Heinlein’s 13th Scribner’s Novel

There are legions of Robert A. Heinlein fans out there that grew up reading the 12 canonical Heinlein young adult novels published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in the 1940s and 1950s, that if we were ever given three magical wishes would use our first wish to get the 13th novel.  Many science fiction writers have tried to write that 13th Scribner’s novel hoping to pay it forward for the immense rewards they were given from reading the original 12 Heinlein juveniles, as they are now called.

In 2003 the Heinlein estate gave Spider Robinson the chance to write that 13th juvenile based on an outline and note cards Heinlein had developed in 1955.  In 2006 Variable Star came out with Robert A. Heinlein as the first author and Spider Robinson as the second printed boldly across the top of the cover.  I immediately bought the hardcover edition thinking I’d read it as soon as it arrived from Amazon, but I didn’t.  I wanted it to be the 13th Scribner’s, but feared it wouldn’t.   It’s taken me two and a half years to get ready.

Over the decades I have read many essays by all kinds of people explaining how their lives were affected and even shaped by reading the twelve Heinlein juveniles.  Spider Robinson wasn’t specifically tasked to write the 13th, and he even explains in the afterward that he was given leeway to write pretty much anything he wanted, but I feel from reading the results that he wanted to write another Heinlein juvenile.  Since Robinson includes profanity, sex and drugs, we know he wasn’t seriously writing a novel that Alice Dalgleish, Heinlein’s editor, would have accepted back in the 1950s.

On the other hand, there is so much Heinlein in Variable Star that it is obvious that Robinson does want to write a novel that Heinlein fans will love, and maybe even praise as a novel that Heinlein would have written.  This is a dangerous task to take on.  What if you were a writer and William Shakespeare’s estate asked you to write a new play that they could sell to the fans of Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet?  I think Robinson intentionally hedged his bets and put enough of his known style and favorite topics into Variable Star so if reviews were really bad he could claim he wasn’t crazy enough to imitate Heinlein completely.  But this book is stuffed to gills with Heinlein cliches.

I am 57 years old and I still try to understand why those twelve Heinlein books imprinted so strongly on my adolescent psychology.  It is enticing to think about Heinlein’s formula.  And it would be a fun challenge to analyze those 1950s books and try and recreate updated versions of them for the 2010s.  So here’s a quick overview what I think were his essential ingredients:

  • All the books are about boys of high school age
  • In most of the stories the boys are free of parental control
  • Girls and romance are not part of the story
  • No sex or profanity
  • All the stories involve outer space travel
  • Most of the stories involve exotic aliens
  • Success depends on the boys and their talent
  • Science, math and engineering are of supreme importance
  • Violence is often a solution
  • Great things can happen to kids if they are ready

Robinson breaks several of these points in Variable Star.  Joel Johnston has finished junior college and wants to get married.  He drinks, gets high, has sex, and he and his friends cuss.  But if Robinson had jettison the insanely stupid romantic plot, cut the boozing, drugs and cussing, this book could have been very much like a Heinlein juvenile.  Robinson appears to be as romantically tone deaf as Heinlein.  Many of Heinlein’s later books had characters wanting to get married ten minutes after they meet, and Robinson’s writing follows later Heinlein in dealing with the same silly male and female relationships.  Both write romances that feel like they were written by eleven year old girls trying to write about sex and love.

Variable Star is not the 13th Scribner’s juvenile by Robert A. Heinlein.  Alice Dalgleish would have wanted to edit out Heinlein’s reproductive organs if he had submitted this novel to her back in 1955.  I will admit Variable Star had many of Heinlein’s pet ideas from the time period, and the novel is somewhat structured like a Heinlein juvenile, but it’s more of a structural copy of Starship Troopers, because both are essentially one long first person monologue.  I love Starship Troopers and have read it many times.  Heinlein was at his best talking straight to the reader with Starship Troopers.  It’s a very hard writing style to pull off, and he never got away with it again, at least in my opinion.  Sadly, it’s the number one fault of Variable Star.  Since I listened to the book on audio it was all too obvious how much the narrator told the reader information and how little came through real dramatic action.  I wished Robinson had copied the more restrained and dramatic first person style of Time for the Stars.

Heinlein was great on coming up with far out science fictional ideas, but he was a damn poor writer when it came to dramatic scenes and plot, and Robinson marches right along in his footsteps.  For all the wrath Heinlein fans give poor Alice Dalgleish, I feel she kept Heinlein from boring his readers.  Alice Dalgleish is an evil woman among Heinlein’s true fans for censoring the master’s words, but I don’t think she deserves their scorn, nor does she deserve the evil portrayal of her as Alice Dahl in Variable Star.  To me grumbling from the grave is just whining after you’re dead.  Google Alice Dalgleish, she’s rather obscure, but she had a major impact on children’s literature.  Heinlein fans should worship her for giving them twelve cherished books from the leading American literary publisher of the time, that won all kinds of awards for their children’s line, were these books were published.

