Definitely one for your blog roll: NO CAPTION NEEDED.
One of my presents for Christmas was a copy of Christopher Logue’s autobiography, ‘Prince Charming’. It’s an entertaining read in its own right, self-deprecating and honest about his failings and full of great vignettes.
A call came from Kenneth Tynan inviting me to meet Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller. For my audience with Monroe I bought a new shirt, had my trousers cleaned and pressed, polished my shoes, washed my hair, brushed my teeth. What would she be wearing? How would her hair be done? If she smoked would I be able to light her next cigarette? I made sure my fingernails were clean.
Monroe was, however, crying and talking on the phone with Arthur Miller in separate rooms in the Tynan apartment. ‘He’s been talking to her for an hour. It doesn’t sound as if he’s going to be off for a while,’ Ken said. I left an hour later without even seeing her handbag.
Apart from the wonderful detail in this, I loved the ‘however’ enclosed by commas, something rarely done any more.
One other story I found illuminating too. Logue was a member of the Committee of 100, founded in 1960 by Bertrand Russell to oppose the UK’s possession of nuclear weapons. Its members used and advocated civil disobedience to achieve their aims. Planning demonstrations in Trafalgar Square and at Holy Loch, a number of members were arrested before the demonstrations and taken to magistrates court on September 12th 1961 where it was alleged that they "incited members of the public to commit breaches of the peace" and were likely to continue to do so. They were asked to bind themselves to a promise of good behaviour for 12 months. Of the thirty six summoned, thirty two chose the one-month prison sentence, including Logue, Arnold Wesker and Robert Bolt. Bolt was then about to start work on the film, Lawrence of Arabia and the producer of the film, Sam Spiegel, persuaded Bolt to sign after he had served only two weeks. Bolt later regretted his decision and allegedly did not speak to Speigel again after the film was completed.
This use of the law was an interesting foreshadowing of the ASBO. The 36 people summoned had not committed any offence. They were nevertheless taken to court and asked to promise not to commit an offence in future. Those who refused were then sent to prison. As with ASBOs, the process criminalised non-criminal behaviour.
[Given the choices, you didn't really think I was going to choose a picture of Bertrand Russell did you?]
A common theme in much of Heinlein’s fiction is the idea of, if not a super-hero, at least someone with extraordinary skills. Sometimes there is not one person but an elite closed group. Common to both however is the idea that these people believe and act on the premise that they know what is best for humanity and are in some way the last hope. While this is closely related to another common Heinlein theme of individual choice as the source of moral action, it is slightly contradictory, since by their actions these closed groups are often making irreversible decisions affecting humanity at large.
Often the closed group manifests itself as such because of superior knowledge that is kept secret. In a minor way, the guilds in “Starman Jones” are such a group, although in this case not presented positively – at least until Jones manages to gain membership. Similarly, in The Roads must Roll the engineers running the rolling roads see themselves as an elite body, with a semi-sacred duty to keep the Roads moving
More typically, in “Lost Legacy” we have a group with apparently supernatural powers who use those powers to destroy those they believe to be evil. The opposition group is such a caricature however, that there is no real tension to the story. There is no doubt in the minds of the protagonists that their actions are the right one and hence the reader is not given the chance to consider alternatives. The ending of Lost Legacy, sees evil defeated, whereupon humanity moves on to a ‘higher plane’ leaving the great apes behind to follow in their footsteps. In practice this story seems to have much in common with another proponent of the superhero, A E Van Vogt.
In “Gulf” this idea is carried even further, with a new race, homo novis, being created from the mass of humanity, by a group of self declared ‘New Humans’. The New Humans again take it on themselves the right to kill or destroy others they believe to be acting against the interests of homo novis.
The most significant example of a new race emerging from the body of humanity is probably the Howard Families, who make their first appearance in “Methuselah’s Children” but reappear in most of the last of his books. In the case of the Howards, there is no superior knowledge that can be withheld since their sole source of superiority is their longevity. By the time we get to the final novels where the Howards reappear, it is suggested that the longevity of the Howard families is in fact all down to Lazarus Long and his freak genes. This is something of a cop out and doesn’t explain how his mother and all those of her generation lived not just for a long time, but also maintained their youthful appearance to the extent that they had to periodically relocate under new identities.
