of the Dark

This Doctor Who tie-in novel was first published in the years before the current series began. At the time BBC Books published one or two Doctor Who novels every month. I skipped this one at the time because Trevor Baxendale’s novels were always terrible. This one is a short story’s worth of secondhand ideas padded out to a 300 page novel. Here we have all the laziest clichés of late 1990s-early 2000s Doctor Who: Grimdark cynicism. Corporate space marines. Incessant deaths (all so grotesque I’m surprised the BBC republished this book in this more family-friendly era). An alien planet in the far future inhabited by people who talk and think like they’re from 20th century London (and who include, between a starship crew and a mining expedition, exactly one woman). A half-assed monster that is literally called “The Dark” and does evil things because it’s evil.

There used to be a Doctor Who novel just like this almost every month. So much nostalgia. I almost enjoyed it.

Various authors, “Time Trips”

The BBC has been releasing Doctor Who novellas as ebooks under the name “Time Trips.” They’re all very weird.

“Into the Nowhere” is about a planet of traps and walking skeletons controlled by a grotesque nerd caricature who turns out to be guarding all the knowledge in the universe, man, which manifests as the tree from the Garden of Eden because it pulled the image from Clara’s mind. The Doctor, while bleeding from his palms, tells Clara not to eat the metaphorical apple because “the entropic chronicle of perpetuity” would depress her.

“The Death Pit” is a fourth Doctor adventure on a golf course with a deadly alien sand trap. It’s perhaps trying just a little too hard to be Douglas Adams, but it’s charming and at times genuinely funny.

“Keeping Up With the Joneses” is about a sentient time war weapon that turns the interior of the TARDIS into a temporally indeterminate English village with occasional giant monsters. The strangest thing in the book is that the owner of the bed and breakfast is patterned after Lady Christina from “Planet of the Dead,” for all the world as though the Doctor might have had her on his mind. Or even remembered her at all. (When I wrote this review for a post on a mailing list I had to Google the episode to remember her name.)

These novellas are the product of writers who are doing their own thing rather than delivering a “standard” Doctor Who story. That’s fine by me regardless of the quality of the results (not that these three are bad). We have all the standardized, formulaic Doctor Who stories we need at this point.

Avram Davidson, Masters of the Maze

Like a lot of SF, this is the story of a young man discovering he has a hidden destiny and saving the world from an alien invasion. Because Avram Davidson wrote it, it is much better than that description makes it sound. Also much weirder. There’s an other-dimensional maze that runs all across space and time. At the center the hero has a philosophical discussion with Lao-Tze, Apollonius of Tyana, and Benjamin Bathurst. A villainous John Birch Society-type teams up with the aliens to take over the United States, cut taxes, destroy the welfare state, and outlaw milk pasteurization; he has the idea that he might then use them as contract labor to keep wages down. We get chapters from the point of view of the aliens themselves, humanoids who live and think like hive insects. Plus Ambrose Bierce turns up. It’s all as well written as you’d expect from Davidson. The most significant flaw is a lack of important female characters, but that’s sadly common with older SF.

David Edison, The Waking Engine

Portal fantasies have been out of style for a while but I’ve seen a few new ones lately. This is one of them, as well as an afterlife fantasy–the idea is that when you die you’re serially reborn on a series of China Miévillesque worlds until you finally reach the place that offers True Death.

I found this novel paradoxically both too weird and not weird enough. Too weird because the afterlife world seems like a collection of grotesque and baroque images that give very little idea of how people in this world would actually live their day-to-day lives. Not weird enough because the hero is almost as bland as an everyman can get. It was several chapters before I even had an idea of what he looked like, or what he was wearing. (The book described him lying down after work and waking up dead; I assumed he was wearing a suit and had to rapidly readjust my assumptions when the book mentioned a heavy metal t-shirt.)

The Waking Engine also suffers from a problem common to afterlife SF, the temptation to pack the story full of celebrity guest stars–here we get Richard Nixon, Cleopatra and Walt Whitman, with a cameo by Kurt Cobain. The end leaves plenty of plot threads hanging, so I’m sensing yet another series; I’m not sure whether I’ll try the next one.