Most of the juveniles are stories written in the first person, heavy with info dumps, but they were kept under control, probably by Alice, and in the juveniles the info dumps were just long enough to teach and inspire kids without sounding like lectures.  Later Heinlein and in Variable Star, all too often the story comes to a complete stop so the author can pontificate.

Variable Star should have been published with only Spider Robinson’s name on the cover.  Many of my criticisms of the book would have been removed if that had been the case.  Of course we’re all savvy enough to know that writers estate’s want to maximize their profits by pulling various literary gimmicks.  If Variable Star had been published with only Robinson’s name on the cover, but with an intro about how he was given the Heinlein outline and note cards in a forward I would have had much more respect for the estate.

Since I bought the book in hardcover and audio, I also feel cheated that neither edition contained the actual Heinlein outline and notes.  I would have had much more respect for the Heinlein estate if they allowed Robinson to publish that working outline and notes in the back of Variable Star.  The book is a gimmick, and we should be allowed to see how good Robinson was at playing the game.  Also, with Heinlein’s name on the cover, we should have gotten some actual Heinlein words.

Now if Variable Star had been published with only Robinson’s name, and no mention of Heinlein at all, and I read the book for its own merits then my judgment would be totally different.  I think the book has many serious literary flaws, but it also has some fantastic science fictional speculation.  If I had read Variable Star as a book with no link to Heinlein on the cover, or within, I still would have thought it was inspired by Heinlein and figured Robinson is one of his literary descendents.  And I would have called him out on several 1950s Heinlein ideas that I feel are invalid for science fiction written after the year 1988.

Using telepaths for ship to Earth communication on slower than light spaceships following all of Einstein’s rules was a far out idea when Heinlein did it in his book Time for the Stars.  And from what Robinson said about the various names Heinlein considered for Variable Star I’m guessing he didn’t use that outline because Time for the Stars is the book he wanted to write with those ideas.  Since science has thoroughly trashed the concept of telepathy in humans in the succeeding decades it’s rather silly to bring back the idea.  ESP is only suitable for fantasy stories, not modern science fiction.

Science has also killed many other Heinlein ideas from the 1950s, like farming on Ganymede, people being able to do astrogation calculations in their head, and faster than light travel.  For Robinson to have near light speed travel, much less FTL, he has to resort to mystical mumbo-jumbo of the silliest kind.  Now I don’t fault Spider Robinson too much on this though.

Diehard Heinlein true believers have total faith that FTL travel is possible even though they are reduced to counting the number of FTL drives that can fit on the head of a pin.  Their religious faith depends on science finding a way around all the physics we currently know today.  I’m willing to concede there may be a God, Heaven and Hell, life after death and faster than light travel, but the odds are about equal for all of them.  I try not to be too critical about people’s deepest desires, but if Robinson wanted to write a cutting edge 2006 science fiction novel he should have stuck to all the rules of known science today.

Now it might seem like I’m totally trashing this novel as unworthy of reading, and I don’t want to do that.  I think Variable Star does have some merits, some even equal to the sense of wonder of the 1950s Heinlein juveniles, but I can’t discuss them in detail without spoiling the story.  There is a core tragedy that if the novel had been written differently could have made this novel into a major SF classic.  This part of the novel made me feel totally satisfied with my purchase, even counting that I bought the book twice.  Sadly, I consider it a shame that these great elements were stuck inside a gimmick novel.

Robinson narrated the audio book and did a great job.  Usually I don’t like audio books read by their authors.  He also includes an afterwards that makes me really like him, so I hate to be critical.  We’re both lovers of Heinlein’s juveniles, which I consider a stronger bond than blood relationship.  However, I’m not like many of the spiritual children of Heinlein because I rebelled against the old man.  Many of my Heinlein brothers and sisters hate me for the things I say about Heinlein’s later books.

The true believers raise their hackles at any criticism of Heinlein.  I had a different take on the old man.  Heinlein preached science, and the lesson I learned from him is go with what’s logical and real.  Heinlein threw out many hypothetical ideas to research.  Most didn’t pan out, no big deal.  Science moves on.  Heinlein always believed mankind was the toughest varmint in this neck of the galaxy, and you can’t be tough living in your naval gazing on fantasies.

