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Yes, It Is All About Me

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Okay, maybe that wasn’t the best way to put it.

Some of you have been around here long enough to remember that at the beginning of 2009, I published a post about the worst week-end of my life–or maybe the worst two weeks.  I don’t remember what the duration was, but I was probably wrong, so that doesn’t matter.

At the time, I promised to post an explanation of what had gone on and how it turned out.  This is not that.  Although the worst of the mess has been safely over for some months, I’m still stuck in a lot of legal questions that aren’t going to go away any time soon. 

What brings it all up at the moment is this:  while all that was going on, I was finishing the book that is due to come out this coming Spring as next in the Gregor series, and I was making a royal, first-class mess of it.

I do not want you to think I’m exaggerating here, because I’m not.  I valiantly plowed on working through all the worst of the craziness, but I did it almost on auto-pilot.  I barely remembered the book after I’d finished it.  It was far shorter than what I usually do.  The whole thing was just…wrong.

Then I turned it in, and it took my editor literally weeks to say anything about it at all.  It usually takes him about two days. 

When he did say something about it, it was, “don’t get me wrong, this is really a good book, I just need you to do some things.”

I was an editor once.  I know code when  I hear it.  But even if I didn’t, I’d have known something was wrong here, because I knew it when I handed the thing in.

So, while I was waiting for the editorial letter, I printed out a copy for myself and read it.  And it was awful.  It was incredibly, unexcusably awful.

I know I’m not the only one who felt this way, because the editorial letter, when it came, was over ten pages long, and my editorial letters tend to run one or two and be mostly full of suggestions rather than pleas for mercy.

But it took the letter months to arrive, and in that time I—okay.  Let me be honest here.

I rewrote the book.

The entire book.

From scratch.

For what it’s worth, I honestly think this was the only thing I could have done.  What was wrong was of a nature that was not going to “fix” in the ordinary, and my plots make more sense when they develop organically.  So I moved the location, changed all but two of the point of view characters, changed the nature of the reality show everybody is taking part in…

You get the picture.

The only way for me to do all that, though, was to go into total emersion mode, and that means that I had to read nothing but fiction while I was writing. 

I don’t know why that is the case, but it is.  Reading nonfiction does not usually interfere with what I write, but it does if I’m trying to get a lot done in a short time.  So I pulled out the novels I had, and that book of Kipling short stories I was telling you about before, and went on to reading fiction and only fiction after I’d finished writing in the morning, except for some magazine articles.

I always feel that magazine articles don’t count.  I don’t know why.  I made my living writing magazine articles for a long time.

For yet another reason that is totally obscure to me, I ended up reading almost nothing but Victorians and wanna-be Victorians:  Kipling and Dickens and Trollope and Henry James.   These were spiced up, on and off, by various Agatha Christie novels, mostly Miss Marples.  Miss Marple is not a wanna-be Victorian, but she’s fond of the same kind of formal mode of address.  So there was that.

This past week, what I’ve been reading is Anthony Trollope’s first novel, called The Warden, and possibly the oddest Kipling short story in the book, called “With The Night Train:  A Story of 2000 AD.”

The Trollope is the first of what came to be known as the Barsetshire series, his series about life among the clergy in the Church of England.  There’s something admirable about Trollope’s wholesale commitment to the public institutions of his time.  His two great passions were the Church of England and Parliament.   He even stood for Parliament once.

The book is very small and very short, which is odd enough for a man who tended to write big doorstopper books with fifty characters in them.  The Warden has only a very few characters, and its plot is thin to the point of being nonexistent.

The Warden in question holds a post as head of a charitable “hospital”–actually what we would call a rest home or nursing home, for the selected poor elderly of the city of Barsetshire.  The post comes with a nice house and a very nice income, and out of that income he gives the old men each twopence a day as a charity, besides using hospital funds as indicated to see to their bed and board.

The Warden is then set upon by a crusading young “reformer” of the town and his friends in the London newspapers, who declare that the money he gets for his living should go directly to the poor instead, and who then get to the residents of the hospital (all but one) to get them to file a suit for that money.

As a matter of fact, the lawsuit cannot succeed, but there is so much public chastisement in the press that the Warden quits his posts to stop from being hounded by it, and the upshot is that everybody is worse off–including the hospital residents, who no longer have their warden’s gift of twopence a day–than they would have been if the reformers had not tried to reform.

Trollope is the man who said that the purpose of the novel is to show us “the way we live now,” and this book comes as close to any novel I’ve ever read to being that and pretty much nothing other than that. 

And it makes its point more strongly than it could have  been made in prose, which is a good thing, too.  It’s not possible to miss Trollope’s meaning, or to find it ambiguous or ambivalent, even if you don’t know that he is making fun of Dickens in a character called Mr. Sentiment and of Macauley in a character named Mr. Anticant. 

Before this, I had read only one of the novels in the Barsetshire series, called Barchester Towers.  I was assigned it in a college class on nineteenth century British fiction.  Other than that, the only Trollope I was ever assigned in school was Phineas Finn, which I got in my master’s program.  Barchester Towers bored me.  Phineas Finn entranced me.  All in all, Trollope was not considered to be an important writer in the English departments of my day.

And if we were to go back to a conversation of what belonged in the Canon on any level, and certainly in a list of works everybody who wants to call herself educated should have read, I would put no Trollope on it.  He’s a servicable writer who gives a remarkably detailed portrait of middle class life in the England of his time, but he produced no Uriah Heep or Becky Sharpe.

Still, the book was incredibly compelling in its way, and its long term impact is, I think, going to be strong.  It sort of crept up on me, really, and the ending made such a difference to the way I perceived the work that I’m glad I have that compulsion to finish everything I start. 

