Tom Simon (superversive) wrote,
Tom Simon
superversive

Sock Puppet, son of Sock Puppet

Ten things I hate in a book, continued:

7. Characters motivated solely by the author’s need for a handy mouthpiece or strawman.
The patron anti-saint of this literary sin is, of course, Lemuel Gulliver. In Book I of Gulliver’s Travels, he is introduced as a master mariner, shrewd, level-headed, and profusely competent, just the sort of fellow you would bet on to make a good thing out of being shipwrecked. This is good and appropriate characterization, since it points up the contrast with the cunning but fundamentally stupid and mean-spirited Lilliputians.

In Book II, the miniature shoe is on the other foot, and Gulliver obediently turns into a bawling jingo nincompoop, bragging to the hugely superior King of Brobdingnag about the latest European technological marvels, and the efficiency with which Europeans can now competitively slaughter one another. This is necessary, if you like, because the whole point is to provoke the King into his famous outburst: ‘I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.’ But it does not sort at all well with the character of Gulliver as previously established, and we lose confidence in him and faith in Swift’s intentions.

And in Book IV, of course, he is suddenly converted to an even more extreme form of misanthropy than the King’s, becoming convinced that he and all his kind are no different in any respect from the loathsome Yahoos, and pining away for the superior goodness of the Houyhnhnms. In fact (and I believe this to be Swift’s point), he has gone utterly mad. But it is an arbitrary madness. There is no particular reason why it should have happened to Gulliver; one would think, after his previous experiences with super-, sub-, and non-human intelligences and societies, that he of all men would be inured to the kind of shock that the Yahoos gave him. But Gulliver is nothing if not complaisant, and he is quite willing to throw away sanity itself in the interest of his creator’s polemic.

Really, one might almost say that Gulliver’s adventures ought to have happened to three different men, not one, at least if plausible characterization were allowed priority over brand recognition. Lemuel Gulliver is one of the very few fictitious characters who are known and instantly recognized the world over, putting him in a class with Sherlock Holmes, Don Quixote, and a few names from Shakespeare. But he is nearly always recognized as the Gulliver of Book I, the plucky sailor stranded in Lilliput. This is partly because so many people have met him either in pretty-pretty expurgated editions issued as children’s books, which rarely extend beyond Book II and often stop after Book I, or through films which are still more drastically abridged. But it is still that first impression that persists, even among those who have read to the bitter end in the country of the Houyhnhnms. It is a testament to Swift’s skill as a caricaturist that our first impression of Gulliver should be so vivid and lasting, incapable of being overwritten by any of the manifold changes Swift imposes upon him as he kicks the hapless mariner through the obstacle course of his philosophy.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, we are not Jonathan Swift or even Charles Dickens, another author whose excellence at caricature did much to mask his incapacity for character. (As Orwell observed: ‘The fact that Dickens is always thought of as a caricaturist, although he was constantly trying to be something else, is perhaps the surest mark of his genius. The monstrosities that he created are still remembered as monstrosities, in spite of getting mixed up in would-be probable melodramas.’) When we lesser mortals try to make mouthpieces of our characters, the public can see our lips move, and the illusion is destroyed. Fortunately, this in itself is not a fatal flaw; at least, there have been many books hardy enough to survive it; but it is certainly not something one seeks as a reader, and it nearly always causes me to lose patience at least temporarily with the author who violates his characters’ integrity for the sake of his ‘message’.

In our own literary ghetto, the author most infamous for this kind of ventriloquist work is, as James Blish dubbed him, ‘Heinlein, son of Heinlein’. Blish, Alexei Panshin, and others have maintained that all Robert A. Heinlein’s male protagonists (and some of the females) are merely idealized versions of himself, convenient mouths from which his obiter dicta can issue forth in the guise of fictional dialogue. There is truth in this accusation, though vitiated by the fact that it could be levelled against any of us who write fiction. It is only in our brains that our characters live and move and have their being, and so of course the range of their thoughts is at best limited to a subset of our own. Still, some characters are much more definitely author-idenitification figures than others, and some are very much more damaged than others by their creators’ experiments with brain-transplant surgery.

Why this should be so is, to me at least, an interesting question. I think the public image of Gulliver provides a useful clue. In Book I of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver’s character is perfectly integrated with his role in the story, and he can speak by his actions. In the other three books, his personality is deformed in various ways to serve as the author’s stooge; but he has been well enough established that certain kinds of actions are obviously unsuitable for him, and so he has to speak in words and leave those actions alone. He is not, for instance, sufficiently one of the ‘little odious vermin’ to make real trouble in Brobdingnag, which would probably get him squashed under a gigantic heel; but he can, while remaining Gulliver, sound off with the most idiotic cant about the supposed virtues of his countrymen. When a character is reduced to preaching what he cannot plausibly practice, that is the surest sign that something has gone wrong. It betrays a short circuit in the author’s creative process.