Variable Star’s many faults remind me of later Heinlein, and I can almost imagine a much older Heinlein writing Variable Star trying to recapture his glory days at Scribner’s.  I think Robinson missed the mark at writing the 13th juvenile but still came very close to writing a Heinlein like novel.  This can be seen as praise and insult, since I think later Heinlein is a bloated parody of younger Heinlein.  I truly hate stories like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls where Heinlein dredged up cherished characters I loved in adolescence turning them into silly kissy-kissy wife-swapping swingers.  I give Robinson great credit for not doing this.  Robinson is far more liberal than Heinlein, and I admired those liberal qualities in Variable Star, but I wonder what Heinlein would have thought though.

This is going to sound weird, but those twelve Heinlein juvenile novels from the 1950s are sacred to me.  As much as I would love to read another one I can’t.  The world of 2009 is too different.   Heinlein vastly improved my troubled childhood with his stories, and I will always love them, but I had to grow up.  I don’t think anyone can write the 13th 1950s Heinlein Scribner’s novel in 2009.  I think Alexei Panshin came closest with his 1968 novel Rite of Passage but that novel worked because I was still in my teens.  Maybe a 2009 teenager will find Variable Star just as magical as I found Time for the Stars all those years ago.  I think that’s possible.  But for us old Heinlein fans, I don’t know.

If I was going to write a series of young adult science fiction novels for the 2010s, that I hoped would be as inspirational as the 1950s Heinlein stories had been for me, I think they should include these elements:

  • The lead characters could be boys or girls
  • The main character would still be high school age kids who find some way to live independent of their parents
  • Science, math and engineering would still be vitally important
  • I would accept the importance of sex and romance in these stories because realistically sex and romance is a huge part of teenage life, but the primary subject of the story would be sense of wonder and the future
  • I’m not sure what role violence would play
  • I could skip profanity, although I think editors accept it now in young adult novels
  • Success of the plot would still depend on the kids
  • Nearly all the ideas Heinlein had about space travel have turned out to be wrong, so it would be vitally important to invent new realistic explorations of space that kids could evaluate

This is where Robinson really missed the boat with Variable Star.  By focusing on Heinlein’s peak ideas he seems to have forgotten they are over a half century old.  Heinlein speculated about many things that we’ve since come to realize as completely wrong.  Kids can’t built atomic rockets that take them to the Moon.  There is no intelligent life on Venus and Mars.  Just the radiation will keep us from farming Ganymede.  And all the forms of space travel Heinlein envisioned are no more realistic than Tinkerbell’s fairy dust as a mode of transportation.

Just because science has outpaced science fiction doesn’t mean those twelve Heinlein juveniles aren’t great stories, still readable today.  They have just migrated to the world of lovable childhood fantasy stories.  The job of the next Heinlein is to write speculative fiction based on the science we know today.  Like I said, there are some core elements of Variable Star that does this, unfortunately Robinson ruins it with a fantasy invention that fits in a plot that’s based on a sequence of way too many coincidences to be believable.  I’ve read that Robinson has gotten the go ahead to write three sequels to this book.  I would have loved to read those books if they were based on Variable Star’s core problem, and if the book from chapter 19 on had been different.

The idea of developing many colonized worlds through slower-than-light travel is excellent speculative matter for current science fiction.  Having the main event of chapter 17 affect those worlds is another great idea for science fiction to explore.  But the story needs to do it without telepathy or breaking the speed limits imposed on information.  That would be a far out story worthy of many books.

Finally, hey Spider, one mention that a door dilates is cool homage to Beyond This Horizon, mentioned over and over again is just story stopping agony.  One unbelievable coincidence in a novel is forgivable, but one per chapter is authorial suicide.

JWH – 4/25/9

Fuel For Writing

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything on Auxiliary Memory.  I’ve started several essays but never finished any.  I also started a diet. I’ve notice over the years that there’s a relationship between calories and the number of words I produce.  Cookies, cokes, cakes and candy fuel my mind for writing.  Dieting leaves my brain lethargic, suitable only for watching TV.  And man have I been watching TV this past two weeks!  I’ve seen 33 episodes of Battlestar Galactica.  I had to boost my Netflix from 1 disc at a time to 3 to keep up with my hunger for more shows, watching up to 4 episodes a night.

The difference between being active and passive is junk food.  But since I’ve ballooned to 237 pounds I can’t keep feeding my creative drive.  And those healthy fruits and vegetables just don’t stoke the fire to crank out words.  I’ve got to find some kind of discipline to get back into writing.  Without sweet calories, I guess I need to learn how to push myself by will-power alone.

Of course, I’ve got to ask myself why write at all?  Not to mention the fact that I’ve been mentally beating myself up for the last couple years for writing on the blog instead of working on fiction.  Blog writing is like practicing the piano.  It’s very good for mental health.  For the last decade I’ve been forgetting more and more words, and even how to pronounce them.  When I started blog writing that boosted my ability to remember.

