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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Escapist fiction

by Jamie Lutton

As an adult, my idea of escapist reading is different from when I was a teen.

As a teen, for a good solid 10 years, I mostly read SF novels, or Analog (sf) magazine, every day.   As a speed reader, I would sometimes plow through a book or two a day, rereading favorites.  I read my brothers and father's collections, obsessively rereading favorites, dodging home work, or even going outside.

When I was about 20 or so, I discovered history and science books, and overnight quit reading SF and fantasy, except for a few favorites. I turned my back on the field, and did not pick up new authors much.

When I began to assemble books I wanted to write about, I hesitated to tackle my childhood favorites, feeling like I was 'slumming'. But then I remembered how these books taught me so much about the world, and some history, as well as political philosophies to admire, then argue with.

I previously wrote about the editor of Analog, John W. Campbell, his strengths and prejudices here.

I got interested in why the style of story he favored - with humans triumphing, and stereotyped aliens overall.  It came to me a few days ago.

A great many of these stories were 'fairy tales' or fables retelling the struggles of the 1930's and fighting both the Nazis and the Japanese in World War ll.

The Greatest Generation survived the worst and longest depression the country had seen in 75 years (you have to go back to the era of Andrew Jackson to find as bad a depression) while watching Fascism grow in both Europe and Asia, marching across the landscape.

We watched, on the sidelines, waited till we were attacked, then defeated BOTH armies, with the help of allies of course, in 5 short years.

The stuff of science fiction, if it was not true.

We should have acted earlier, as we watched one country after another fall in Europe,and watched Japan seize thousands of square miles in the Pacific.

We should have rescued the Jews, or tried to slow down the death camps.  We should have entered the war earlier.

But when we did enter the war, we kicked ass.

These amazing events charged the minds of the SF writers for the next 25 years. In one SF novel after another, this is the fable that is told.

In The High Crusade by Poul Anderson, written in the mid 1950's,  a small group of knights in 1346 overcome the crew of a hostile UFO bent on invading Earth, kill everyone on board except the navigator - and take off with everyone in the village on an adventure in deep space (the end of the book has our distant descendants coming across their space empire).

In Pandora's Planet, written in 1973,  other hapless humanoid aliens try to conquer Earth, and in a series of maneuvers, have their ass handed to them by the Earth armies.  The warfare, described by the aliens, reads suspiciously like what Germans, weary from fighting on the Russian front, facing fresh faced young Americans on the battle field (in 1943 or so), might say in their memos to headquarters.

And the target audience would have ''gotten'' it, and lapped it up.

In Wasp, by Eric Frank Russel, written in the mid 1950's one man defeats an entire planet by using Guerrilla  warfare. The book is innocently anarchistic long before Earth First was dreamed of =- the hero blows up generals, ships at sea, and plasters the planet with flyers for a fictional underground.   The author had worked with the French Resistance, and had put things in this novel they had never gotten around to trying on the Germans during the war. And the aliens are transparently based on Japanese and German culture.

One novel like this is a bit less dated. The Demon Breed by James H Schmitz, written in 1968. The hero is a woman, a trained biologist, and there are genetically altered 10 foot long talking otters in the book. But the aliens again are evil,defeated by the ingenuity of the heroine and her 200 year old Biology professor she is rescues from their  clutches.

And defeated in a new way:The fighting was eerily like the fighting techniques of the North Vietnamese. The setting is even in a dense jungle, albeit on a floating island on a water planet. But the author was seeing society changing, and integrated that in the book.  Some very well known authors a generation later, like David Brin, copied the idea of genetically ''improved' animals, with his heroes that are sentient dolphins and chimpanzees.

But still you see an obligatory happy ending, humanity triumphant.

Part of this was that the editor of Analog wanted happy endings and humanity coming on top in the stories he accepted for the magazine.  But it was also the tenor of the times
for many years.

Over and over, people wanted to hear about World War ll again in their fiction, disguised in the setting and the details, but the general idea.

Even some that are strange and odd - one story by Poul Anderson, again, written in the early 1950's, has as a deux ex machina all IQs of mammals (he did not consider the birds, a shortcoming of the book) go up and up, until humans have an average IQ of about 400 and chimpanzees, elephants etc begin to revolt and want rights.  Of course, they go to the stars, of course they are ahead of other races they find there.

There are some dark moments in the book - people who lose their minds due to the IQ growth - but, again, humanity prevails, prospers, overcomes, goes on to a glorious
future.

All like the happiness we had as Americans, at defeating the Nazis then a few months later, the Japanese.  