Heinlein is universally acknowledged to be a preachy writer, but except in a few of his later and lazier books, he is nothing like the blathering egomaniac that his harsher critics make out. Most readers agree that his juveniles, and certain of his earlier adult novels, are his most successful works. There is plenty of preaching in, say, Tunnel in the Sky and The Star Beast, to take two of my own favourites; but it makes some difference who is doing it and why. Rod Walker is the unquestioned protagonist of Tunnel, but if any character in that book qualifies as ‘Heinlein son of Heinlein’, it is Deacon Matson. In most of Heinlein’s successful books, there is a character whose principal function is to lecture the hero, and the success of the book tends to be in inverse proportion to the lecturer’s actual importance to the plot. The ‘Wise Old Man’ is a staple of fiction, not, as Jung surmised, because he is a fixture of the racial unconscious, but because he is the handiest device on record for supplying needful exposition in medias res. Not even a maid and butler can outdo him.

On this hypothesis, where Heinlein went wrong in his later works was to let his heroes double as his mouthpieces, instead of separating the two roles (which had the incidental advantage of limiting the amount of space that the lectures could take up). Time Enough for Love was the first important book in which the hero was the lecturer, and consequently Lazarus Long was never given a forcible chance to shut up. Other late Heinlein heroes and heroines had the same vice.

If all this is true, what about Friday?

Friday is the most interesting of Heinlein’s late works, because it was (and was acclaimed for being) a partly successful return to his earlier style, while being written with a freedom and frankness that would have been unprintable in Heinlein’s younger days. But it is only partly successful, and I blame that on the imperfect separation of roles. The lecturer in Friday is the Old Man, Kettle Belly Baldwin, who plays the part exactly as we would expect. But Friday herself goes in for a good deal of lecturing when Kettle Belly is not around, much to the detriment of the book. Consider —

At one point, Friday rockets off to New Zealand to be with her ‘S group’, the name Heinlein used in that book for the line marriages that were one of his many wet-dream alternatives to monogamy. Neither ‘S groups’ nor any other kind of group marriage have ever been successful for any length of time, except when the dominant member of the group had the power to physically or emotionally coerce the others into staying. I recall reading about an anthropologist who proposed to do his Ph.D. thesis on group marriages, and set out to study the long-term dynamics of a number of groups with an average of seven members each. Within a year, every last one of those groups had broken up in acrimony, and he abandoned his thesis.

But here we have Friday waxing lyrical about the benefits of an eight-member group marriage, a subject that Heinlein knew absolutely nothing about, at least from personal experience. She also goes on at some length about the suitability of such a marriage for child-rearing, another subject with which Heinlein had no experience. The difference is that many of his readers did have experience in bringing up children, and could see through him on that point, but hardly any could confute him on the other. Science fiction fans as a rule are a horny and antinomian lot, and inclined to buy into strange sexual arrangements for their fantasy value without investigating too closely into their plausibility. One ‘Mistress Matisse’ has published a Polyamory–English Dictionary, which contains gems like this:

Poly phrase: “The idea of line marriage has always appealed to me.”
English translation: “The idea of having sex with people younger than me has always appealed to me.”

The difficulty, of course, is that comparatively few of us want to have sex with people much older than we are. ‘Line marriage’, if it worked at all, would most often be a disguise for long-term prostitution, a newfangled way for rich older people to accumulate trophy spouses instead of rationing them out one at a time. It certainly would remain a rarity, if only because multiple marriages, like heavy atoms, are radioactive and tend to decay by emitting couples and alpha particles respectively. Above a certain size, they can hardly take on new members as fast as they lose the old ones, as our anthropologist friend found out. Definitely a specimen for the zoo of ‘alternative lifestyles’.

For all this, Heinlein can be forgiven. A considerable part of his appeal comes from the fact that he was such an unapologetically dirty old man. But he is not content to present Friday’s ménage as an ideal; he must kill two giants with one blow, not only Monogamy, but Racism as well. Friday’s S-partners, who are open-minded and free-living enough to glibly undertake an eight-party marriage contract, are simultaneously shown as hidebound bigots of the most dated and embarrassing kind. A society that accepts marriages of eight people is most unlikely to disapprove of marriages between white New Zealanders and Maoris, or between whites and Pacific Islanders, but Friday’s free-wheeling elder hippies do exactly that. In fact, the entire group breaks up over the shocking revelation that Friday is an Artificial Person, with exactly the kind of exaggerated revulsion that an over-macho heterosexual exhibits on finding that the girl he has just French-kissed is really a transvestite.

At this point I lose all belief in these characters, and am considerably disgusted with their author as well. He has tried to pour Hugh Hefner and Archie Bunker into the same skin, and there is simply no way to make them fit. Each of his points could be made separately, and lifelike, integrated characters could easily be devised to exemplify them; but they cannot be combined, not in this way. It is just too blatantly obvious that they are not acting from their own motives, but merely to act out the psychodrama that Heinlein’s polemic requires. Friday is Heinlein’s mouthpiece for line marriages, and so she swears by her hyper-extended family; she is also his mouthpiece against racism, and so she swears at them. It is difficult to do both at once, and Heinlein’s attempt is thoroughly unconvincing.

And because all the contradictions of their nature are presented in a short space, no more than a quarter of a novel much shorter than Gulliver’s Travels, the inconsistency is much more blatant than the slow and incremental vacillations of Lemuel Gulliver. It nearly spoils what is otherwise the best of Heinlein’s late novels, and might be the best of them all if he had been content to slaughter one sacred cow the less.
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