Getting old has other side affects besides the slowing of brain access speeds.  There is a tendency to solidify thoughts in old age, so if you’re not careful you’ll parrot your frozen opinions whenever a response is needed.  Exploring concepts in a blog helps break down comfortable old opinions into their basic parts so you can start over and remodel the rooms in your brain.

All this new thinking requires energy and time.  My best time to write is mornings, but Monday through Friday I have work, and often on the weekends I have personal obligations.  Writing at night requires lots of extra calories.  The obvious solution is to get up at 4 or 5 in the morning and write before work, but right now I don’t have that kind of discipline.  My body naturally wants to sleep until 6:30 am when the cats start meowing for their breakfast.

There are alternative fuels for writing.  Sometimes playing loud music can stimulate my brain cells.  Other times reading an inspiring article and taking a short nap to digest the thoughts will get me to jump up and start writing.  I’ve never had the mental energy to write like a professional writer, that is to stick to writing like working a 9 to 5.  Real writers can write when they’re not in the mood, or when they lack the energy.  Real writers can’t not write, but I don’t have that demon.

One way or another I’ve got to find the energy to write.  I would be tempted by artificial stimulants, but my old body can’t even handle caffeine anymore.  I know I can’t stop writing because my mind would quickly start sliding downhill again.

JWH – 3/29/9

Roping A Wayward Mind

In the excellent essay, “The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen opens up with this 1740s quote from a Lord Chesterfield to his son that I can’t stop thinking about:

There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.

I wished my kindergarten teacher had started every day of class with that lesson because it’s obvious that I have never accomplished anything significant in my fifty-six years because I’ve always been trying to do two things at once.  I’m a jack of all trades, master of none kind of guy, and it annoys the hell out of me.

This morning’s activities will well illustrate my need for focus and the pitfalls of multitasking.  After my shower I started ripping CDs with my second computer, rolled out my exercise mat and started doing my yoga-like back exercises while daydreaming the opening scene of a novel I’d like to write, while another part of my mind kept reminding me to work on the short story I had been fleshing out in my imagination yesterday while exercising, and thoughts of three or four blog ideas buzzed like bees around these main ideas hoping to get more bio-CPU cycles themselves, while I was also trying to remember who I wanted to see today, where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do with my Saturday.

If I followed Lord Chesterfield’s advice I would have had a single-minded Zen-like focus on my exercises and my back would be much better for it. (I just jumped over to put a new CD into the burner and ran to the kitchen to feed our cats.)

After my exercises I got up and checked my email and stats on this blog page and followed a link to a web site that mentions John Scalzi’s comments on fame, followed the link to Scalzi’s site and then found a link to Wil Weaton’s site where he discusses fame and then I found a link to Stephen Fry’s site, also about fame, but a very long well thought out essay.  This gave me an idea to write a blog post about how it’s more rewarding to read a famous person’s blog than to actual meet them for a few minutes.

(Next CD to rip, which requires getting up and using the computer on the opposite side of the room.)  Before I could start writing that blog, while doing a previous CD change, I got the idea I wanted to reinstall my Roku SoundBridge, so I could play MP3s on my computer through my stereo in living room, and got up and went looking for it.  While tearing through two closets trying to remember where I put the Roku, I got ideas for several projects dealing with organization.  I have boxes and boxes of wires for stereos, computers, televisions, DVD players, etc. that I really must organize one day.  I was slightly distracted by the tight squeeze of clothes hanging in the closet, making it hard to get to all the boxes and remembering my promise to my wife to throw some worn clothes out, when I finally found the Roku.

(Next CD)  I was surprised by how easy it was to put the Roku back into service but I discovered something interesting.  The Roku was listing the music from both my computers, iTunes on the main machine, Windows Media on two machines, and FireFly media server on the second machine.  This revelation inspired me to write a blog about the most efficient way to serve up MP3 files in a home network.  (Next CD)  I wondered if I booted up the laptop if it would see that machine too.  (A pause to go pet a sick cat and think about a blog about the pet healthcare crisis.)

As you can see my mind is very far from Kwai Chang Caine’s focused mind in the old Kung Fu TV series.  (I’ll stop the annoying interruptions about the CD changes and other diversions while writing, but you get the idea about how I’m constantly trying to multitask.)  If I was a Kung Fu master, I wouldn’t own a wall of CDs and be trying to convert them to my computer library because I wouldn’t be into owning things.