Ruth Ozeki, A Tale for the Time Being

Like Masters of the Maze this is really good, but not in a way that inspired me to try writing a full review. I read it a few months ago and at the time I was finding most novels hard to get into, but this one eventually built momentum and I finished the last hundred pages in an evening. It’s a discursive, essayistic novel, which is something that’s appealed to me lately.

It’s published as mainstream but is arguably SF in that it plays with scientific concepts in support of a sort of magic realist narrative, and would probably have been a better Hugo award candidate than most of what ended up on the ballot.

Saki, The Unrest-Cure

Despite my good intentions, I haven’t managed to write much lately. I did come up with a short review inspired by a book I wasn’t expecting to dislike.

Coverof The Unrest Cure

I bought The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories because it was an NYRB Classics reprint illustrated by Edward Gorey. The only Saki stores I had ever come across in anthologies were “Tobermory,” “The Open Window” and “Sredni Vashtar.” It turns out there’s a reason for that. Once you’ve read those three stories, you have read all the Saki you will need for the rest of your life.

Judging from The Unrest-Cure Saki had exactly one trick, which he rehashed every time he put pen to paper: brief and often plotless vignettes of upper-class English people being politely horrible to each other. The blurb explains that “Saki’s heroes are enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty and fatuousness of a decorous and doomed world,” by which it means they are assholes. Saki’s favorite story–it is the same story every time; only the details vary–is the tale of a young person who gets one up on an older person through a mean-spirited prank. It felt as though there were more of these in The Unrest-Cure than there were actual pages in the book.

Saki’s saving graces are his dryly understated prose and ability to come up with the occasional genuinely witty line. (i.e., “Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.”) But there aren’t enough of these to make up for the numbing monotony of Saki’s upper-class prank fixation. Get this one if you’re an Edward Gorey fan, but don’t try to read more than one of these stories in a row.

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.

Agatha Christie, At Bertram’s Hotel

As a Miss Marple novel, At Bertram’s Hotel is a dud. It’s a detective novel that doesn’t allow its hero to solve the crime. Miss Marple does some eavesdropping and makes a couple of deductions at the same time as a police detective, but never gets to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. At one point she plays the role of the witness amazed when the brilliant detective explains the surprising truth behind what she saw. That’s just backwards.

What makes At Bertram’s Hotel interesting is what Miss Marple does while she’s failing to detect. Bertram’s Hotel caters to elderly guests who want an environment that reminds them of their youth, and tourists who want to see the London of fifty years ago. Christie belabors how Bertram’s serves proper muffins and poached eggs and seed cake. The rooms are done up in tasteful archaic styles, camouflaging their modern fittings. The staff resemble the happily efficient servants who only ever existed in P. G. Wodehouse novels. The guests resemble the aging gentry who only ever existed in… um, Agatha Christie novels. During her stay at Bertram’s Miss Marple shops for the plain old-fashioned dish towels she has trouble finding nowadays, and visits places she remembers from her youth.

But Miss Marple finds that most of the places she remembers have changed or been built over. Bertram’s out-of-time fittings begin to look unnatural. Even the guests don’t look quite how she expects elderly people to look in the world of 1965. She concludes “that one should not ever try to go back–that the essence of life is going forward.”

It’s generally an error to assume an author’s biography has anything at all to do with her writing. But in this case it’s tempting to draw conclusions from the fact that, when At Bertram’s Hotel was published, Agatha Christie was 75 years old, near Miss Marple’s age. At Bertram’s Hotel feels like Christie letting herself indulge in nostalgia for the old days, then spending the rest of the novel gently scolding herself for doing so.

Tatyana Tolstaya, The Slynx

Book Cover

Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. Lately in the interest of preserving my mental health I’ve avoided reading any SF that seemed the least bit apocalyptic or dystopian. Which these days is pretty much all of it. But this is another old half-written review I’ve just now finished, so The Slynx slipped in last year. Anyway, it’s the kind of post-apocalypse E. C. Segar might have invented for Popeye to sort out: a world of mangled language, kinetic brawling, and ubiquitous foolishness. This book is too colorful to depress.

