Unlikable Lovers

It’s hard to root for a romance if you don’t care about the characters.  We generally sympathize with the main character (“MC”).  But that’s not always so for the MC’s romantic interest (the “RI,” let’s say).  What happens when we don’t like the person the MC’s supposed to be interested in?

There’s a variety of types of problematic lovers, and sometimes a particular type is called for by the nature of the plot.  Let’s look at a few.

The Friendly Enemy

Much Ado About Nothing book coverThere’s an entire category of plotline in which the eventually happy couple start out at odds with each other.  TV Tropes captions this “Belligerent Sexual Tension,” and has a splendid list of examples.  They range from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing with the feuding Beatrice and Benedick (here’s the Tropes page) through F&SF examples like Leia and Han in The Empire Strikes Back, Kim Kinnison and Clarissa MacDougall in the Lensman series, Taran and Eilonwy in the Chronicles of Prydain, Aravis and Shasta in C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy.

A subcategory of these turnabout stories involves characters who fight in one context while falling for each other in another.  1998’s You’ve Got Mail, and its predecessors such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), fall into this group, as does my forthcoming novella The World Around the Corner.

Frank and Kathleen across table in You've Got MailSometimes the turbulence between the main characters is based on some conflict in their characters (scoundrel and diplomat in Empire) or their interests (rival businesses in You’ve Got Mail).  Sometimes it’s almost a matter of their own combativeness or aggressive attitudes, as in the romantic comedy Laws of Attraction (2004).  But the writer has to walk a fine line here.  If the relationship is so strained as to become hostile or nasty, we may begin to wonder whether the RI is that great a catch after all.  Would Leia be better off with a “nice man”?  (Other than Luke, of course.)  In You’ve Got Mail, is Frank disqualified by his willingness to take unfair advantage of the fact that he knows who Kathleen is and not vice versa?

In a fight-then-flirt scenario, the romantic interest has to be sufficiently flawed that his tension with the MC doesn’t seem contrived—yet not so flawed that the attraction seems implausible.  The tension must be difficult enough to pose a challenge, and to keep the romance from concluding too quickly.  But the RI has to be admirable enough to be worth winning.

Winning Over the Bad Boy

There’s another class of plots that depend on making the romantic interest disreputable, troubled, or outright wicked.  Not too wicked, of course; they’ve got to be capable of reform—by the right lover.  We see this predominantly with female MCs and male RIs, but not exclusively so.

Clark Gable as Rhett ButlerTake Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind.  His appeal seems to lie especially in the fact that he’s a smuggler who defies the gentleman’s code of the antebellum South and pokes fun at their romanticized ideals.  Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t set out to reform him, but she does find him fascinating.  And she does reform him, as we can see but she can’t.  Interestingly, in this case Scarlett herself is pretty problematic too:  she’s a difficult, self-centered, domineering woman, with whom it can be hard to sympathize—though we do sympathize, mainly because we can see her inner thinking and where those traits come from.  (Personally, I always liked Melanie better.)

Edward Rochester of Jane Eyre barely escapes crossing the line into unacceptability, to my mind.  He’s brusque, domineering, and frighteningly deceptive.  We’re willing to approve him mostly because Jane is in love with him, and we love Jane.  And his comedown at the end both chastens him and engages our pity.

In my view, Wuthering Heights Healthcliff does cross the line.  I’m unmoved by his harsh and erratic behavior, and I don’t respect Catherine for her mad attachment to him.  He lacks redeeming qualities.  On the other hand, his very flamboyant unlikability is the basis for a hilarious imaginary counseling session held for the novel’s characters in Jasper Fforde’s The Well of Lost Plots (2003, chapter 12)—so I guess there’s some justification for his existence, at that.

The Proud, the Crude, and the Gothic

Few of these undesirable, yet desirable, RIs are as comprehensively intolerable as Heathcliff.  Generally one or two off-putting traits are enough to create the necessary tension or conflict.

Elizabeth and Darcy look askanceThe archetype of the proud or arrogant RI, of course, is the much-loved Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice.  Darcy has some unpleasant attitudes and makes some dreadful missteps, but Austen succeeds in convincing us that he’s admirable for all that, partly through his delayed but ultimately sincere devotion to Elizabeth.  Darcy retains such a hold on romantics that he’s even been successful as an artificial intelligence (AI) in Ashlinn Craven’s contemporary story.

Our era’s fondness for the earthy and outrageous gives us a procession of crude romantic interests, whose vulgarity or rudeness may represent a  barrier to be overcome by the Right Woman or merely a species of candor and bluntness—especially in romantic comedies.  Mike Chadway in The Ugly Truth (2009) has made a profession out of cynicism and outrageousness, but comes around in the end, after we’ve seen that his attitude stems from a past rejection.  The main character of Andy Weir’s 2017 novel Artemis sails perilously close to this edge.  But in this era we’re tolerant enough of crudity that the merely indecorous RI doesn’t usually pose a problem.

The brooding, Gothic or Byronic hero can also win readers’ hearts—witness Edward Cullen in the Twilight series.  But his kind of moodiness can so easily slip into annoying self-indulgence that it’s highly vulnerable to parody.  We may be more inclined to snicker than to sympathize, as we see in much of the critical response to Twilight.

