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Land of Hope and Glory

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Okay, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, so bear with me.

I have talked on this blog, several times, about the work of Henry James.  That makes sense, because I like the work of Henry James, and of the writer who modeled her own career on his, Edith Wharton.

I like James and Wharton because they write about people and how those people think and feel.  They write about the individual caught in a society that is no good for him, or (more likely) her.

There is of course conflict and resolution, but the conflict and resolution is often largely interior.  In The Portrait of a Lady, Isabel Archer must learn that her ideas about love and marriage–all of them romaticized and emotional–are untrue to reality, and do it once that reality has fallen on her and nearly crushed her.  She can come into her own only once she understands that her husband is what he is and has never been anything else.

Even then, her emancipation is internal–she cannot divorce the man, given the laws and customs of her time, and even protecting her money from him is a major undertaking.

These seem to me to be real and important problems.  They catch my interest because they are the problems of everyday life, the things we need to deal with every day–and, in dealing with, because the constituent parts of a life lived well or badly.

And living life well or badly–each of us, on our individual and largely unimportant level–is the final answer to that question about what it’s all supposed to mean.

I don’t care if you’re atheist or religious or something in between, and I don’t care what religion you practice.

Each of us has exactly one chance to live this life, and what we do with it, and how we build it, is the single most important fact for and about any of us.

I bring this up right now because I have been reading my way through some science fiction, and that reading has brought it home to me that when I choose books for myself, I always choose books about how ordinary people construct and conduct their lives.

That paradigm explains not only why I read James and Wharton–and Hemingway and Katherine Anne Porter and all the rest–but also why I read and write mysteries.

And not just mysteries in general, but specifically detective stories. 

The detective story is first and foremost a story about very ordinary people caught in the concentrating experience of being part of an extraordinary crime.

I think that one of the things that often bothers me about reading science fiction–and certainly about reading a great deal of fantasy–is that these stories are not this.

The characters are almost always either Somebody Important, or Somebody Official, and the stories almost always take place in Extraodinary Circumstance–a space mission to a new world, the conquests of planets or galaxies, the reclamation of the entire world from the Forces of Evil, or just about anything except people going about their everyday business at everyday occupations.

In fact, one of the odder things about the science fiction people ask me to read is this:  all the stories seem to be about big government projects of some kind.  I never get any sense of how people on alien worlds, or even people on the Earth at the time, live day to day.

It is, in fact, even odder than that.  I sometimes get the impression–and this is the case with Star Trek, too–that there is no day to day.  The world seems to have become a wholly own subsidiary of whatever the government is.  They are space troopers, or Imperial police, or members of a military crew, or–

You see what I mean here.  What I don’t hear about is a guy running a grocery store or working for a small private insurance company or even running a bookstore or working an assembly line. 

In these stories, the government, of whatever kind it is, seems to have swallowed up everything.  The world of the future is characteried by large government project sending people into space to colonize remote planets or serving in intergalactic armies or going off to do the official dig at some archelogically important space site.

I know this is all supposed to be metaphor and analogy, relevant to our time and place through the magic of fiction and inference.

But the fact is, I’m not much interested in reading about big government enterprises in my own time and place. 

I don’t even like most police procedurals, and I really don’t like the ones about chasing Really Evil and Sexually Gross serial killers.

My main exception to this is that I do like quite a lot of things set in and around World War II.  I am not entirely sure why this is true.  And I’m not sure what Patton and Band of Brothers have in common besides World War II.

And World War II is not enough in and of itself, because I tried very hard to get into The Pacific, and I just couldn’t manage it.

The more I look into my preferences in fiction, the more pronounced this particular preference is.  I prefer Marple to Poirot, largely because Miss Marple is not a Great Detective.  She’s a little old lady who lives in a small town and who has a clear head and a good mind. 

She is, in other words, one of us.

I think I have, stuck somewhere in my mind, the conviction that the Great Events of the world are not really all that important, and that the Official ones are even less so.

Yes, of course Great Events affect us all, and the activities of government often affect us whether we want them to or not, and can change the entire intellectual and spiritual nature of a society.