Generations after “the Blast,” the world is divided between the ignored minority of Oldeners–people alive during the Blast, who stopped aging in that moment and remember the world before–and the Golubchiks, born after the Blast. The Golubchiks act like feral toddlers on a sugar high. They steal and brawl and only half pay attention; anything the Oldeners tell them comes back garbled. A Golubchik’s idea of a fun game is “smothers”: “you stuff a pillow in someone’s face and smother him, and he flails and sputters and when he gets away, he’s all red and sweaty, and his hair’s sticking out like a harpy’s.”

The Slynx’s voice is as far as you can get from the flat, monotonous prose that oftens seems standard in science fiction:

Old people say the Slynx lives in those forests. The Slynx sits on dark branches and howls a wild, sad howl—eeeeennxx, eeeeennxx, eeenx- aleeeeeennnxx—but no one ever sees it. If you wander into the forest it jumps on your neck from behind: hop! It grabs your spine in its teeth—crunch—and picks out the big vein with its claw and breaks it. All the reason runs right out of you. If you come back, you’re never the same again, your eyes are different, and you don’t ever know where you’re headed, like when people walk in their sleep under the moon, their arms outstretched, their fingers fluttering: they’re asleep, but they’re standing on their own two feet.[1]

It’s unusual for an SF novel written in third person to have a narrator with a personality. Readers aren’t encouraged to think of third person prose as having a narrator at all. A story is being told, but not told by anyone. But all fiction has a voice; modern fiction just hides it behind a curtain. (So we never wonder what hidden assumptions that hidden voice might bring to the story… but that’s another argument.)

Reading The Slynx it is like meeting a weird but charismatic and funny storyteller and getting so engrossed in conversation that hours pass and you don’t notice. The Slynx is written in the rhythm of voice. The narrator slips into second person (“If you wander into the forest…”) as people do when talking. The Slynx speaks in a voice from out of the world it’s created, a storyteller with an eccentric worldview and a vocabulary of malapropisms. That voice is the main tool The Slynx uses to create its world.

The Slynx tells the story of Benedikt, a scribe in a village near what used to be Moscow. Benedikt copies out the poetry and philosophy of the local ruler, Fyodor Kuzmich Glorybe. Most of it’s plagiarized from once-famous Russian authors. When Fyodor Kuzmich resorts to his own words they’re drivel.

Like the work of another Russian author published by NYRB Classics, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Slynx is preoccupied with text and ideas. But what matters in Benedikt’s world aren’t the ideas themselves so much as how they’re perceived.

B. Kliban once drew a cartoon of a king standing on a balcony telling his subjects “I’m the king, and you have to do what I say or I won’t be king anymore.” If The Slynx followed the standard clichés of the post-apocalyptic genre it would have set the Oldeners up as an ossified elite for a fresh-thinking hero to knock down. That’s not what we have here–the Oldeners are marginalized. As stewards of civilization they’re ineffectual, and not because they fell from some earlier height. The survivors of the blast were perfectly ordinary. Their children just never paid them attention.

The saying goes that knowledge is power, but in Benedikt’s world what’s powerful is what people can be convinced to respect as knowledge. The Golubchiks scorn the Oldners’ ideas, but they’re impressed by what they see as culture. Fyodor Kuzmich is head of the village because as long as the Pushkin holds out he sounds wise and literate.

Pre-blast books are treasure, albeit treasure with an aura of danger: for years after the Blast, the surviving books were radioactive, which is the official reason they’re confiscated by officials called Saniturions. Unofficially, the Saniturions just don’t think the Golubchiks can take care of them. They might read them with dirty hands, or use them as pot lids! When Benedikt rises in the world and gains access to the Saniturions’ library he’s impressed by the pristine, unread books. The worn, well-read books, he thinks, must not have been important enough to take care of.