In “The Day after Tomorrow”, originally called “Sixth Column”, the idea of a closed group is carried to extreme, with only six people (Americans of course) possessing the knowledge to defeat and destroy the ‘Pan-Asian’ invaders of the USA – who are probably a metaphor for Communism. In practice, the story is a parable of how rugged American values will defeat the collectivism of Communism. I don’t think it works as a parable however, because the so-called ‘sixth column’ is actually put into place through a fake religion so outrageous that it is impossible to believe those same rugged individualists would ever swallow it to the extent depicted in the story – even to get the food that is distributed by the new ‘temples’
“The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” and “If this goes on" also employ the idea of the closed group, albeit in different ways. In “Moon”, the group is a typical revolutionary cabal, although equipped with special knowledge in the form of an intelligent and self-aware computer working with them. “Revolt” is actually about a counter-revolution, the first having put in place a theocracy. The revolution in this case is guided by what may be the Freemasons, in an ironic twist on the idea of Masonry as a secret society.
What is common to all of these stories is the Randian concept that an individual or group in possession of knowledge or power should not view itself as morally inhibited from using that power to secure their own ends. This is by no means a clear cut position however. In “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls”, Maureen Johnson comes up against the “Committee for Aesthetic Deletions”, a group of terminally ill people who have taken it on themselves to ‘delete’ people they judge to be deserving – or rather undeserving. Matched against them are the ‘Circle of Ouroborous’ or the ‘Time Patrol’, which includes Lazarus Long and various characters from other Heinlein novels.
Also making an appearance are two other groups involved in ambushing Maureen and her party on a trip across the surface of the moon, each with their own agenda. This idea of competing time-changing groups is similar to that in Fritz Lieber’s “Changewar” stories published between 1958 and 1965, although once the possibility of changing the past is admitted, conflict over such changes is probably inevitable as for example in the Time Patrol series by Poul Anderson.
For Heinlein, this idea is more than just the revisiting of a theme. He uses the idea of an independent elite acting outside of society so often that it is clearly something important to him. I think in practice however it is the individualism that appeals. In so many of his novels the hero or heroine is placed in situations where they only have their personal resources available. From Space Family Stone to Number of the Beast he doesn’t write novels about government or any form of political unit, but about individuals or family units. Even Starship Troopers, often attacked for the neo-fascism implicit in its militaristic society is actually about individuals. The military units are based not on loyalty to the ‘Federation’, but to the unit commander. The individual trooper has firepower -lovingly described in the opening chapter – that could take out a whole army of the 20th century.
This obsession with individual choice as the source of moral action takes Heinlein to some unpleasant places. I don’t know if this ever game him pause for thought. He never seems to reflect on his conclusions or consider if his original premises were in fact correct.
EDIT: This is a follow up to this post on Heinlein and Sex.
One of my heroes is the management thinker, Charles Handy. He a good writer and unlike so many in his field his humanity shines through everything he writes. He is also one of the few contributors to BBC R4 ‘Thought for the Day’ who didn’t make me immediately want to vomit. His latest book, Myself and Other More Important Matters, has just won a Management Writing Award 2006 for the best management book and an extract is printed in the November issue of Management Today. I haven’t read the new book yet, but of his other writings, The Empty Raincoat is a brilliant must read. The title comes from a statue he saw in Minneapolis. From that book:
We were not destined to be empty raincoats, nameless numbers on a payroll, role occupants, the raw material of economics or sociology, statistics in some government report. If that is to be its price, then economic progress is an empty promise. There must be more to life than to be a cog in someone else’s great machine, hurtling God knows where.
From his new book:
More and more, I have moved from dealing with the `how' questions to the `why' ones. It is the Socratic impulse that keeps me questioning. Why do we need such big organisations, when most of us don't 'relish working in them? Why do we treat those within them in the ways that we do? Why do we live our lives as we do? Success has many faces. Why do we choose the ones we do? Is there too much love of money, for its own sake? Or is capitalism at fault - or, more truthfully, our interpretation -if capitalism?
I can't think of any better mechanism for making the world a better place than a set of open-market economies, carefully regulated so that they remain properly competitive. But it is -the phrase `making the world a better place' that is often missing from the capitalist narrative. As it is currently seen and measured, capitalism takes selfishness to be its driving force, something that can easily develop into greed. Capitalism assumes that it is part of the human condition to be all out for ourselves in a dog-eat-dog world. We are hard-wired for competition. It is a rather dismal assumption. Nor is it necessarily a true one. There is an altruistic gene in most of us. Most of us want to contribute to as well as take from the world. The danger, as I see it, is that the language of capitalism, reinforced by its instruments and the measures they use, may imprison us in a cause that we don't necessarily believe in. But, when the more brutalist version of capitalism is dominant, what else can most of us do except conform to the stereotype, muttering dissent as we go?
