Thursday, October 30, 2014

Not To Be Robert Heinlein

How do you not be a “right-wing fascist?” As a writer, I mean.

I ask this because such is a judgment “against” my favorite author, Robert A. Heinlein.

Alternately, Heinlein is known for being a “long-haired liberated type” after writing the college student cult classic Stranger In A Strange Land. Still, the shorthaired fascist image is the one that seems to stick. In fact, according to the Internet, when that Dutch director who made Robocop made the feature Starship Troopers, based on the novel of the same name, he couldn’t, due to his distaste, finish reading the book. Hence, says the web, his film had a satirical tone.

I dimly recall the 1950’s Starship Troopers being written when the public felt baffled and helpless before a new unprecedented rise in juvenile delinquency. I’m not sure if delinquency has since returned to pre-war levels or if we’ve merely learned to normalize it. At any rate, I think Heinlein had intended to be earnest, not satirical. Or had he?

It was Heinlein who said that sf, written science fiction, (not Hollywood) could be more broadly known as “speculative fiction.” To me this means an author could take opposing ideas, mutually exclusive ideas, and then speculate with various novels. For example, write one novel where people are informed self-reliant Boy Scouts in a sort of Roman republic, then another where people say, “What’s the use?” in a wimpy Roman empire, and yet another where they are truly wimps, screwed if ever The Machine Stops. (E. M. Forster 1909) None of his novels would necessarily represent the belief of the writer.

Of course, life is more fun if both literary critics and eager readers like me can pretend to discern the beliefs and philosophy of a writer from just his or her writing—but we can’t, of course.  I really want to believe, but—: Recently Orson Scott Card has created controversy by his actions against gays; people are saying everyone should boycott the Superman comics he is scripting. I am surprised because I really like Card's Ender series, especially the books where Ender is gentle middle-aged man. I even underlined parts. I thought Card’s writing suggested a likeable writer of deep psychological insight and compassion, which would rule out his being cruel to gays. (Note: Scientists say being gay is not a choice… then again, the same scientists believe in the theory of evolution)  

I know of another male writer, who shall be nameless here because the public hasn’t twigged yet, a man who has written of very Loving characters—in fact, his straight males can say the “L” word—but his nonfiction essays show him as a jerk… Now I wonder if maybe another nice writer, Paul Gallico, back in the 1960’s, anticipated the Card controversy. Gallico was a best-selling author in his day. He wrote a short novel where a lonely orphan girl joins a traveling one-man puppet show. The puppet master is pathetically cruel to her, and he controls his puppets to be very nice to the girl… Truly, people are a mystery.

As for Heinlein, his private life he kept private, so presumably people who judge him fascist do so from his work in general, and not just from a single book like Starship Troopers. I generally like his stuff. So what could I or another writer do, to avoid the same right wing fascist label? What could Heinlein have done differently? The question, invoking his book titles, makes an interesting thought experiment.

Thought Experiment

In Red Planet, subtitled A Colonial Boy on Mars, the teen hero is present at a town hall meeting: Reading about it was my first exposure to Robert’s Rules of Order. Part of the meeting involved “What should be the age of majority?” (Voting) a theme returned to in Starship Troopers. It seems Heinlein believes in participation, as in his novel Double Star (which surely inspired the 1993 film Dave) where the characters, none of whom are politicians, all enjoy being party members and participating in democracy.

What is the opposite then, for me, to avoid being labeled fascist? Better to write of a hero in a “what’s the use?” society where only an elite participate and the average guy, to paraphrase me at work, thinks, “I only live here.”  As many sf writers do.

In Rocketship Galileo the teen friends, because of one boy’s father, learn to be properly scientific, keeping careful notes for their hobby of rocket experiments. In Have Spacesuit—Will Travel the hero, thanks to intervention by his father, takes better, harder courses in high school after deciding to become an engineer. In Space Family Stone the brothers plan to become asteroid prospectors until their grandmother convinces them there is more money in selling to the prospectors: They become entrepreneurs. It seems Heinlein believes older competent folks are responsible to help younger folks have goals and become competent in their turn. Maybe that’s elitist. And fascist.