The Misguided Romantic Interest

One of the easiest ways to generate conflict without wholly compromising the RI is to make them simply mistaken or wrongheaded.  This aligns neatly with a plot in which the MC shows the romantic interest the error of his (or her) ways.

Pretty Woman dinner scenePretty Woman (1990) is a fine example.  Edward Lewis (the third Edward on our list so far—coincidence?) is a repressed workaholic who uncaringly buys up business operations and sells them off in pieces.  Lively Vivian Ward not only loosens him up personally, but goads him into “using his powers for good” and working to save a company rather than break it up.  Edward’s change of heart in business parallels the more obvious romantic softening and emphasizes the completeness of his transformation.

A character—particularly a female character—working for the bad guys is especially subject to this kind of change.  For example, the atypical Disney heroine Megara in Hercules (1997) aids the scheming Hades, albeit for initially noble reasons.  There’s an entire category of such repentant subvillainesses, documented by the ever-vigilant TV Tropes.

Because the merely misguided RI is only superficially unworthy, this trope is a favorite of Hallmark Christmas romances, where either the MC or the love interest is often a big-city character who wants to turn some idyllic country spot into a soulless commercial enterprise.  This kind of relationship works equally well for either gender.


Genre romance with a female MC has a certain fondness for the strong, dominant male RI.  (If you belong to Critique Circle, here’s a lengthy forum discussion on the “alpha male” from mid-2017.)  But this can easily go awry.  What sounds romantic at first blush may be creepy or distasteful once we think of it in real life.  Many of the male leads discussed above can be classified as dominant types, but there’s a fine line between dominant and domineering.  When this is taken to extremes, we can drift into the dubious territory of the Fifty Shades books.

But we don’t have to go that far to encounter difficulties.  Heinlein’s juvenile SF novel The Star Beast features a somewhat passive hero, John Thomas Stuart XI, and his bratty high-school girlfriend, Betty Sorenson.  Betty is laudably active and independent, but she’s so brash and overbearing that she rather gets on my nerves.  We like to see both strong women and strong men—but we don’t like to see them demonstrate their strength in ways that are tyrannical or overbearing.

Beauty and the Beast soundtrack coverThe various iterations of Beauty and the Beast illustrate the difficulty.  The Beast has to be fearsomely harsh and threatening; that’s the point.  But this quality can’t be so exaggerated as to undermine his potential for transformation into a caring lover.


A romantic interest’s bad behavior can be offset when the author provides information that makes the actions understandable, or even sympathetic.  An io9 article by Charlie Jane Anders makes the general argument that there are “10 Ways to Make Everyone Root for Your Amoral Protagonist.”

Anders is a good source on the subject:  her Hugo-nominated 2016 novel All the Birds in the Sky features male and female protagonists who are each highly stressed and at times hard to love.  But the ending, to my mind, is very satisfying.  Part of the reason is that we see so much of the characters’ prior experiences and difficulties.  We comprehend how they got to where they are.

One technique that can help us excuse a character’s faults is to let us hear them speaking in first person at least part of the time.  The romance technique of telling the story by alternating the two principal characters’ viewpoints does the same thing.  It’s rare that characters seem evil to themselves, and letting us in on their thoughts gives us a useful perspective.

Female Variations

We’ve noted that the “bad boy” characters are generally, though not exclusively, male RIs for female MCs.  There are other potentially troublesome character types that tend to skew female.  One is the Manic Pixie Dream Girl:  as TV Tropes puts it, “She’s stunningly attractive, [e]nergetic, high on life, full of wacky quirks and idiosyncrasies (generally including childlike playfulness) . . . She’s inexplicably obsessed with our stuffed-shirt hero, on whom she will focus her kuh-razy antics until he learns to live freely and love madly.”  An example that seems to go too far is Sandra Bullock’s character in Forces of Nature (1999).  Possibly this is why, unusually, the hero ends up marrying someone else, although he benefits from the Dream Girl’s free-spirited attitudes.

the-black-flame-2Another primarily female archetype is what we might call the Siren, the mysteriously fascinating and unattainable character with whom the male MC is irresistibly obsessed—frequently capricious and even cruel.  My favorite example is the title character in Stanley Weinbaum’s SF classic The Black Flame.  Here, as with the equally melodramatic Byronic hero, the character type has been so overused that it’s easy for it to become either unbelievable or unlikable.

When It’s the Main Character

Less common, but not unheard-of, is where the main character is the one whose romantic suitability is in question.  We’ve noted Artemis as one such case.

I recently got around to watching About a Boy (2002), starring Hugh Grant, which came highly recommended by Connie Willis.  While it’s been observed that Hugh Grant is inherently irresistible, I found that in this case his character was so aimless and shallow that I felt the women in the story would indeed be well advised to steer clear of him, until almost the very end, when he finally shapes up a bit.