Benedikt isn’t a careful reader. Neither is The Slynx’s narrator, who thinks like Benedikt and often gets inside his head. Nor are the Saniturions who, for all the books they’ve collected, don’t understand them better than any other Golubchik. They take stories literally. They filter them through their worldview and culture without understanding that other ways of thinking and living exist. No need for a Slynx; Benedikt lets his reason run away by itself. Near the end of the novel Benedikt thinks he sees the Slynx in someone else’s face; in reply he’s told to look at his own reflection.

But The Slynx is not one of those dystopian novels in which the author spends 200 pages ranting that everyone else is stupid.[2] The Golubchiks aren’t what this book considers civilized, but it’s not sour or angry and it lets the Golubchiks tell their own story. We laugh with them as much as at. And The Slynx is a book in love with books, and an argument that books are worth loving. Whether he understands them or not, Benedikt is amazed at how books bring voices and images and experiences into his head. He’s distraught when he discovers he’s finally read the whole library.

And in its final chapter The Slynx suggests that no matter how long stupidity holds power, or how scorched-earth their rule, the spirit of civilization survives to, eventually, rise again. What’s great is, despite everything, how uncynical this book is. That’s something recent science fiction hasn’t given me enough of. I’ve sworn off reading about apocalypses, but for The Slynx I’ll make an exception.


  1. For some reason the excerpt on the Powell’s Books website doesn’t have apostrophes. The book itself has all its punctuation.  ↩

  2. Hello, Brave New World!  ↩

A Review, Sort Of: The Ties That Bound vs. At Home

This blog has been stagnant for over a year now. I’m getting to the point where I’d like to revive it. Unfortunately I haven’t written anything in a while, so until I get back up to speed the quality of my writing will be shaky. I plan to start off by finishing some half-written reviews of books I read weeks or months ago, of which this is the first.


Book Cover

The Ties That Bound by Barbara Hanawalt describes the lives and environment of English peasants during (mostly) the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. (I wish I could come up with a snappy opening line, but I haven’t tried to review a book, or write anything at all, in ages, and the gears have rusted.)

Social history is the kind of history I’ve found most interesting lately. Unfortunately as social history goes further back in time primary sources can get a little sparse. Not a lot of 14th century English peasants left diaries.

So The Ties That Bound relies on archaeology to detail living environments, then turns to legal documents and other less direct sources to explore family structure, life stages, and social ties. Its particular focus is on coroner’s inquests. Accidental deaths, it turns out, were well documented on all levels of society. Inquests supply not only details of peasant life but also the names of people who would have been unremembered by history had they not inadvertently stabbed themselves or fallen off haystacks. After a while you expect every anecdote to end in tragedy, giving The Ties That Bound undertones of Edward Gorey–The Ghastlycrumb Peasantry, maybe–as Hanawalt occasionally acknowledges: “While ditches may have been created chiefly for drainage, they served a variety of functions, aside from indirectly reducing population.”

Not that this is a snarkfest. The Ties That Bound is written in the best academic style: not overly technical, but not working too hard to avoid dryness or difficulty. Historians trust that the information they’ve gathered will hold the reader’s interest. It is, after all, the reason the reader picked up the book.

Book Cover

Which brings me to another social history I read around the same time, Bill Bryson’s At Home. This purports to be a history of the home in England over the last few centuries. It has a serious case of attention deficit disorder.

The way Bryson organizes At Home is promisingly clever. Each chapter is a room in a house–“The Kitchen,” “The Drawing Room.” Rooms are how we organize domestic life; pattern a history of domestic life after a house and the history almost falls into order by itself. You would think.

But At Home is all over the place. Half the Drawing Room chapter is taken up with mini-biographies of eccentric 18th century celebrity architects. “The Passage” is mostly a history of the Eiffel Tower. “The Dressing Room” focuses not on the wardrobes of the vast bulk of the English population, but on Beau Brummel. Bryson begins “The Cellar” with the Erie Canal, explaining “The reason I have prefaced it all with the story of the Erie Canal is to make the point that building materials are more important and even, dare I say, interesting than you might think.” But wouldn’t the quickest way to convince readers that building materials are interesting be to actually write about them, interestingly?