Because the capitalist narrative decrees that more is better, businesses continually buy their competitors, and are aided and abetted by their bankers and consultants in so doing, although all the evidence is that only in a minority of cases does the end result leave the customer or the purchasing shareholders better off. Why, then, do they continue to do it, creating organisations too big for human scale in the process? Why do organisations, when reporting their actions during the year, speak only of results for them, seldom for their customers or the world at large? Because, I have to assume, more is thought to be better, be it more power, bigger sales or greater influence. Yet we know that in much of the rest of life, and in other organisations, more is not always better. I sometimes suggest to business executives that if they were to ask a symphony orchestra what its growth plans were for the coming year, they might not speak of increasing the number of musicians, or even the number of performances, but would talk more of growing their repertoire and their reputation. Yes, more money would help, but only as a means to achieve those ends. It is no different for other arts organisations, or schools, better often when smaller.
Meeting with a wine grower in the Napa Valley who told me that his ambition was to grow his business, I said, looking around me, `Where will you find the extra land, or are you going to buy up your neighbours?'
`Oh, I don't need to grow bigger,' he replied, `just better.'
Why don't more businesses think like that, I wonder?
Business, I continue to argue, mistakes its means for its ends, and we will always continue to do so until we, society backed by government, redefine those ends to make them more relevant to the needs of more people. It is not enough, I believe, to pay one's taxes and leave the rest to government.
Inevitably, perhaps, my messages are a reflection of my values. I do care more for individuals than organisations, who are, after all, just their instruments. I believe that if organisations were to take more seriously the individuals who are, in effect, the organisation, they would find their own objectives easier to achieve. I believe that organisations are, in a broad sense, the servants of society. They exist to provide us with the things and services we need or want. We rely on them to do so efficiently and effectively. Ideally, their interests and ours should coincide, but they will prosper most if they define their purpose as something bigger than their own survival. Those organisations, as well as those individuals, who work only for their own benefit, eventually discover that they are their own worst customer, because they are never satisfied, seldom thanked and leave no legacy. The definition of success in our modern affluent world is one of our more intractable problems. It was easier once when we had fewer choices. Now we can choose but have no good criterion for the choices. Even business executives have to be philosophers.
Why can’t more managers be like him I wonder?
Some time ago I started a series of posts (1) (2) looking at ten books which over the years have given me the most enjoyment – the ones I have returned to reread, some of them many times. I recently reread one of the books from my list of 10, prompting me to this post.
Although Steinbeck's inspiration for the novel comes from the Bible, (the fourth chapter of the book of Genesis, verses one though sixteen, which recounts the story of Cain and Abel), it has never appeared to me to be a religious book per se. In practice it is intensely humanist, the central theme being set out in a beautiful section I call Timshel. The speaker is Lee, Adam Trask's Chinese servant (and incidently my favourite character, who introduced me to Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations)
“Don’t you see?” he cried. “The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ Don’t you see?”
The core message of the book is this - that we have a choice and in that choice lies our humanity and our potential for greatness - as a species and as members of that species.
And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion or government which limits or destroys the individual. (Ch 12)
This individualism is not the indifference of Rand however - it is warm, loving and humane. It recognises that in all of us, there is potential for nobility and baseness. The story subverts the Cain and Abel theme continuously, in the relationship between Adam and his brother Charles (who almost kills him) in the relationship between Adam's sons, Caleb and Aron, where on one reading Caleb kills Aron, by showing him the truth about his mother, leading him to enlist in the army and to die in France, but especially at the end as Caleb and Abra - Aron's girlfriend - fall in love. The message after all is timshel - thou mayest. It was in the end Aron's decision to enlist.
I have loved this book from first reading. It has apparently been continuously in print since first publication in 1952. I don't know how many times I have read my copy since 1968 - almost 38 years ago - I suspect at least 20 times - but it retains its power and even now some passages can still move me to tears.
Back in August 2004 I listed my first five, since when silence. I will get back to it, I promise. The second five will almost certainly include Kipling's Kim, but as for the rest...