The 1999 romantic comedy 10 Things I Hate About You (a modernization of The Taming of the Shrew) also successfully makes the main character just sympathetic enough to sustain our interest.  It’s essential to the Shakespearean plot that Kat be so prickly and abrasive as to be a questionable romantic prospect.  But the excuses we hear, and the perfect fit of the actress’s persona to the dual requirements of abrasion and attraction, give us just enough to go on.


In gauging the acceptability of a character as a romantic partner, even more than in most such judgment calls, “your mileage may vary.”  But we can all recognize that just as there’s peril in making the romantic interest too perfect, there’s a corresponding set of pitfalls if the object of our MC’s affections pushes imperfection to the point of no return.


Mind Powers

Mental powers are a staple of both science fiction and fantasy—and even quasi-SF genres like paranormal romance.  The idea’s like the traditional iceberg:  easy to put into a story, but with some major assumptions lurking under the surface.

The Physical and the Non-Physical

In SF, it became fashionable to use the invented term “psionics” to refer to powers of the mind.  The term seems to have originated by analogy to “electronics,” giving it a scientific (or pseudo-scientific) cast, and using the Greek letter psi, the first character of psyche, “soul” or “mind.”  Sometimes simply “psi” is used, as in “psi powers.”  It’s a useful coinage.

There are two broad approaches to psionics.  One treats mental power as acting purely on other minds—what we can loosely call nonphysical:  for example, telepathy.  The other approach allows mental powers to act directly on matter:  the most familiar example is telekinesis, moving things by mind power.

Note that distinguishing “physical” from “nonphysical” already involves some pretty big assumptions—but we’ll get to that.


Professor Xavier using telepathyQuite a few science fiction stories postulate mental powers that have only mental effects, such as talking mind-to-mind.

The “Lens” worn by the “Lensmen” of E.E. Smith’s classic series is essentially a psionic amplifier.  It gives the wearer telepathic abilities.  This is extremely useful in making contact with unfamiliar species—especially in interstellar law enforcement, with instant communication an essential for “lawmen” that might be pursuing criminals into unknown regions of space.  The Lens also serves as a means of identification that cannot be faked, since an individual’s custom-made Lens will kill anyone who touches it if it’s not in contact with the designated wearer.

But Lensmen can’t make things physically happen by mind power alone; they have to use the conventional space-opera gear of ray guns and such.  The Lensmen can communicate mentally; they can influence or even take over the mind of another person; they can erase or implant memories.  But a Lensman can’t lift objects and throw them around without flexing his muscles in classic action-hero fashion.

There are some odd borderline cases.  The main character, Kimball Kinnison, gains a “sense of perception,” allowing him to perceive nearby objects without using the standard five senses.  He can “see” through solid objects, for example.  That does involve interaction with inanimate matter, of course; but the interaction is all one way—he can’t affect the things he perceives.

Now, a contemporary scientist physicist would find this paradoxical, since it’s fundamental to quantum physics that you can’t perceive an object without interacting with it—bouncing photons off it to see with, for example.  But the Lensman stories were planned out in the 1940s, when we were not so acutely aware of quantum-type theories of perception.  The anomaly does illustrate the difference between these two theories of knowledge:  one in which the knower is the passive recipient of information, and the other in which knowledge is always the product of interaction.

James Schmitz, The Hub - Dangerous Territory, coverJames H. Schmitz’s numerous stories set against the background of the interstellar “Federation of the Hub” use a similar theory of psionics.  Telzey Amberdon, one of the main characters, can communicate telepathically with nonhuman creatures such as her massive “pet,” the crest cat TT (who turns to be a formidably intelligent being in his own right).  Hub psis like Telzey can influence other minds and can be extremely dangerous—whether in a good cause or a bad.  But physical objects aren’t affected.

A similar sort of psionics is assumed in A.E. van Vogt’s classic mutation novel Slan, and in one of my childhood favorites, Star Rangers (The Last Planet), by Andre Norton.  For a more well-known example, the movie Independence Day showed the inimical aliens using mind control to speak through a captive human to communicate with other humans.  But to properly destroy humanity, they used conventional physical weapons.  (Well, “conventional” as science fiction goes; the alien weapons were dismayingly novel for the embattled Earthlings.)

Fantasy, too, can feature purely mental abilities.  There are references in The Lord of the Rings to the ability of elves and wizards to speak mind-to-mind.  (This was shown more explicitly, as I recall, in the movie versions of The Hobbit.)  An analogue might even be found in ghost stories.  Ghosts are often portrayed as acting only through influence on human minds, whether through terror or telepathy—as in A Christmas Carol:  the various spirits do not act except on Scrooge’s own consciousness.

Sometimes telepathy is imagined as “hearing” only what people verbalize—what’s put into words; for example, in Al Macy’s novels about mind-reading detective Eric Beckman.  In other cases, telepathy allows direct access to other people’s feelings and inchoate thoughts, somehow getting behind the speech-forming function.  The notion that one can think without words would itself be anathema to many a twentieth-century linguistic philosopher—consider the linguistic relativism or “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis” so adroitly used in the movie Arrival.  The difference raises basic questions about the relation between speech and thought, and how thinking works.