Well, sure. I mean, I must be open to the idea that building materials can be interesting, or I wouldn’t have picked up a book named after and organized around a kind of building. But Bryson, having chosen as his topic the history of the home in England, displays no faith in its ability to hold the readers’ interest. So At Home prioritizes pithy celebrity biographies–the more eccentric the better–over describing how people lived. Celebrities left more documentation, after all, and making grotesques entertaining doesn’t take much effort. And the Erie Canal, as a large, singular, and significant project, is just naturally more memorable than a cellar.

Every so often At Home walks up to its ostensible subject and touches it, gingerly, and for a moment it’s interesting. One section on the architectural and engineering principles behind stairways–more complex than you’d think–manages to make stairs compelling. But then At Home backs off again, running to the safety of another colorful anecdote, too afraid of boring the reader to focus for long on its core subject. At Home is like a software manual that gives bios of the people who programmed the software, and tells funny stories about things that happened while they were programming it, but only as an afterthought gets around to telling you how the program is supposed to work.

Here’s why I bothered to write up this rambling rant about two apparently random books: At Home is not alone. I’m bored with popular nonfiction, the kind that makes the bestseller lists, in general. Whatever the subject–history, psychology, sociology, biology–the tone is the same: light, breezy, and depthless.

Popular books on academic subjects–science, history, whatever–fall into a few types. One kind is padded with mini-biographies of scientists or archaeologists or historians, descriptions of their appearance and minor eccentricities, and stories about how the pop-nonfiction writer met them in their offices. You also get anecdotes about the author’s travels to historic sites, or visits to businesses, nonprofits, government offices, and other slightly relevant institutions. Whatever actual information these books contain sometimes seems structured around the stories–introduced by and organized around them–rather than the other way around. The information may take up more space, but it feels secondary.

Pop psychology and sociology gravitate to a style pioneered by Malcolm Gladwell: The author begins every chapter with a colorful (and often familiar) anecdote, preferably involving a celebrity. The chapter goes on to cite a series of psychological, sociological, or economic studies centered around a theme taken from the anecdote. These are always presented without context that might help us evaluate them. (Were the results replicated? How did other scholars respond? Who knows?) The chapter ends by finishing the anecdote in a way that sums up the chapter’s theme.

And then there’s the kind of pop nonfiction exemplified by At Home: the quirky kind. At Home approaches every subject by looking for the oddest details and most colorful characters and focusing its attention there, sometimes pushing the original topic to the side, like an artist who sets out to draw a portrait but ends up filling most of the paper with one weirdly shaped nostril.

Most of these books seem to be written by journalists rather than scholars. What these kinds of pop nonfiction books have in common is a journalistic feature-article writing style that they’re taking places it wasn’t meant to go. Every subject, even if it must be awkwardly mashed and folded to fit, becomes a human interest story.

Which betrays a narrow view of what humans might be interested in. More seriously, the human interest approach to history illuminates less about human lives than academic writing.

Compare At Home to The Ties That Bound. In the “What We Can Remember” version of history the image conjured by the word “peasant” is an illiterate rustic prodding dirt with a stick. Standard pop culture peasants live packed into hovels, start breeding in their teens, have few ambitions and are given no way to pursue any that might exist. In fact, The Ties That Bound finds English peasants–both men and women–who made wills and contracts, joined guilds, and bought and sold rights to farm land. They both farmed and ran businesses on the side. When land was scarce adults didn’t necessarily marry until their late twenties. Throughout the book The Ties That Bound argues that these people, although their lives were not like ours, were more active and recognizable than we tend to think.

At Home argues… not much. Bryson sums up 700 pages of anecdotal meanderings with the observation that, over the last few centuries, some things have changed and some haven’t. How about that? He then notes that contemporary civilization uses a lot of energy; that there is massive inequality between the UK, the subject of his book, and the developing nations At Home hasn’t mentioned at all; and that maybe in future both of these will change. The first point is inane. The other points are non-sequiturs. At Home is a book without a central thesis. It tells stories, but those stories don’t add up to an argument. At Home has nothing in particular to say.