The full title of the Kipling story is actually “With The Night Train:  A Story of 2000 AD (Together with extracts from the magazine in which it appeared)”  That last bit in parentheses is important, because the premise is that this is a magazine story from the year in question, and these are the other things the magazine features.

It occurs to me that I say almost nothing about the Kipling I’m reading except to complain about it, and that isn’t really fair to Kipling.  These are mostly stories from his later career, and they are much different than the children’s fiction I’d read by him before. 

And there are a couple of them that have impressed me, especially one called “The Bridge Builders,” which is actually a conversation among the ancient gods of India about what it is that will banish their worship from the face of the earth.  For that and a number of other things I’ve come across here, I suspect that Kipling was not a believer, at least not by the end of his life. 

There’s also a story called “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” which struck me for reasons that are personal, and that had a lot to say about the permanancy of childhood.

Sort of.

But as to “With The Night Mail.”

I could, I suppose, complain about the sort of thing it is, since it is not my sort of thing.  It’s science fiction of a sort we don’t do too much of these days, or that we do only in things that we don’t call science fiction, like a lot of Tom Clancy’s more technical stuff.

And it is technical, and that made it hard for me to read.  I have a hard time following Clancy, too, and that stuff is at least close enough to the actual so that I can ask somebody to explain it to me.  The action in “With The Night Mail” assumes that we have developed “aeroplanes” that operate in the air the way ships do in water, and that are held aloft by a gas that, if allowed to get out of hand, will shoot them straight to space.  There’s a lot of space given over to descriptions of the various machines and how they work, none of which I understood.

But a couple of things struck me.   First is that the articles from the magazine list ships lost and presumably crashed in the last month–if we ever reached the point tha that many airplanes were crashing in a single month, the governments of the world would probably ground all air traffic until they got the answer why.

Second is what Kipling did not think would change–there are virtually no women on these ships, and certainly no women officers or pilots or technicians.  There are no computers, either.  Orders are still being written out by hand.

I fault Kipling for the first and not for the second–there was, after all, an active movement for the rights of women and an influx of women into the professions in his own lifetime–but it also occurs to me that the familiar may be harder to dispel than the non-yet-imagined.

But the third thing is the key to why this story is sticking in my head today.  Here is what Kipling thinks will have happened by the year 2000:  people will no longer believe in any kind of hell; there will be an international language which all airship crews will speak; and all war will have come to an end.

Here’s another thing I think:  I think Kipling was less of a conservative than the people who beat up on him think he was.

Written by janeh

January 8th, 2010 at 6:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Yes, It Is All About Me'

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  1. I believe Lloyd’s Insurance used to publish a list of ships missing and assumed lost. Back in the 19th century before radio, it was probably a rather long one. Kipling might have been using that as his model for the story.

    And I believe the English is the international language for air traffic control so Kipling got that right.


    8 Jan 10 at 6:50 pm

  2. The people who beat up on Kipling generally haven’t read much of him. It handicaps their critique. But he was certainly not a conservative of the Blimpian sort.

    I would read “The Garden” and “At the Gates” and check the history of the British War Graves Commission before I went on too far about the religion of Kiplings later days, but admitedly that only takes you to about 1919, and as I recall he died in 1934.

    That sort of SF he wrote–“With the Night Mail” and “As Easy as ABC”–is or was a very common form of the genre after his passing. It was how Heinlein especially made his reputation before STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, and Astounding/Analog used to be full of it. But prescient as it sometimes is, it never quite nails what the future will actually be like. Mostly–and Heinlein warned about this–the stories will be too conservative, by missing a trend, or extrapolate the trends of the last 20 years or so in a straight line. Kipling missed the suffragettes as a major force. He assumed the future would have and hence accept the accident rates which were normal in his day for sea-going vessels, and I suspect he extrapolated straight out from the decline in number and intensity of wars from 1814 to 1900 to arrive at a peaceful 2000.
    Others did the same. HG Wells will extrapolate growing social inequality to arrive at THE SLEEPER WAKES and THE TIME MACHINE and Orwell extrapolates the growth of single-party states to arrive at 1984. Mind you, the utopian novels showing the glorious future which will follow the final triumph of socialism, vegetarianism or feminism aren’t notably more accurate in this regard.

    Where Kipling was right in predicting a world criss-crossed by aircraft with a common language of the air–heavier than air ships and English, as it turns out–it passes by unnoticed. The saying in some quarters is “when we’re right, no one remembers. When we’re wrong, no one forgets.” The Heinlein story on that is “Requiem,” and while I’m not sure, I think the poem he quotes may be by Kipling.


    8 Jan 10 at 7:18 pm

  3. Robert,


    The poem is Requiem by Robert Louis Stevenson.


    9 Jan 10 at 12:56 am

  4. No, Kipling wasn’t the hidebound uncritical Empire-booster people have said he was. I don’t think his failure to assume that women would be working beside men in technical work is really inexcusable – sure, women were fighting for the vote and moving into the professions in his time, but they (along with children, with whom they were sometimes classified) were – or had recently – been moved out of hard physical labour in mines and factories, to protect them, and some of the arguments about getting women more into public life were based on very Victorian ‘angel of the home’ arguements – that women would improve the morality and moral tone of public life.

    The idea of an international trade language isn’t really much of a stretch – any place with a lot of international trading tends to have some kind of lingua franca.

    He was a dreamer when it came to peace, though. As many people are. I’d forgotten that he lived so long into the twentieth century – even the non-religious have discovered the hell that exists on earth, and it’s hard for anyone who lived during the twentieth century to deny that humans are as violent as they ever were.

    I should look for “The Warden” – the topic sounds very modern. It’s not that unusual for people not directly involved with something to campaign against it, causing great destruction and pain, and then to walk away to their next project, unfazed by their failure or the destruction they leave in their wake.


    10 Jan 10 at 8:37 am

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