The divide between mental and physical powers gets further eroded when the story includes telepathic machines.  The Psychology Service in Schmitz’s Hub routinely uses mechanical detectors to monitor psis.  In Slan, “Porgrave broadcasters” can send “recordings” telepathically.  Even aside from the Lens itself, which is a quasi-living physical device, the Lensman series eventually gives us machine-generated mental screens, analogous to the physical force-fields of space-opera lore.  If psionics were confined to minds alone, how can machines handle it?

I’ve spoken loosely about this sort of mind-on-mind power as “nonphysical”; but that involves a very significant assumption—that the mind is not a physical thing.  If the mind were wholly reducible to the brain, there would be no reason in principle why mind powers would only affect matter in the form of other brains.  By analogy, microwaves can be used for communications, but also for cooking dinner.  On this assumption, mind powers would constitute just another kind of physical force, the analogy often being a different “wavelength” of energy.  Second Stage Lensman refers to the “frequency-range of thought” (ch.14), and Smith’s Skylark series presents thought as a “sixth-order wave”—whatever that may be.

Mind Over Matter

We’ve gotten so used to things like telekinesis nowadays that the mind-only abilities discussed above may seem oddly constrained to us.

Vader uses the Force to fling objects at Luke (Empire)The original Star Wars film, A New Hope, showed us that the Force could mediate mental communication, even with the dead (“Use the Force, Luke”), and some degree of mind-control or mental influence (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”).  But it was only in the sequel that we saw that it could also enable telekinesis.  I still recall the moment when Luke, ice-cemented to the ceiling in the wampaa’s cave, strains fruitlessly to reach his light-saber—then relaxes and closes his eyes; and I thought with some excitement, so, we’re going to get telekinesis too!  By the end of the episode, we’re watching Darth Vader use mental power to throw objects to distract Luke and keep him off-balance.  You can even use this matter-moving power to move yourself, or in effect to fly without wings—as we saw in one memorable scene in The Last Jedi.

Yoda lifts the X-wing (Empire Strikes Back)By now this sort of mind-over-matter is familiar territory.  But there are still aspects that aren’t obvious on the surface.  For one thing, telekinesis is apparently reactionless.  It’s unclear whether it obeys Newton’s laws of motion, under which action requires an equal and opposite reaction.  It would have been a great comic scene in Empire when Yoda impressively lifts Luke’s X-wing fighter into the air—and Luke had looked over to see Yoda rapidly sinking into the muck, with the entire weight of the X-wing bearing down on his diminutive form.

The simplest fantasy version of telekinesis is the poltergeist, an immaterial spirit which (rather bafflingly) is capable of throwing around physical objects.  Levitation, whether of oneself or of something else, is a commonplace for magicians.  In fantasy, however, mental powers tend to bleed over into magical powers, which we don’t think of in quite the same way—although one way of conceiving magic is as a kind of mind over matter.

There are other kinds of (fictional) mental interactions with matter, over and above mere movement.  A common trope is the ability to start fires, or “pyrokinesis,” as in Stephen King’s Firestarter.  This might be interpreted as a subtle form of telekinesis—since heat consists of motion at the molecular level, maybe a telekinetic could create heat by causing an object’s molecules to move faster.  Such an explanation leaves open the question of where the added energy is coming from; but that’s an issue common to any form of telekinesis.  There may be a certain nerdy satisfaction in supposing that a physically puny specimen like, er, yours truly could throw things around by sheer power of mind, even though one’s muscles aren’t up to it.  But whether things are moving by mind or by muscle, there has to be energy coming from somewhere.

The Golden Torc, second volume of Julian May's Saga of Pliocene Exile, coverThere are other things you can do with matter besides just moving it around.  Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile, and related stories, postulate “metapsychic powers” that include “creativity,” allowing metapsychics to change the form of matter and thus materialize or convert physical objects.  Other stories imagine psionic abilities to “read” the history of an object or a place.

Teleportation—instantaneous movement from one place to another—represents a kind of in-between.  Physical objects are obviously affected, but the physical object in question is typically the practitioner’s own body, and perhaps other objects physically connected (such as clothing—but clothing doesn’t always come along, depending on the story, which can be inconvenient).  Does it count if your mind affects only your own body—the one locus where even theories that sharply separate mind and matter have to assume some crossover between the two?

Jean Grey (Marvel Girl) using telekinesisThere’s a long tradition of mental powers in comic books too.  But given the visual nature of the medium, physically effective mental powers tend to predominate over the purely mental.  We do see some of the latter—pure telepathy in Marvel’s Professor Xavier or DC’s Saturn Girl.  But much more popular is Marvel Girl (Jean Grey), whose telekinetic powers make for much more striking imagery.

Minds and Bodies

Considering these two approaches to mind powers raises the philosophical question of whether minds affect matter only in and through a person’s body, or can do so independently.

If we exclude direct physical effects from the scope of (fictional) mental powers, this suggests parallel realms, with thought proceeding on one level while physical actions occur on another, linked only through the minds of humans or other intelligent beings.  It’s almost a Cartesian approach (that is, a theory similar to that of René Descartes) of mind-body dualism, and sinks roots into the long-standing debates over the “mind-body problem.”