I still like these stories, as I read them when I was young, very depressed, and frightened. I did not see a happy ending for myself, and I was in a hostile, unpredictable environment
that was painful and unpleasant.

In a way the fables of humanity facing great peril, fighting (one way or another) and winning was quite comforting to me, as it contrasted to my utter helplessness of my position in life.

When I read The Demon Breed over and over, I could dream of defeating my enemies by using stealth and having giant killer otters to help me. Or reading Wasp and with cheery lawbreaking, bombing, and stealth, bringing down an entire planet. Lonely work, yes. But I know loneliness, and could grasp THAT and run with it in my dreams.  Or reading about a bumbling alien army not able to conquer Earth, due to our trickiness.

Or being one of the medieval knights taking over a starship, and with my family and friends heading for the stars for deep space.

Even as an adult, these fables are quite comforting. I have more sophisticated taste now. 

But these books, and perhaps 40 or 50 others like them, when they come into my bookstore, I feature them on my ''recommend'' shelf.

My tastes now run to paleontology, politics, poetry, history of disease, history of technology, etc etc, and people who know this blink when they see these fables pushed by me.

These stories were a lifeline to me, when all else was dark, with the basic fable that humanity -- and that was me, personally -- would prevail.

I suppose all teens seek this, as the world is a frightening place even for happy teens with sane parents. That is why these stories have a popularity even now. Though teens now seek more ambivalent novels. they did not grow up in the shadow of World War ll, they grew up in the shadow of Reaganomics, endless wars abroad, and growing fears for the future. 

So these 'happy' and somewhat simple stories do not appeal any more. The Greatest Generation is mostly dead, and their children are getting old, I know I am.

But a few, a happy few, of these SF fables are still fun to read.

One thing I noticed about the elephant in the room -- the fantasy epic by Tolkien, published in this era, in the early 1950's, The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien worked on this epic starting in 1938, when he sat writing the thing on the back of old student's papers. He wrote the core of the book from that year to 1944 or so, the rest was revisions and more revisions, taking 14 years or so.  The book started out being a lighthearted, more or less, sequel to The Hobbit, but as he said in a letter to his son ''the Black Riders just appeared on the page."

There are a lot of theories from academics about the how and why of these books, but one point that has been overlooked is that he was writing the core of the thing when he (justifiably so) expected the Germans to be coming over the hill any week.

France had fallen, and Germany was openly making plans to invade England.  In Peter Fleming's book Operation Sea Lion, it was a close thing; this almost happened. Only the Germans' inability to win the air war and distraction and costs of the Eastern Front, fighting the Russians, kept them from invading England.

Tolkien had lost 4 of his closest friends in World War l, and his beloved son Christopher was off at war when he was writing. So different a time than when he wrote The Hobbit, 10 years or so earlier. That had started out as stories he told his son when he was young.

The genius of The Lord of the Rings is great, it is a massive book, but the dark inspiration had to have come from this professor of languages fearing for the destruction of England, and all he loved. 

All SF - and fantasy - is about the time it is written.

No wonder some of the post World War ll novels are forgotten. Add to this the sexism of the era -- few or no women characters of any note -- and other clunkers, it is hard to read the old stuff, unless one is willing to go into a mental 'time machine' and try to see it with the 
eyes of the year it was written.

I try to do this as a bookseller, and also when I go back and read them again, to see if I can recommend them, still.

Another elephant in the room is Robert Heinlein.  He wrote such bad books at the end of his life that his good books can be overlooked. An entire essay could be spent talking about his books, as they are imaginative and varied, though they stick to the theme of Humanity  Prevailing. 

In his best book, he had the audacity to make America the villain, in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress , as well as making a sentient computer one of the heroes, an early stab at this, written 4 years before 2001 a Space Odyssey came out as a movie.

In another good  book of his, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, a juvenile, a teen saves the Earth by bringing up the glories of ancient Greece to a skeptical group of hostile aliens bent on destroying Earth for the good of the neighborhood.

When I read these as a teen, I noticed the author was trying to make me think, as well as entertain me.  That is why his 25 or so books, even the bad later ones are still sought after. 
I noticed the aside about ancient Greece, and in my teens began to read ancient history, and can still hold up the passage and say 'HERE. Here is where my love of history really started' to anyone who will listen.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A beginning: Books I've loved

by Jamie Lutton

I have been struggling now for several years to get down on paper some observations on books, book reading, and book selling.

I think I have an interesting perspective on this. I had one of the most awful childhoods meshed with getting to be around very bright, well read parents who shared their love of books. School was a misery, as I had an undiagnosed mental troubles combined with dealing with an unstable, angry alcoholic mother.