Robert Heinlein is rightly regarded as one of the giants of Science Fiction. He and a select few others transformed SF from the generally poorly written shockers of the 1920s and 30s to a mature literary genre. His longevity as a writer was borne home to me a few weeks ago when I picked one of my Heinlein novels off the shelf and realised that I have been reading and rereading his books for almost 50 years. Clearly I have continued to find something of value in that period, but reflecting on it, I realised that both what I found in them and my reaction to that has changed significantly since those early days. I think this change began with “I Will Fear No Evil” (see also) which I found rather disappointing. I enjoyed the basic premise, but I didn’t really swallow the metaphysical stuff about the survival of the soul after death and found the treatment of male/female relationships rather silly.
I cannot remember which of his stories I read first. I suspect it was “Starman Jones”, which for some reason I can remember discussing with a school friend in about 1959 . Early on I also read “By His Bootstraps” (online), “Orphans of the Sky” and “Methuselah’s Children”. I can be certain about this because I still have my British Science Fiction Book Club editions of the Robert Conquest/Kingsley Amis anthology “Spectrum” (containing “By his Bootstraps”) and of “Methuselah’s Children” and “Orphans of the Sky”. In passing I must point out that the SFBC published some cracking stuff then, by some giants of SF. In addition to those mentioned, I still have their editions of books by J G Ballard (“Four Dimensional Nightmare”, “Drowned World”, Poul Anderson (“Twilight World”, “Guardians of Time”),Algys Budrys (“The Unexpected Dimension”), John Brunner (“No Future in It”), Arthur Clarke (“Tales of Ten Worlds”, “Fall of Moondust”), Hal Clement (“Needle”), Walter Miller (“Conditionally Human”) and several others.
In my early days reading Science Fiction, and like most teenagers, I would have said if asked that I preferred the ‘hard’ SF – stories based I suppose on whizz-bang technology, with lots of action around gadgets and scientific gimmicks. I hadn’t discovered the ‘Lensman’ series by then but I’m sure I would have loved them. I remember for example reading huge numbers of the ‘Badger’ books, appalling as they were, so stories like those of Heinlein were a revelation, by incorporating technology in a much more sophisticated way than the stuff churned out by Lionel Fanthorpe for Badger Books .
I said that my reaction to Heinlein has changed with time. What that means is that I began to realise that he was more than just a writer of whizz-bang fantasies. As I read more I noticed that he has a number of themes in his stories that he returns to many times. He writes a lot about sex for example – at least in his books after “Stranger in a Strange Land” and it becomes an increasingly large proportion of any given novel as he grows older. That is not intrinsically wrong, but he generally doesn’t do it very well and the odd bit of more explicit stuff is simply embarrassing. I seem to recall he was nominated for the 'Bad Sex Award" but I can't find a link - something to do with nipples crinkling probably! He has also frequently tackled political themes or more specifically he is obsessed with the idea of liberty and personal freedom with the obvious example being “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”, although “Farnham’s Freehold” also deals with it explicitly and the concept turns up even in his ‘juveniles’ – “Star Beast” for example where the character ‘Betty’ although a minor has divorced her parents! Time Travel is another favourite represented in my mind by masterpieces like “By His Bootstraps” or “All You Zombies” but also a key element in most of his later work and in earlier novels like “The Door into Summer”.
I am reading Michale Walzer's book, "Just and Unjust Wars". I'm finding it a wonderfully humane book in its approach to the topic and hugely illuminating in the application of the ideas in it to Iraq and the Middle East. I'm sure I'll be writing more but in the meantime this quote caught my attention.
Soldiers died by the thousands at Verdun and the Somme simply because they were available, their lives nationalised as it were, by the modern state.
A series of essays at Crooked Timber consider China Mieville's book Iron Council. I haven't read the book yet, so I'm not going into the essays too deeply, but this is a great use of blogging. I hope we wil see many more virtual symposia like it, on CT and elsewhere.
I started posting my list of top 10 works of fiction a while ago, but stopped at number six. I wasn't going to include any science fiction, because I had it in mind to do a separate list. Now via The Mumpsimus is this list of 15 in, of all places, Business Week.
I've not come across numbers 13 to 15 and I don't recall ever reading number 10. The others are all good stuff though and good examples of the genre. I'm not sure how many of them would be in my list - probably Stand on Zanzibar and certainly something by Wells although probably not the one here.