The “sense of perception” concept, similarly, functions as if there were two independent metaphysical levels, mental and physical, and this mental sense could allow a person to go “around” the physical senses and inspect an object directly.  The philosophical notion of intentionality (not to be confused with the usual sense of “intentional” or deliberate) is adaptable to such non-sensory knowledge.  But the trend in both philosophy and physics over the last couple hundred years has been to focus on the physical connection between the knower and the known.

It’s become a standard assumption that we can’t know or do anything without a physical connection.  Anything else seems “unscientific.”  What’s interesting is that we seem to be willing to accept the now-unpopular postulate of non-physical knowledge and events when we’re dealing with fiction.

Of course, it’s also possible to meld the two back together by taking the position that mental powers really only reflect physical events taking place at a level we can’t yet detect—as with Smith’s “frequency range.”  But that isn’t the only way to conceive of the relationship.  There is still a certain imaginative appeal, at least, to the notion that mind can act independent of the constraints of the physical body.

I think such stories are helpful.  We’re apt to rush to conclude “science has proven” that the mind equals the brain and the brain is just a particularly subtle form of matter.  Science has not, in fact, proven any such thing.  The physical sciences assume, understandably, that only physics is involved.  But they have by no means demonstrated that all observable phenomena can be wholly explained by physics.  The arguments on this subject are still live.  We should still apply sound standards of evidence, and not leap to conclusions—but that applies in both directions, whether to materialism or to its alternatives.

In other words, there may still be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our physics, and one of the uses of speculative stories is to help us keep an open mind on these subjects.

Cities in Flight

Now that we’re in the future (as it seemed to us in the 1950s), it’s become conventional to ask plaintively, where’s my flying car?  My rocket pack?  But for my part, now that it’s 2018, I’m asking:  where’s my spindizzy?

Year 2018! novel coverThe term comes from James Blish’s Cities in Flight, a sprawling science fiction series published between 1950 and 1962.  The first volume, which details how interstellar travel began, was in some versions titled Year 2018!  So the year we’ve just entered is permanently fixed in my head as a memorable future date—just as for many of us, 2015 was memorable as the year to which Marty McFly traveled in Back to the Future II.

Going Okie

Blish imagines a future in which faster-than-light travel is made possible by a device formally titled the Dillon-Wagoner Graviton Polarity Generator, but nicknamed the “spindizzy.”  The more massive the object, the more efficiently a spindizzy field accelerates it.  While you can use the drive in a small spaceship, it really works best for something bigger.  In addition, the spindizzy creates a force field or screen around the spacecraft, which can keep in air as well as keeping out meteoroids and such.  And it has no problem maintaining artificial gravity inside the craft.  The spindizzy is thus perfectly adapted to lifting an entire city off the ground and sending it hurtling through space:  New York, or Scranton, or Budapest.

The idea of walking down Fifth Avenue or stopping by the Empire State Building while voyaging among the stars is irresistibly cool, to my mind at least.  (I used to play at building spindizzy-powered spacecraft out of construction sets as a kid.)  But what makes the story really distinctive is the way Blish depicts the society in which this migration occurs.  Cities don’t leave Earth as part of some glorious exploratory venture.  Rather, they pull up stakes and go elsewhere because Earth has fallen into a permanent depression, and the cities have no choice but to seek economic opportunity among already-existing interstellar colonies, providing established industrial capacity to these still-developing worlds.

Okies in truck (photo)Traveling from planet to planet, offering their services, the flying cities are essentially migrant workers, like the “Okies” in America’s 1930s.  For a city to “go Okie” is an indicator of desperation, rather than of success.  The migrant cities are regarded with suspicion and contempt by the planets they serve, just as the original Okies were.  It’s not your average space opera scenario.

The four volumes, in chronological order, are:

A Patchwork History

The Cities in Flight stories have a rather complicated publication history.  Initially Blish didn’t intend to write a series at all.  In a 1964 author’s note to the third volume, he describes how John W. Campbell pointed out the full potential of “an idea of Wagnerian proportions” that Blish had been willing to throw away on a 10,000-word novelette.  The expanded project took him fifteen years to “realize properly.”

As the publication dates show, Blish didn’t go at this in a neat sequential way.  First he produced the contents of the main volume, Earthman, Come Home, interspersed with the two overlapping stories that make up the first volume, They Shall Have Stars.  The concluding (and I do mean concluding) book, The Triumph of Time, followed a few years later.  Blish then went back and for some reason wrote a young adult novel in the same universe, A Life for the Stars, telling the “origin story” of a character briefly mentioned in Earthman.

A Mix of Genres

One of the most peculiar things about Cities in Flight is how different the four books are from one another.  Many series make up a single continuous storyline; even in those that don’t, the stories generally are at least the same kind of read.  But Cities gives us four quite different types of tale.

They Shall Have Stars (or Year 2018!) is character-focused.  Paige Russell, a disillusioned spaceman (space travel within the Solar System was taken to be well-developed by 2018, sigh) and Anne Abbott, a suspicious pharmaceutical employee, become involved in developing the life-prolonging drugs or “anti-agathics” that also turn out to be necessary for interstellar flight—because you can go faster than light and still need decades to cross interstellar distances.  Space is big.  Paige and Anne have a thorny love story that’s rather touching.