If I was a real writer, with a focused mind, I would get up each morning, work on my novel and not think about about a dozen blog ideas, or another dozen short story ideas, or even worry about organizing a CD collection, or care about my clothes closet or boxes of wires.  I never finished a novel because, like Lord Chesterfield says, I’m trying to do more than one thing and there’s not enough time in a lifetime to do all that.

On the other paw, I am pretty good at multitasking if I’m willing to accept that I do so many things in a half-ass way.  I have four clunky websites (not counting several I manage at work).  I read about fifty books a year, and see a hundred movies on DVD and at the theater, and watch several hundred TV shows and documentaries.  I have a big collection of computers, books, magazines, CDs, gadgets, and other crap that I maintain and help do my part to keep the economy going.  I read a zillion web pages every year, and my Karma level is excellent on Slashdot.

Task Switching

Now over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann offers his opinion in a podcast also called The Myth of Multitasking.  Mann’s take is multitasking is impossible for humans, that people aren’t parallel processing machines like supercomputers, and the best we can do is be very good at task switching.  Furthermore, it’s his belief that some people are good at task switching and others are not.  The implication being that some people can easily bookmark their place when they switch tasks.  Mann also believes once you discover you can’t multitask, you will lose the anxiety over getting so much done and focus on getting the job at hand accomplished.

My theory is the human brain is a fantastic bio-computer that parallel processes on vast scales, but the conscious mind is just one thread that runs on top of everything else that can’t really multitask, but like Mann suggests, can task switch.  Whether this is a good feature of Human 4.0 is yet to be proved.  Maybe multitasking will be a prominent feature of Homo Superior 1.0, but for now we have to decide what’s the optimal operating expectations for who we are now.

Attention Span

Should I trade all that fun chaotic juggling to be just a guy focused on writing a novel?  Is it even possible for me to be Mr. Zen Lit Man?  This brings up the second lighthouse beacon of an article I read this week,  “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic Monthly, that only fuels the fire of my desire to seek a simpler focused life.  Mr. Carr confesses that Google and the Internet living has reduced his ability to read long works.

If we could multitask, the length of any working process could be infinite, but if we can only task switch, then the critical factor is the time segment devoted to each task.  What Mr. Carr is suggesting is the Internet is making us used to living with short task segments and we’re losing our ability to process longer tasks.  This is an interesting idea, but I have to ask:  Did people have the knack for focusing on longer tasks before the Internet?

Long before Google, magazines and newspapers were featuring shorter articles with lots of side-bars, and short attention getting blips of information.  Television, with sitcoms and more and more commercials started dividing up our attentions starting back in the 1950s.  The car radio has long had buttons to quickly switch between shows for those weak of attention.  Imagine what the television clicker has done to our minds?

I too have found that I can no longer read hours at a time on a single book or long essay.  I had a different theory as to the cause of this, and assumed I had been corrupted by audio books which allows me to listen to other people read long books.  I justified my laziness by pointing out that those people are much better readers than I am, and that I learn so much more when I can concentrate on their readings.

So now I have two theories to test.  There might be many reasons why I can no longer read books hours at a stretch.  One that comes to mind is comfort.  I get back and neck strains, and my eyes weary quickly.  Large print helps, but to be honest, I genuinely prefer audio books.  After reading Carr’s article I will strongly consider my continual effort to multitask or task switch as a cause of attention deficit.  I will admit that when I read too long on anything I get antsy for new input.  The Internet might support my addiction for keeping multiple threads of thought going.

Conversely, if I’m going to be a real writer, as opposed to a blogger, I’d need to focus on one piece of writing at a time, and keep focused on that piece, draft after draft until it’s perfect and I could sell it.  In other words, I’d be forced to do ONE thing for weeks at a time.  I don’t know if I could handle that.  Task switching might be natural, and the ability to focus on a single task may be a special talent.  My friend Mike who is also a programmer says when he programs he feels like he’s in a deep well and all distractions are far away.  I truly envy him for that gift.

I can’t take a crap without reading a magazine while thinking through a handful of ideas about what I’ll do when I pull up my pants.  What if I got up this morning and just worked on writing that short story I’ve been meaning to finish for years.  The one I come back to the most often?  And what if when I needed to consume or evacuate I’d continue to think on that one story.  It certainly would help if I lived in a studio apartment with little beyond a bed, desk, writing equipment and four white walls.  No wonder Pride and Prejudice was so great, there just wasn’t that many distractions back in Jane Austen’s time.

I guess the real question is whether or not I could do the focused thing just one hour a day?  It’s an obvious compromise of where to start.  However, I think real writers probably sacrifice a giant pile of fun diversions to get a quality book finished.  Maybe I just don’t have that kind of mental makeup.  If I found a magic lantern and the Genie granted my wish to concentrate, would I be happy trading in a year’s worth of active diversions to produce one science fiction novel?  That scares me.  It sounds boring and lonely.