The opposite of hard goals would be all the young adult novels of my formative years—or almost all. One man wrote about a boy on his school wrestling team, without even saying whether or not the boy wins his tournament at the end of the book, because the point was to show the boy making an effort. The author said he wrote it as a protest: As he noted, all the other teen characters of my formative years, the  longhaired 1960's and 70's, were non-ambitious. Maybe not losers, but certainly non-winners. Maybe to write about plain non-winners is to be safely non-fascist.

In Starman Jones a passenger starcruiser, a “love boat,” is marooned, and then responsible civilians, as well as the crew, are armed with pistols and rifles from the weapons locker. Pistols are commonplace in Red Planet to fend off wildlife. On Mars ordinary civilians, family men, use their pistols to force Earth to give them independence. In Between Planets a teenager who feels orphaned and displaced eventually joins the army. It seems Heinlein is comfortable with guns.

The opposite? To write about an unarmed population, about city folks who have never seen a gun, folks who find guns icky, disturbing and not-nice. Being afraid of guns, I guess, is normal and non-fascist. I could write of such a society, I suppose, even though in real life my sister coaches biathlon and my brother-in-law is the armorer for the local cadet corps.

I have no idea whether Heinlein, now deceased, (1988) was ever as nice in person as my splendid brother-in-law is. Still, I’ve enjoyed this small thought experiment.

Robert Heinlein remains my favorite author.

I don’t think I’ll write about groups of friends who don’t participate or vote, with no difficult hobbies or goals, no competence, and no sense of responsibility to the next generation. And not liberated about guns. No, if that were normal and middle-of-the-road, if it’s more enlightened to write about protagonists and civilians rather than about heroes and citizens, well, I’d rather just write like a “fascist.”

Sean Crawford


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Fine Man, Fine Writer

Have you a passion? For building, sailing, singing or something? Anything?

I, and a few dozen others, (I didn’t count them, or take any notes) spent yesterday evening with a fine man who encouraged us to live our passion. Like a gorgeous wine, such men are to be appreciated as adding a little grace to our life. We sat on soft folding chairs in the little independent bookstore, Owl’s Nest Books. I wasn’t interested in hearing any facts or technical advice, not about writing. Like the rest of the keen crowd, I already knew my craft, well enough for now. Instead, I was there to take in a man, and his more esoteric experiences in being a writer. I was not disappointed.

Can you name any prairie writers? Any prairie mystery writers? Of course not, but you can now: Anthony Bidulka. Thriving in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, he knew of only one other writer. (I forget her name) So he went up to her and asked her to tell him about the writerly life. What mattered was her example that it could be done. What really mattered, in that encounter between two people, was not any specific facts she had to say but simply her belief that he could do it too.

Of course the mathematical odds against ever being published are steep, let alone the odds against making a living at writing. And Bidulka would all know about mathematics, since he was a successful chartered accountant. Successful? Yes, he was a partner in a firm… and he gave it all up, to be a writer, after first “saving like a bugger.” You can expect years, plural, before you make your first sale. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is following your passion. He didn’t want to be “sitting on a rock when I’m 85…” and wondering.

I can still hear some of his exact words. But I don’t suppose I should quote him too much, because I know another published writer who is very sensitive about anyone stealing his thunder, and Bidulka might come to speak at a bookstore near you. But I will say Bidulka was a skilled public speaker, humorous, warm, humane and giving of himself. It was so nice to take in a man with a good heart. He said, “time worked its magic” so now he is skilled, and able to help others.

Bidulka explained that it didn’t matter if a passion was part time or half time or if you could somehow make money at it: “That’s a bonus.” In answer to a question about “interests” he named some neat interests, so obviously he has a life, but he had just the one passion. The difference between interests and a passion, it seems, is that a passion makes it all worthwhile. I forget, now, how Bidulka explained the difference, but never mind—I now have lots of time to reason it out.

Obviously Bidulka didn’t mean that anyone’s passion had to be “writing”—although it was for him. At one point he reflected that if he had been braver he could have become a writer straight out of high school—but he didn’t regret any of his jobs. I have noticed that many writers have many different jobs on their resumes. I wondered, last night, if many of them took years in getting free of what they sensibly “should” do, before getting into following their heart. I don’t know. I do know that many good writers have a “real job,” and that seems to work out. (Algis Budrys sold trucks) Bidulka is not a moderate person, he goes all-out, and so in his case trying to do part time writing would just not have worked.