Meanwhile, Robert Helmuth and Eva Chavez (who have a more perfunctory romance) are part of a team building an apparently pointless “Bridge” by remote control in Jupiter’s atmosphere.  The Bridge’s top-secret purpose is to conduct the final tests for the theory that result in the spindizzy.  Along the way, there’s a good deal of acerbic political commentary (Blish’s 2018 is a close analogue of the McCarthy era) and a lot of soul-searching as the characters search for a purpose greater than their own lives.

A Life for the Stars, illustrationA Life for the Stars is a classic Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story.  Teenaged Chris deFord is accidentally shanghaied on board the city of Scranton when it lifts off.  Through a series of misadventures and adventures, he gains maturity, finding his purpose in life when at the end he’s offered the job of City Manager under John Amalfi, New York’s legendary mayor.  Though there’s a good deal of interesting discussion about sociology and the theory of education, the tone is distinctly lighter than in the other books.  (In my own home library, I filed Life with the “all ages” books suitable for children, and the other three in the “adults only” collection, despite the inelegance of splitting up the series.)

Earthman, Come Home would be a lot like a traditional space opera if it didn’t contain so much brooding and angst.  There’s more high-tech action than in any of the other books.  But the characters (the last two volumes are told from Amalfi’s point of view) are somewhat gloomy.  While Amalfi’s intricate plans and schemes generally allow New York to prevail, the victories are generally ambiguous and not without cost.  This story is also more episodic than the others; the fact that it’s composed of several shorter pieces shows.  Earthman ends with the City of New York relocating permanently in the far-off Greater Magellanic Cloud.  It looks as if this group of Okies may finally cease their wanderings, a contented ending if not exactly a happy one.  Until—

In the Author’s Note to The Triumph of Time, Blish observes that “I had already put my very long-lived characters through nearly every other possible test.”  He now confronts them, not only with certain death, but with the certain death of everything.  The spindizzy-driven planet of “He,” last seen shooting off into intergalactic space at the end of one of New York’s escapades in Earthman, returns with evidence that the entire universe will soon be destroyed—“the imminent coming to an end of time itself” (Triumph, ch. 3, p. 50).  The vast cosmological forces involved cannot be affected by human beings; this is not the sort of space-opera scenario where our doughty heroes somehow manage to avert catastrophe.  The only sort of survival possible is that if the characters can be in the right place in the right time, they can ensure that the new universe that will re-form after the catastrophe will be kind of like our own.  But they’ll never see it themselves.  The main drive of the story is in how the characters cope with the end of the world.

It’s a bit of a downer, right?  But Blish was a gloomy guy.


Cities in Flight book coversCities in Flight is a genuine future history:  a set of varied stories set at different historical periods in the same imagined universe.  There is no overlap between the characters in They Shall Have Stars and those in the other stories, and only limited overlap between A Life for the Stars and the last two.  Since the series gives us a set of snapshots of the Okie cities from their inception to The End, one might say there’s a single long narrative arc.  But essentially, each book has an independent plot.

As we’ve seen, Cities in Flight shows us that these varied stories can be of quite different types—so much so that they won’t necessarily all appeal to a single reader.  On the other hand, the Okie universe is so fascinating, and the characters’ exploits so enjoyable, that I’m willing to read them all, with each different “take” on the future history enriching the others.

Finally, the series reminds us that in depicting the future, it’s usually better, if you can get away with it, to avoid mentioning actual dates.  Fiction of the future inevitably dates itself; after a while real history diverges enough from the imagined history that an old-time SF story becomes a sort of cultural artifact.  But the inconsistency is even harder to hide if you tell us straight-out that starflight was invented in the annus mirabilis 2018.  We can’t avoid being disappointed when the year rolls around and the wonderful thing hasn’t happened yet.

On the other hand, the year is still young.  Maybe some super-secret project will surface before December 31 that allows our cities to start taking flight?  (You wouldn’t have to shanghai me aboard . . .)

Einstein, Heinlein, and Queen

Science-fictional ideas have been gradually percolating through our popular storytelling and entertainment for years, as I noted at the beginning of these observations.  One example is the idea of time dilation—that time passes more slowly at very high velocities—in the theory of relativity.  The classic illustration is the “twin paradox.”  We can trace this image from the science itself, through a classic novel, to—of all things—a rock song.

The Physicist’s Version

Those who are already familiar with relativistic time dilation can skip to the next heading.  Otherwise, here’s a rough layman’s explanation of the phenomenon:

One of the consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity, noted as early as 1911, is that time passes more slowly as we approach the speed of light.  More precisely, a clock (or other process) that’s moving at a high velocity, relative to the observer, will be seen to operate more slowly than a clock in the observer’s own reference frame.  If I sit in my comfortable lab on Earth and watch what’s happening on a spaceship accelerating away from the Earth, I’ll see the spaceship’s clock running slower and slower, falling further and further behind the clock on my wall.  The closer to the speed of light (usually symbolized as “C”) the spaceship gets, the greater the discrepancy—the “time dilation.”