Dedication to Details

Last night I saw an episode of Nova about making Japanese samurai swords, and Friday night I saw a documentary that included a piece about a Chinese guy making traditional bows and arrows.  In each case, these were complicated skills handed down from the past and required the artisan to devote his life to his work.  Both documentaries pointed out that these acts of devotion to extreme details were being destroyed by modern culture.  Few people in our society dedicate as much of their time to a single-minded objective, but there are some.  Olympic athletes, classical musicians, and other successful people in any discipline.

There is always the chance that multitasking and Googling is common in society because that’s how the brains of most people work.  If I had a brain for single minded focusing I would be a person pursuing something very focused.  We see all those enchanting martial arts fables, like Kung Fu Panda where a slob of a mind can be polished into a diamond-point jewel of focused attention.  Is that really possible?  Maybe such training is possible if we start as children, but I doubt it for middle-aged adults.  Can I and others improve our minds with incremental improvements, especially late in life, well I think there’s plenty of evidence for that.

We know that doing the crossword puzzle or the sudoku will exercise our brain, so I would imagine reading long articles from The New Yorker and The Atlantic will condition our mental focus towards longer attention spans.  I would also assume we could follow Lord Chesterfields’ advice by starting the day by making a short list of things we want to do, and then work on them one at a time.  My closet is still a mess, but if I stuck with it, focused my mind, and only worked on my closet, it would be finished with an hour’s effort.

A New Theory of Multitasking

I think some kinds of multitasking are possible and aren’t bad.  I wouldn’t want to sit and burn CDs until I had finished all 1500 of them.  I think I could safely work on cleaning out my closet, listen to an audio book and burn CDs and be a success if I finished the closet in a reasonable amount of time and did a perfect job.  Actually, this may be a form of true multitasking, because my mind would be focused on the audio book story, and my body would be working to organize the closet and rip CDs.

People can do two things at once physically, but it’s uncommon – like rubbing your abdomen in a circle with your right hand and patting your head with your left.  I can’t sort speaker wire and switch out CDs, so that would be task switching.  But is it task switching or multitasking to listen to a book and do something physical that doesn’t require much mental processing like walking, doing the dishes, sorting wire or swapping out CDs?

The Good Old Days

I think many people would like to return to the good old days of a less hectic life.  They feel that life would be better if they didn’t have so many programming events demanding time slices.  Makes me wonder what my Main() loop looks like.  The belief is we’d be happier with fewer function calls and more time where our CPU usage falls to 0%.  Personally, I’d be philosophically happier if my log files showed more completed jobs, and fulfilled if I routinely shipped some fine 1.0 products.  I have learned that achieving a zero email inbox is very satisfying.  I don’t think we need to become Amish or Tibetan to find happiness.  I do think that learning to tame the mind is a worthy goal and all these mental lessons that are a byproduct of computer usage and Jetsons-fast living is helping us evolve.

I am reminded of some odd advice.  A modern day guru, or maybe it was a comedian, suggested getting up every morning and pistol whipping yourself if you had crippling fears of being mugged.  I wonder if I got up every morning and focused my mind intently on any kind of mental exercise, if I wouldn’t build up some focusing muscles?  If my flitting attention ever settles down to allow me to pursue such an experiment, I’ll let you know the results.


My Kind of Story

After consuming 2,000-3,000 books over the last half-century you’d think I’d know exactly what kind of books I love to read, but I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve been living on the trial and error method up to now.  Before recent revelations, if I didn’t like a book it was a bad book, or a boring book, or if I wanted to be generous I could claim I wasn’t in the right mood for that book or whine that the book covered a topic out of my territory.  If I loved a book, it was brilliant, insightful, well written, heartfelt, and perfect for me.  What if I’m wrong?  What if why I love or hate a story has nothing to do with those factors?  What if it has nothing to do with genre?  What if it has nothing to do with favorite writers?  What if the books I love the most, the ones I read the fastest are due to a particular writing formula?

Recently I selected The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon for my June book in the 1% Well-Read challenge, but that book rubbed me the wrong way.  Since the Pynchon book was about the 1960s I thought I’d try a different book about the same time period and see how another author handled the subject.  I quickly found, Drop City by T. C. Boyle, also covered in the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.  Both books open in California, but the Pynchon book came out in 1966 and appeared to be about 1964, and the Boyle book was published in 2003 and was about 1970.  Drop City rubbed me the right way.