But in the end, it seems to me more important what people do with it, in the small decisions, day to day, year to year.

Small decisions add up to some very large realities about the world. 

In the end, I think what I find most disappointing is the lack of imagination–you’d think one of these guys, somewhere, would have come up with a story that gave at least some indication that there were people out there doing the ordinary things of everyday life.

In the world of the future, the universe has become an arena of governtment action, and not much else.

Written by janeh

May 23rd, 2012 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Land of Hope and Glory'

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  1. I was going to mention Cherryh, who has lot of interesting characters, many of whom are not the superheros of their fictional universes, but rather ordinary types in extraordinary situations, but she does rather focus on situations in which there is a powerful government or other organization tunning things. Or trying to.

    I think my tastes differ somewhat from yours. When I am advised to read about an average store clerk, I’m afraid I yawn, in spite of the fact that I do agree that what we do with our very ordinary lives is extremely important to us and those around us. And I like Austen, who is noted for writing about ordinary lives, and LM Montgomery, who did the same. I have Edith Wharton on my kindle since the last time you suggested her, but haven’t gotten around to reading more than a page or two, so I can’t comment on her and certainly not on Henry James. I don’t think I ever read anything by him. I couldn’t get into A Turn of the Screw, and never bothered trying anything else.

    They’ve got a shopkeeper as an important character on Deep Space Nine, if that counts.


    23 May 12 at 12:30 pm

  2. Well, Larry Niven and the Gil Hamilton stories come to mind. Gil is a (nearly) ordinary future police detective charged with solving some knotty crimes. He deals with future tech, but the tech is always fairly described, and the motivations for murder are still the classics, so the reader can, with some thought, solve the mystery. Gil himself has one extraordinary talent, but it’s a circumscribed talent, so it’s not a “magic do anything” power that makes the mysteries unfair.

    And although there is a big government out there somewhere, and Gil does work for it as a detective, it’s not the center of the stories. Mostly they’re about ordinary people, doing things that aren’t even crimes now, but they are in the future.


    Spider Robinson deals almost exclusively with ordinary types, especially in his Callahan’s series. Well, except for the aliens bent on destroying the planet. But the barflies at Callahan’s take care of that. And oh, yeah, there’s the talking dog. But he’s an ordinary guy too, it turns out. ;) Read the stories, they are FUN. Unless you have an allergy to puns.


    I’m looking at my shelf of books and realizing that much of SF involves stories of much larger scope than the “scenes from a life” kind of thing you’re talking about. So government tends to come into it more than not. “Scenes from a life” set in present day or past can get away with not intersecting government. Larger scope stories cannot, even those that are not SF. Even your basic murder brings in the government in the form of police.

    But I have little use for those kinds of small-scale tales of interior life and situational angst, SF or otherwise. I think they’re probably more difficult in an SF context, because too much of the underlying presumptions of society and the motivations for conflict have to be explained, and doing so in the absence of illuminating action tends to get pedantic or obvious. I think. This paragraph either needs a lot more explanation or a lot less.

    Akk. Go work, Lynn.


    23 May 12 at 2:58 pm

  3. Hmm. Well, if all one wishes from fiction is the thoughts and emotions of the contemporary Western middle class, it would certainly be a waste of effort to create Diskworld, Middle Earth or any of the better science fictional “future histories.” Seems to me more like a waste of the potential of fiction, though. Anything along those lines I’ve either experienced or seen at no further remove than first cousins. Thirtysomething was interesting for two seasons, but who would want to watch it 24/7 for a lifetime?

    As far as realism goes, though, my adult years go from registering for the draft to working as a defense contractor—Cold War and Vietnam to War on Terror and Libya. And like any contemporary Westerner, my conditions of employment, hiring, promotion, wages and take-home pay are supervised when not dictated by the government, right up to the looming old age pension/Social Security. And I’m composing this on a device fostered by the space program to be posted by means of the fruit of a DARPA project—both SF when I started reading SF. I’m afraid a novel of the contemporary middle classes which omitted Big Government Actions and scientific innovations wouldn’t be very realistic.