As for the folks on the folding chairs, I would say they all had a life, and real jobs, or were retired. Mostly women. Everyone wore nice clothes, and everyone was over age 30. At one point the ex-accountant told us of going to his first writer’s conference, held outside the prairies, and being delighted at finding people just like him. I know the feeling. This delight is one of the side benefits, I think, of following your passion. I can remember when I was a young man looking for a career: I filed away the fact, according to science, that one of the best predictors of whether a career would be a good personal fit was not by comparing my aptitudes to the job, but by comparing myself to what the other workers were like. Peers matter.

It’s been decades since I went to a conference in my current profession, partly because we are frustratingly short staffed, (Last year I had really wanted to hear Steve Slopak, a guy I once worked with) but at least every year I take a Monday off so I can go to a weekend readers-writers-publishers conference, When Words Collide... held right here on the prairies! Obviously my profession has become for me what musicians call a “day job.” And that’s OK. Not as driven as Bidulka, I can enthusiastically write part-time while holding down a job. Besides, I can count on my fingers the years until my retirement. As for whether writing is my passion… I will need to essay-think my way through that one…

In an alternate universe Bidulka is an affluent long-term accountant—but he’s not as happy. I wondered about a version of myself from age 19 (time traveling) How would I have felt from attending the evening? Probably lost, lonely and alienated from all those rich grownups. Not to mention having despair at lacking enough self-discipline/self esteem to write regularly, lacking any faith or sense of life-purpose. Luckily I have kept my head up, trudging down the years.

Last night I was rich enough to have driven there in a bought-new car (and had learned to drive stick shift) and I was a part of a community, making serene eye contact and talking with three people who knew me: One of whom is on track to submit a manuscript this summer, just like me, and one of whom has way too many books and needs to get rid of lots, just like me—but how? The dilemma drives me mad! Yes, I fit into the writer community.

Gathered in warm community, we writers already knew basically how to write; we were there to see a man, a fine man. I’m glad I went, I’m so glad I follow my passion.

Sean Crawford

~As I’ve said before, most notably in my No Links is Good Links essay, archived July 2012, I don’t believe in enabling a person’s frantic undignified skimming: Hence I seldom make links. (And I don’t run downtown in my business clothes, either) But what I will do, as a trailhead to his Facebook and Twitter paths, is write out a web address: —and I see my computer has automatically made it into a link: how amusing.

~Coincidently, today I saw the Mexican movie Book of Life where a young man’s biggest fear, the one that torments him the most at night, is the fear of being himself. But of course, he doesn’t realize it: To “know thyself” takes years.

I am reminded of how in my youth, to avoid a cliché but still voice a classic yearning, we said, “I want to do my own thing.”

~Also coincidently, with echoes of Bidulka, today I resumed reading a book (over supper) I sent away for by a foreign novelist I enjoy, Haruki Murakami, called What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, subtitled (in much tinier print) A Memoir, Opening it at random, I started reading (again) where he sells his business and re-prioritizes his life around the hours and the health he needs to be a novelist full-time: Hence the jogging. He couldn’t just hire a manager for the business. “… I knew if I did things half heartedly and they didn’t work out, I’d always have regrets.” P. 31

Something I won’t look at too closely is where Murakami writes, “I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. …(Otherwise) you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance.” P. 37

~Another coincidence: Last week I essayed about Introverts and Messages. Murakami sheds light on introverts, as on P. 15 he writes,
“It might be a little silly for someone getting to be my age to put this into words, but I just want to make sure I get the facts down clearly: I’m the kind of person who likes to be by himself. To put a finer point on it, I’m the type of person who doesn’t find it painful to be alone. … I’ve had this tendency ever since I was young, when, given a choice, I much preferred reading books on my own or concentrating on listening to music over being with someone else. I could always think of things to do by myself.

Even so, after I got married at an early age (I was twenty-two) I gradually got used to living with someone else….”