Quirky, breezy books like At Home portray history as a collection of discrete stories with strong plots and extraordinary characters… but real life is weird and complicated and not like a story at all. In a way, the books that emphasize detailed research, well-organized evidence, and a strong central argument before narrative wind up telling better stories than human-interest-style nonfiction. They have two things that improve any story: a sense of genuine curiosity, and a point of view.

Suddenly Some Links Drifted By

Here are some of the links I’ve made note of during the weeks this blog has lain fallow:

Raskolnikov, C’est Nous

A cartoon of Newt Gingrich reading Slan.

Compulsive readers get used to finding unexpected connections between books. I also make random connections while wasting time on the internet. Sometimes, like now, this leads to a blog post’s worth of dubious, rambling speculation and crazy theories.

A few days ago I read a blog post at Welcome to My World by Martin McGrath called “Why Does SF Hate Ordinary People?”1 finding a strain of contempt for ordinary people in certain science fiction and fantasy novels.

“Ordinary” has many definitions, so before proceeding I should explain what, in this case, it doesn’t mean: As I write, among the memes stumbling around the internet is a quiz based on a new book by famed statistic-mangler Charles Murray. It supposedly measures how much contact you have with “ordinary” Americans. Actually, it asks questions based on a stereotype of rural white midwesterners (Can you identify this NASCAR driver? Do you have a fridge full of Pabst Blue Ribbon?) and suggests anyone who can’t answer in the affirmative is living in a “bubble.” It must be a very large bubble. It would have to contain most of the country’s actual working class.

The culture-war definition of “ordinary” is not what this blog post is about. Being staggeringly bored by cars driving in circles very fast is not less legitimate than being entertained by them. Another term for making judgements about culture is having taste.

These “ordinary” people have nothing in common beyond the fact that they are not wealthy, famous, heroic, or adventure-prone. They hold down middle- or working-class jobs and keep regular schedules. Their biggest worries aren’t crusades, revolutions, or the impending apocalypse; they’re rents or mortgages, health care, child care, and putting food on the table. They’re “ordinary” only in the sense that they live like the vast majority of people in our society–or whatever fantastic society they call home, which may or may not have mortgages but certainly has people whose main concerns are not the stuff of high drama. As an example McGrath cites Colson Whitehead’s post-apocalyptic zombie potboiler Zone One, which judges the average American too inept to survive an emergency, valorizing, in McGrath’s words, “the loners, the socially inept and those who chafe against the ‘burdens’ imposed on them by the social contract that knits the rest of us together.”

When I finished reading McGrath’s post my brain turned to thoughts of Newt Gingrich. Which sounds, I grant you, quite the random leap. I can explain. See, in one of the endless series of Republican presidential debates, Gingrich revealed a cunning plan to solve school budget problems and reduce the dropout rate: child labor.

“New York City pays their janitors an absurd amount of money because of the union. You could take one janitor and hire 30-some kids to work in the school for the price of one janitor, and those 30 kids would be a lot less likely to drop out. They would actually have money in their pocket. They’d learn to show up for work. They could do light janitorial duty. They could work in the cafeteria. They could work in the front office. They could work in the library. They’d be getting money, which is a good thing if you’re poor. Only the elites despise earning money.”2

Not long after the debate I read a post by “Kay” at Balloon Juice, “Only the Elites Insult the Working Adults Who Pick Up After Us,” that made explicit something not everyone picked up on:3

While it’s certainly interesting that opposing child labor laws is now a mainstream position on the Right and among conservative news personalities, I hear something else entirely in Gingrich’s statement than the pundits and politicians heard. Newt Gingrich told us all last night that nine year olds can replace the grown men and women who currently do these jobs. Newt Gingrich believes janitors and cafeteria workers and people who work in school libraries and offices can and should be replaced by children.

That’s how much respect Gingrich has for the work that these people do.