Total face blindness combined with severe manic depression meant I slunk though the halls at school dodging spit, screams of mockery and physical attacks, while at home had to watch my mother drink heavily every night after work.

The glimpses of pleasure I got started early, when I began to read anything I could get my hands on to escape my surroundings.

I discovered I was a speed reader pretty early, while still in elementary school, and that I had a taste for non fiction. Novels tend to involve people, men women and children, overcoming obstacles and 'growing.' I had had enough of that in my own life.

I developed a love of poetry, at least I am fond of the poets my mother used to read to me when she was only half in the bag - Cavafy's Waiting for the Barbarians, Frost's Death of the Hired Man, Robert Browning, Edna St. Vincent Millary, etc. She would tilt her chair back on two legs, at the dining table, smoke a cigarette, and read aloud from some collection or another lying around, in the smoke-filled, rather disorderly house. A particular favorite of hers was The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot, which she would try to recite without the book, especially the few lines, when she was really three sheets to the wind.

Both my parents smoked like chimneys, and indoors, a habit of a bygone era of the Greatest Generation. The walls were tinted yellow from the constant haze of cigarettes and Panatella cigars that dad smoked.

But mostly, from an early age, I read 'geeky' nonfiction. I had an appetite for science fiction and fantasy, as good escapes from my grim situation, but I was drawn to adult books on psychology, like How Children Fail, by John Holt, which I ate up in fourth grade when the school I was in was in the process of expelling me for ''fighting'' because I was defending myself from the bullies who hit me. Loved the book, and it still speaks to me.

I loved nonfiction - massive adult books about kangaroos, volcanoes, plagues, earthquakes, cats, battles. Not so much biographies, as their subjects often had painful lives and I was trying to escape that kind of pain.

Through my school years, I was reading two books a day, while phoning in my school work, handing in grubby sheets with incredibly poor handwriting on them.

I mostly was just trying to exist without being harassed, by either my schoolmates my siblings -- the two closest to me in age and I did not get along at all, in those years --
and to tune out my mother's drunken ravings.

Now and then, she would read to me. When I was really little, she read to me all the time, The Little Engine that Could, and like that. She was a children's librarian by day, and a damn good one -- she would seek out hard-to-get books to put into the library system she worked in, and was a fierce champion of banned books. She was a very smart, well read woman with a wicked sense of humor - -I would miss her more now that she has been dead nearly 10 years, if she had not also been a raging, angry, accusatory, paranoid drunk.

She got drunk most days, and was not fun to listen to, not fun to be around. I did seize on the times when she was still sober, and would talk about authors she liked. Many of them are my favorites too, such as Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyer, and Rex Stout, but those times were rare, as most of the time she was trying to get as drunk as possible and stay as drunk as possible every night.

I think that is why books are so important to me. If I had not been a bookworm at an early age, I would have killed her. I had taped up on my wall for years a clipping about an 18 year old girl who did not get into Harvard, though she had been admitted with a full scholarship. She had killed her own drunken, abusive mother when she was 14, and was locked up for it till she was 18. Eventually she got in to Tufts, hurrah.

She was my hero, privately, gleefully, for what she had done. Later on, I forgave my mother, as she lost her eyesight as her smoking (and drinking) made her macular degeneration worse.

She suffered so by not having books to escape into. She listened to tapes and listened to a lot of NPR. I forgave her, and understood her; I think she had the same brain trouble I did, and medicated herself by drinking.

So, books are important to me -- and not novels, though I have read and liked a fair number, but nonfiction. Some nonfiction books I have read over and over, and those are the ones I want to write about. Also those that I may only have read three times, but I thought were stellar.

And as a bookseller, I have noticed that some authors and subjects are difficult to read without some explanation, some "helps''. Either they address problems that are not clear to us, context we don't understand easily -- like Thomas Paine, or they wrote in a bewilderingly different era, like Dante's or Elizabeth Barrett Browning's time.

Next February I will have been selling books with a licence for 30 years (before that, I was a book scout, buying books and selling them to bookstores.) I have handled books for resale 42 years. In that time, I have come across nonfiction books that deserve attention, on many many different subject --Statistics, drug crazes, to poets, stock market crashes, human and animal evolution, etc.

Let me share my knowledge with you. I have read a lot of second rate books, badly written or boring books, and I think I can offer up some of the best of what I found.

This is very idiosyncratic list. I am fond of plagues, disasters, and diseases, but some are quiet
accounts of love, knowledge, dreams and inspiration.