Time dilation graph and equationThis isn’t an illusion.  When the spaceship eventually returns to Earth, I’ll find that the traveling clock is behind the stay-at-home timepiece.  The same is true for living organisms.  If I planted a pair of trees before the ship left, the tree that made the flight may still be a sapling when it returns, dwarfed by its towering ‘sister’ on Earth.  If you’d like the math, the Wikipedia article on the twin paradox gives an example for a trip to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri.

As with most of the peculiar consequences of relativity, we don’t notice such differences in ordinary life because they’re so small as to be undetectable at the speeds and scales we normally deal with.  But if we look closely enough, the same effects are observable.  Even the humble GPS app on your smartphone has to take into account the slowdown of the clocks on the GPS satellites, which move slowly compared to C but fast enough that the very precise positioning signals are affected.

Early on, physicists came up with a vivid illustration involving a pair of twins.  If one twin takes a trip at near-lightspeed, she will end up younger than the twin who stays home.

At low velocities, the difference will be unnoticeable.  A twin who spends a few months on the International Space Station will come back slightly younger than the stay-at-home twin, but only slightly.  Up the velocity, though, and we up the ante.  It would be quite startling, by normal standards, if the astronaut twin were still college-age while the earthbound twin were ready for retirement.

Sounds like a story, doesn’t it?

The Storyteller’s Version

Robert A. Heinlein’s 1956 young adult novel Time for the Stars does exactly this:  it makes a story out of the twin paradox.

Time for the Stars coverTom and Pat Bartlett are teenagers growing up centuries from now.  Tom is our viewpoint character.  Pat is the “dominant” twin:  he always seems to end up with the bigger piece of pie.

In this future, population pressure is extreme.  The Long Range Foundation commissions twelve near-lightspeed “torchships” to look for colonizable planets among the nearby stars.  The LRF has discovered that certain pairs of twins can communicate with each other instantaneously, by telepathy (which baffles the physicists no end, since that’s theoretically impossible).  This gives the LRF a way for the starships to get their findings promptly back to Earth, and incidentally explains what an average teen is doing aboard an interstellar exploratory ship.  One twin goes abroad; one stays home.

Heinlein’s characteristic mixture of sound scientific detail and relatable characters makes the novel a highly engaging story.  We see the finagling by which it’s decided which twin (Tom) goes to space.  We get a vivid picture of life aboard a starship that will travel independently for years (even according to its own time frame)—which is where I first learned the word “ecology.”  We see strange worlds and watch how the people aboard the Lewis and Clark (known to its passengers as the “Elsie”) interact.

Time dilation is described with realistic detail.  As the Elsie approaches the speed of light (never quite reaching it), Tom has to “speak” to his brother more and more quickly, and Pat on Earth has to communicate more and more slowly, because their time frames are increasingly out of sync:  “he complained that I was drawling, while it seemed to me that he was starting to jabber” (ch. 11, p. 113).

But it’s the age difference that makes things really difficult.  At the end of the first near-lightspeed jump, Pat is eleven years older than Tom and has a seven-year-old daughter, Molly.  It becomes harder for Tom and Pat to connect; they’ve grown apart to the extent that they now have little in common.  Fortunately, it turns out that the twins’ connectedness can sometimes be passed on (stretching the original concept considerably):  Tom can communicate with Molly as well.  As time goes on, Tom’s connection with Earth is increasingly through his brother’s descendants, though Pat is still alive.

The Lewis and Clark’s expedition ends when she’s met by a new ship from Earth.  Based on investigations into the instantaneous telepathy, scientists have developed a new theory that allows for an “irrelevant” space drive—one that can whisk the whole crew home in mere hours.  The twin imagery is vivid when college-age Tom meets his brother Pat, now an old man in a wheelchair.  The time slippage is even more pointedly illustrated when Tom meets his great-grandniece Vicky, whom he’s spoken with telepathically for all of her life—and is now going to marry.  (The appearance of incest is illusory:  Tom and Vicky have only 1/8 of their parentage in common, or five degrees of consanguinity in terms of Wikipedia’s table.)

Jo Walton has a review with a fascinating (and telling) aside on what Heinlein’s book would have been like if it were written today, rather than in the 1950s.  But we’re going to go on to look at a more unlikely treatment of time dilation.

The Musical Version

As far as I know, no one is contemplating making Time for the Stars into a musical.  But years ago I ran across a song on a 1975 album by the rock band Queen.  The song is called “’39.”  The official lyric video gives you both the recording and Brian May’s lyrics.  Note the imagery the band chose for the introductory graphics.

'39, official lyric video openingIf you didn’t have the lead-in we’ve walked through here, the song might seem rather baffling.  The acoustic sound, the rather antique style, and the mention of sailing off to discover new lands makes us think of olden times.  But what’s with “. . . the day I’ll take your hand / In the land that our grandchildren knew”?

One clue is the songwriter’s coyness about the first two digits of the date that forms the title.  If someone says “’39,” we normally assume they mean 1939.  But there was nothing like this happening in 1939.  The song is full of this careful ambiguity.