Gingrich, of course, is an SF fan who loves Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy and has co-written several alternate history novels. McGrath, on his blog, traces a thread of science-fictional disrespect for the ordinary back to the “golden age” of SF, when:

…the triumph of the “golden era’s” omni-competent men, the math-wizard engineers, scientists and the all-knowing astronauts, was always about the final victory of those who felt they were hard done by in a society that did not properly value their obviously superior intelligence.

Which is true. And not necessarily political; I was reminded of Gingrich, but McGrath sees disdain for the ordinary in both right-leaning and left-leaning SF. The thing is, I don’t think “Why does SF hate ordinary people” is the right question. You might ask it about fiction in general.

Dostoeyvsky parodied this attitude over a century ago in Crime and Punishment with Raskolnikov, the self-styled “extraordinary” man. According to the Raskolnikov theory the world revolves around powerful, charismatic Great Individuals, the lynchpins and keystones of civilization. If they’re in politics, our safety and security depend on their strength and resolution; if they’re in business, our prosperity depends on their innovation and creativity. Whatever these extraordinary people do, we can’t hold them to the same rules the rest of us follow. Sometimes, to get the job done, they have to break them. You might remember these ideas from such novels as Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, but it’s also the premise of every second Hollywood action movie, ever.4

A few days after McGrath asked his question, Gareth Rees’s post about the teapot-tempest stirred up by a book review at Strange Horizons led me to Caleb Crain’s New York Times review of Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work:

Describing a manager who feeds him lunch, de Botton writes that “years of working around noisy machinery had left my host mildly deaf in one ear and given him a concomitant habit of leaning in uncomfortably close during discussions, so close that I began to dread his enunciation of a word with a ‘p’ or a ‘g’ in it.” For good measure, de Botton adds that the man bores him, perhaps as a result of his “surprisingly intense pride in the plant and its workers.” If de Botton were genuinely concerned that work today lacks meaning, surely here was an opportunity to ask questions. But is he worried that work today lacks meaning? Or just that some work means more to other people than he thinks it should?

This is aimed at the same target, but from a different direction. It’s the contempt of the counterculture for the squares–contempt from outside as opposed to Raskolnikov’s contempt from above. Contempt from outside sees regular, orderly lives as a curse and the people who live them as dupes or zombies. It sees white collar workers as gray killjoys, blue collar workers as Morlocks. They’re buttoned-down and repressed; obstacles to be routed around, or beaten-down victims who need a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to loosen them up and teach them to enjoy life. Contempt from outside sees Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces telling the waitress to hold the chicken salad between her knees, and thinks Bobby DuPea is a free spirit sticking it to The Man rather than, as I think the filmmakers intended, an asshole.

Gingrich sees “ordinary” people as inept, inferior–in comparison his own success is proof of his competence. De Botton sees “ordinary” people as limited, unimaginative–in comparison, he’s deeper, more free. What these attitudes have in common is that they help their holders define themselves as something other than ordinary.

I don’t think many genuine full-time Gingriches and de Bottons exist. In real life, hardly anyone hates ordinary people. In real life, most of us are ordinary. But these kinds of contempt are basic assumptions in many books and many movies–fundamental to the narrative’s world view–and, as long as we’re reading or watching, we go along with it.

The reason is simple: in fiction, ordinary is boring.

It’s hard to hold an audience’s interest in a very long and intricate description of a hero washing dishes. We’ve washed our own so often it takes genius to show us anything fresh. Fiction centers around the most important, most dramatic events of its characters’ lives; unusual, extraordinary events, even adventures. The characters who aren’t going through big changes aren’t the main cast, they’re the extras. Fiction skips the quotidian details.