So, with two books about Californian counter-culture, why did one soar and the other crash and burn?  You’d think the book written in the middle of the 1960s would feel more authentic, but actually the book written in 2003 hit an emotional bull’s eye with my old memories of the times.  Well, for one thing, Pynchon was born in 1937, and Boyle was born in 1948, and I was born in 1951.  In fact, the Pynchon book reminded me of another book from 1966, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Farina, also born in 1937.  I had the same kind of trouble with the Farina book, and for many of the same reasons I didn’t like the Pynchon novel.  Both of those books felt overly intellectual and writerly, whereas the Boyle book felt like it was just a straight-forward tale about real people.

This first clue leads me to think I need to read writers who are like me in some way, because obviously I can’t always read writers my own age.  I like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but they definitely aren’t like me, and I don’t resonate with them emotionally.  I admire their stories greatly, but I don’t have a personal bond with them like I do with modern stories.  I don’t think it’s time that keeps us apart, but their storytelling techniques.

Great Expectations is one of my all time favorite books, but that’s more for abstract reasons, and I greatly admire it for creative and intellectual reasons.  I’ve got to admit that I preferred the narrative of The Crimson Petal and the White (2002) by Michel Faber (1960), a novel set in Dickens’ time over straight Dickens storytelling.  Modern writers have developed skills to get their readers closer to their characters.  I don’t know is this is an illusion, and modern historical fiction is more appealing because the historical characters are just more modern themselves, or if Jane Austen used modern writing techniques we’d feel even closer to her two hundred year old characters.

My all time favorite books are books written by Robert A. Heinlein in the 1950s.  I also have a strong affinity for Jack Kerouac and his books from the 1950s.  These books I’ve read and reread.  Some of my more recent favorites are The Life of Pi, The Lovely Bones, Harry Potter series, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, His Dark Materials, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Secret Live of Bees, Middlesex, The Wonder Boys, Positively 4th Street, Nobody’s Fool, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Poisonwood Bible, The Glass Castle, Truth and Beauty, The Sparrow, Cloud Atlas, The Memory of Running, The Time Traveler’s Wife, A Woman of the Iron People, Bellwether, and so on.

Maybe here’s enough clues to solve the puzzle.  I think the books I cozy up to the fastest are first person narratives, or stories told in very limited third person.  I don’t like intellectual authors, especially those who use third person omniscient to expound about life and reality.  What I’m discovering is my kind of stories are about people, told in a very straight forward manner, and I greatly prefer the voice of the character over the voice of the author.  Not only that, but I’m pretty hung-up on wanting the story to unfold in a linear fashion.

I’m starting to wonder:  What if my kind of story depends on how the story is told rather than what it’s about?  When I was in elementary school and begun getting into books I loved biographies and autobiographies first.  Very linear people stories.  If you examine the book list above, all the stories are focused on people and the narrator tells the story by sticking close to the main character’s POV.  I liked Drop City better than The Crying of Lot 49 because Boyle got closer to his characters, but it wasn’t a super great book to me because he didn’t get close enough and there were too many of them.

When I listened to The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao this week, I got extremely excited about the beginning when I was first learning about Oscar, and got very disappointed when the story turned away from him.  I just started Year’s Best SF 13 edited by David Hartwell, and the first story, “Baby Doll,” was a hit because of the characters, and the third story, “The Last American,” was a dud because it was all ideas and no characterization.  Intellectually I know “The Last American” is supposed to be a good story.  I can see it’s creative parts.  But it was painful for me to read because it had no character I could get behind.

I don’t think I’m seduced by every character driven story, because I’ve hated some stories with great personal writing because the POV character was too unlikable.  I love stories where the POV character have a distinctive voice, like Chi-mo in King Dork or Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.  I think one of the reasons why I love the work of David Sedaris is his distinctive voice – he wouldn’t be so funny if he wasn’t so unique.

Literary writers definitely have the skills I like, but they often write about boring people.  The character details may show fantastic writing, but the personalities of the POV characters are often unappealing.  Who really cares about average alcoholic writers living in academia and getting divorced?  Well, Michael Chabon made Grady Tripp different in The Wonder Boys.

Drop City would have been a much better book to me if Boyle had followed a couple of his characters more closely.  It’s still a damn good story, but it’s movie like in that all the characters seem equal distant.  A lot of writers do this, that is, follow the techniques of the movies, jumping from character to character.  You can only get so emotionally close to an ensemble.  The Big Chill was a masterpiece of my generation, but it didn’t have the wrenching impact of Forrest Gump or Four Friends.

Other techniques I don’t like are flashbacks, convoluted plots and frames.  In the MFA classes I’ve taken, many of the student writers loved putting stories in frames, and then jumping back into flashbacks two, three and even four layers deep.  Sometimes they even use fantastic tricks to bring the modern narrator back into the past, as was done with Middlesex and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  To me, this hurts the story.  I can understand how dazzling this writing trick is intellectually, but not emotionally.