    As for science fiction—and I think by implication fantasy—yes, if you had no wars, no revolutions, no tyranny and no exploration of space, you’d leave quite a gap in the field. There’d be a fair-size hole in the collected Hemingway and Faulkner, too, and not much left of Alan Drury.

    But among the science fiction and fantasy which would be left would be:
    Leigh Brackett’s “The Road to Sinharrat” and “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon” which are specific responses to Big Government Actions,
    Lois McMaster Bujold’s “At the Mountains of Mourning” which is precisely an amateur detective—and a community which isn’t sure what was done was murder, and certainly doesn’t want it solved—and FALLING FREE, in which a teacher has to deal with genetically modified students—who are now technologically obsolete.
    C.J. Cherryh’s MERCHANTER’S LUCK. The last of a family can’t quite make it on his own—but may not be able to cope with a new family, either.
    Lord Dunsany—Well, almost all of Dunsany, actually, but don’t miss “Idle Days on the Yann” “The Hoard of the Gibbelins” and the “Jorkens” stories.
    Barbara Hambly’s STRANGER AT THE WEDDING: a young woman estranged from her family comes home for her sister’s wedding, and has to reopen old wounds—and reconsider her own future.
    Robert Heinlein’s early greats: “Delilah and the Space Rigger” “It’s Great to be Back” “Gentlemen, be Seated” and “The Green Hills of Earth” all from THE PAST THROUGH TOMORROW, his “Future History.”
    Kipling’s “With the Night Mail”—a perfectly uneventful examination of air transport and its consequences—written in the early days of the steamship.

    All those titles were pulled from three shelves of one bookcase. Four would have given me Piper, Pournelle and Pratchett, but I thought I’d made my point. Please note it was not a bookcase dedicated to fantasy and science fiction—just my favorite hardcovers and trade paperbacks, so they share space with Austen, Conan Doyle and Crusie, Heyer, Krentz and Lowell.

    You are perfectly entitled to dislike science fiction and fantasy for any reason at all—or no reason. But you’ll be taken more seriously if you dislike them for what they are by definition, and not what they are sometimes. I could make some pretty vicious generalizations about mainstream or detective fiction on the basis of what they sometimes are.

    Cheryl, with you on Cherryh, but I recently read TTOS and–don’t. Just don’t. However, Jennifer Crusie did a very nice “homage” to it in MAYBE THIS TIME.


    23 May 12 at 5:44 pm

  4. TTOS – The Tree of Swords? I read it years ago. I don’t remember much about it, but I generally don’t like her fantasy as much as I like her science fiction. That I like very much, although I’m beginning to wonder if Bren will EVER succeed/ get killed/ get burned out/ retire…but I still read all the books. He’s not the typical Cherryh hero, though; not the hapless guy caught in the impossible situation.

    I hadn’t thought of ‘Stranger at the Wedding’ in years. I still have a copy kicking around somewhere, I think. Horrific situation echoing through the years – and not so far removed from the real life of some people.

    Talking of old Hamblys, I liked the Winterland books, too. Jenny struggling with her studies and power, and John almost a sidekick except far brighter than most – and strong and brave enough to deal with his own struggles as well as those of everyone else, including Jenny.

    I notice online Hambly’s got some stories based on the old characters that she’s selling in e formats.


    24 May 12 at 7:03 am

  5. TTOS, Turn of the Screw, I think.

    I love Hambly. Her non-SF is also superior, the Benjamin January series & the stand-alones. Jane might really enjoy those.

    Thanks for the head’s up on the online e-ditions of Hambly. Will look for them.


    24 May 12 at 2:25 pm

  6. Should indeed have been TTOTS–The Turn of the Screw. And, as I said–don’t.


    24 May 12 at 3:24 pm

  7. I tried The Turn of the Screw once. Long ago. I couldn’t get into it at all.

    The e-stories are on Hambly’s site.


    I think I’ve read all the January books, and enjoyed them.


    24 May 12 at 3:35 pm

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