At this point Raymond Carver busts into the room, waving a copy of Best American Short Stories. “Hey!” he says. “I’m standing right here, y’know!” And Ray has a point. Huge swathes of stories, ranging from great to unreadable, anchor themselves in the everyday. As pro-genre as I am, I’ll admit when it comes to ordinary people the novels filed under “literature” have a better track record than the ones that get filed under “genre.” Heck, sometimes the skill with which a book deals with the ordinary determines where we file it. Still, the protagonists of even the weightiest of serious literature have deeper thoughts and more passionate affairs than most of us have most of the time. If the protagonist is an Uncle Vanya or a Madame Bovary, living entirely without excitement or drama, chances are the story is about how he or she wants that to change:

I am clever and brave and strong. If I had lived a normal life I might have become another Schopenhauer or Dostoieffski.

Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya

In reality, thinking like Vanya lead people into weird places–especially if Vanya starts listening to Raskolnikov. Maybe, thinks Vanya, I can be Raskolnikov, too! Yeah, maybe now he’s filed away in a tiny beige cubicle. But the Great Individuals didn’t get their amazing, superhuman abilities by educating themselves or devotedly practicing their craft. Their talents just sort of came to them, because they’re special. Just like, deep down inside, he’s special. Someday he’ll be Great, too. All he has to do is believe in himself.

Our popular fiction is swarming with spunky nobodies discovering natural God-given talents–not skills, because they rarely need to work at them–and overcoming hidebound establishments and opposition from nay-saying friends and family to fulfill their dreams. Often this is a fantasy-hero thing–see The Matrix, Star Wars, or other stories about Chosen Ones who inherit their powers, or unleash their inner badass after very little training. I’m often struck by the contrast between modern adventure movies and older Hitchcock-style thrillers whose average heroes muddled through extraordinary adventures without manifesting heretofore unsuspected Kung Fu.

In the movies, the follow-your-dreams hero is as likely to become an entertainer, or some other kind of celebrity. These stories combine the “special person” narrative with the “outsider vs. the squares” narrative–their heroes succeed because they’re more soulful and free-spirited than the hoi polloi. Who are–to bring this essay back to the point–us, in the audience, watching.

It’s tempting to identify with the hero’s point of view even when, technically, that point of view doesn’t like us very much. One of the attractions of fiction is that people think in stories. We make sense of our lives by organizing them into narratives in which we’re the central characters. We feel like protagonists, exceptional people. In a way, from our own viewpoints, we are exceptions: every one of us is the only person whose head we live inside–the one person whose thoughts and point of view we have full access to, as we have access to the thoughts and POV of a novel’s protagonist. It’s the protagonist that we measure ourselves against, not the extras and walk-ons. When the narrative point of view tries to open some space between the hero and the herd we instinctively side with the hero.

Which is fine. The danger comes when too many of our stories define their heroes as better than everyone else. Stories are one of the big ways a culture or subculture spreads its values. Hearing a message over and over again habituates us. It can become part of the cultural furniture, something those who share these stories unthinkingly assume to be true.

There’s long been a toxic strain in SF fandom, a subculture-within-a-subculture that actually believes SF fans are superior to the common horde. Some fans in years gone only half-jokingly coined the phrase “fans are slans,” comparing themselves to the scorned superhumans of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan. Even today SF appeals to more than its fair share of inflated egos. Even those of us with no interest in formal, organized fandom run into these people when we make the mistake of reading an internet comment thread. Would-be writers convinced their self-published zombie-vampire-dragon trilogies would sell millions if the market weren’t conspiring against them. Self-styled omni-competent men who think all they need to reveal their true potential is the breakdown of civilization. Guys who whine about “political correctness” if a book’s protagonist is female or gay or something.

Part of getting along with people, functioning in society, and maintaining a working sense of empathy is keeping in mind that, though we’re our own protaginists, so is everyone else–to others, we’re supporting characters or extras. If we find this tough to accept, maybe our culture–whether “our culture” means SF fans or American culture in general–isn’t hearing that message often enough. We could stand to be more comfortable in our ordinariness.


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  2. And yet Gingrich is upset by a janitors’ union negotiating for a living wage. I guess it’s because he’s an elite! ↩

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  4. As well as a lot of comics. R. Sikoryak once drew a mashup of Crime and Punishment and Batman, with Batman as Raskolnikov. They fit together frighteningly well. ↩