Now that I know what kind of storytelling turns me on it should help me improve my batting average finding great books to read.  On the other hand, it may not be that useful.  I often select books because other people say they are great and I want to discover what these people have discovered.  There are a lot of reasons to read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, a book that is definitely not my kind of story.  It is instructive about the nature of the early English novel and life in the 18th century England.  Tom Jones can be a great novel but one I hate to read.  So, should I read it?

Now that I’m more aware of what I like to read, should I only gorge on my kind of stories?  If reading was only about entertainment, then yes.  If reading is about pushing yourself into unknown territory, then no.  It is interesting to know about my reading sweet tooth.  Now I just have to learn how to recognize other reading flavors and how to savor them.


Do I Embrace The Negative?

I told my friend Janis I had written what I considered a funny post called, “Retirement from Sex,” and she quickly replied, “Who’d wanna read that!”  I told my friend Marty at work about the movie Young @ Heart, a charming story about old people, and she quickly replied, “Who’d wanna see that!”  I love talking about global warming and the growing prices of gasoline, but I think I’m bumming my friends out.  My wife often tells me that I make her feel guilty.  Although I see dwelling on the negative as a way to pursue the positive, I’m starting to think I’m going to get nominated for Mr. Negative Man of the Year.

For example, when I hear the price of oil has hit a new record high, I know that it means economic devastation.  I know high oil prices are putting people in shipping and related industries out of business, that it causing food prices to skyrocket, and overall it covers the economy with a black cloud that depresses the whole population.  But I, in my weird Pollyannaish way, think, “great, this will force our society to invent new energy systems, create a green economy, and finally get us out of our dependency on buying oil from countries that want to blow us up.”   My friends see $5 a gallon gas at the pump and picture what it does to their budget.  I picture inventors all over the world getting busy and inventing new technology.  But I’m starting to realize that my friends are looking at me like I’m crazy.

While watching Young @ Heart I saw a crowd of Sisyphuses thumbing their noses at the Fates while rolling their rocks up the hill.  I figure Marty thinks about the horrors of time on the bodies of women and feels anything about getting old would be depressing.  I saw a movie that said, sure you will be old, wrinkled, hurting, diseased, dying but if you have the will you can rock on and give the grim reaper the bird when he comes to collect.

When I hear about global warming I think, “Wow, humans are powerful enough to change the whole global ecosystem, then we need to be smart enough to take responsibility for our actions.”  Sure, its a test of humanity.  We can fail, and civilization will go down the tubes, or we can transform ourselves and society and make a better world.

When I attack a book by my favorite author, like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, it’s not because I want trash a great writer, it’s because I want to let people know that there are other Heinlein books that are much better.  There are Heinlein books that I reread every other year, and have been doing so for over forty years.  I’m trying to compare the two and see which qualities of writing make a book stand out as a classic.

I think I really freaked out my wife when I told her I wanted to give up cable TV.  Susan worships at the alter of the video icon.  And it wasn’t as if I was planning to forsake TV altogether.  I was merely wanting to cut back so I’d have more time for other hobbies, like writing science fiction.  I pointed out to her that we pay $120 a month and 95% of the time we watch ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS, shows that come to our high definition TV for free, and the other shows are easy to get with our 5 concurrent disc-out-at-a-time NetFlix subscription.

Of course, what are my alternative choices?  I could be depressed because gasoline prices are skyrocketing and pine away for $2 a gallon gas.  I could avoid any movies or social situations with old people, and pretend I won’t be ancient someday.  I could continue living like I’ve always have, and figure the problem of global warming belongs to the next generation.  I could play nice and say positive things about all books I read, as if all books were worthy of reading, each one a child you must love equally.  And I could give up any ambitions I have to be different and just accept I’ll be a couch potato addicted to TV shows the rest of my life.

I do think I see a pattern here.  I don’t think people like change.  They want to drive gas-guzzling cars until kingdom come.  They want to pretend all the conspicuous consumption they love so much doesn’t have any affect on others.  And most of all they want to feel forever young.  Well, my fantasy is to stop watching so much TV, give up reading crappy books, and learn to play the guitar so I can join a rock n’ roll band when I’m eighty-five. By then I also expect global warming will be turned around and we’ll all be using home-grown renewable energy, and the air will be clean, clear and cool.  I might be wrinkled.  My dick probably won’t work beyond peeing, and maybe not pee so well either, and I might need to truck around in a wheel chair, but I hope to play music like it’s 1965.


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