If you come to the song with a science-fiction background, however, it’s clear what it’s really about.  Clues are scattered all through the lyrics.  We’ve got the population pressure:  “the days when lands were few.”  The brave crew is “inside” the ship, rather than “aboard.”  It sails “across the milky seas”—the Milky Way.  The singer is “many years away” from his beloved.  The Volunteers bring back news of “a world so newly born” to colonize.  Most significant, he’s “older but a year,” yet the earth and his beloved have radically changed.  We haven’t got twins or telepathy in sight, but otherwise, we might well be talking about the mission of the Lewis and Clark.

When the Web was invented and I finally looked up the song in Wikipedia, I was tickled to find my guess was correct.  According to the Songfacts site, the composer May studied astrophysics, and he himself has referred to the piece as a “sci-fi folk song” (commonly referred to as a “filk song”).

The story line isn’t as clear as Heinlein’s, to be sure.  For one thing, the traveler seems astonished at the relativistic time slippage when he returns (“this cannot be”).  No real astronaut would be that unaware of what to expect.  In addition, in the chorus the singer seems to be addressing both a stay-at-home spouse with whom he’s had grandchildren (“my love”), and a descendant (“your mother’s eyes”)—unless perhaps, like Tom Bartlett, he’s fallen in love with a much younger family member.

In any case, with the necessary compression of a story into the poetry of lyrics, we don’t expect as literal a narrative as in a novel—particularly when, as here, May seems to have been deliberately indirect, even tongue-in-cheek, as a sort of joke on the listener.

But, just as in the novel, the song’s emotional resonance involves a romance as the most poignant expression of the results of time dilation.  It also ends with an appeal for sympathy with the personal dislocation of the narrator, who returns to a world far different from the one he left (“For my life still ahead, pity me”)—a theme also touched on at the end of Time for the Stars.

The three-part comparison reminds us that, even as far back as the 1970s, science fiction turns up in the darnedest places; and that scientific developments can bring new aspects to the timeless concerns of our hearts.

High School Musical: Or, Artful Trope-Wrangling

High School Musical posterIn this season of festive frivolity (and guilty pleasures), what could be more frivolous than the Disney Channel TV movie “High School Musical”?

Yet there may be a few interesting words to say about it.

The Phenomenon

If by some chance you’re not familiar with HSM, the Wikipedia article has a detailed description of the production, plot, and characters.  You can brush up there; I’ll wait.

Since the early 1980s, the Disney Channel has produced a formidable list of original made-for-TV movies, generally aimed at a tween-to-teen audience.  Few of them make much impact on the general moviegoing public, though a number of actors and musicians have gotten their start in the “DCOM” venue.  But every now and then one finds something more substantial among the fluff.

Such surprise successes are not unknown among more adult movies.  No one expected Casablanca to become a film classic when it came out in 1942.  It’s A Wonderful Life, with disappointing results in its original 1946 release, became a beloved holiday heartwarmer in the 1970s.

Disney didn’t expect anything extraordinary from HSM, either.  But the movie was a whirlwind success in its target age group.  Disney, always ready to strike when the iron turns out to be hot, followed up the original HSM not only with the conventional TV sequel but also with a third episode that was released in theatres—“the first and only DCOM to have a theatrical sequel,” according to Wikipedia.

When HSM premiered in 2006, I had a daughter at the right age to be interested; that’s how I came to see the show.  But I was favorably impressed.  As lighthearted romantic fluff goes, this venture was pretty enjoyable.

Clearly, the HSM team did something right.

The Chemistry

High School Musical, karaoke scene, Troy and GabriellaA romantic comedy can’t work unless the couple appeals to us.  In this respect, HSM hits the right note from the initial meet-cute.  Teenage strangers Troy Bolton (basketball star) and Gabriella Montez (science-oriented A student) are propelled onstage at random by a boisterous karaoke crowd at a resort’s New Year’s Eve party.  By the usual musical-theatre convention, they sing the required duet perfectly, without any prompting, though they act as if they’re amateurs trying this for the first time.  We watch them gradually loosen up, exchange shy glances, and get into the song with enthusiasm.  It’s entirely adorable.  The song itself, with the refrain “This could be the start of something new,” fits neatly with the beginning of a relationship.

Romantic chemistry is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.  But I felt the actors and filmmakers did a good job of making the romantic interest both credible and enjoyable.  (To mention only one example of a film that fails in this respect:  Star Wars fans will wince in unison when reminded of the fact that the prequel trilogy requires us to treat Anakin and Padmé as heroes of an epic romance, but the actors have no chemistry whatsoever.)

The Tropes

HSM is a gallery of familiar tropes—but it does some interesting things with them.

The idea of star-crossed lovers whose groups are at odds goes back to Romeo and Juliet—or Pyramus and Thisbe.  Using the traditional high-school dichotomy of jocks and nerds to create this opposition makes the situation ripe for comedy.  But what makes HSM interesting is that there’s a third force involved:  the drama club.

While the sports championship and the scholastic decathlon preoccupy the basketball team and the brainy types, Troy and Gabriella are really trying to succeed at a third thing—trying out for the spring musical.  Their real opposition is the reigning drama queen, Sharpay, with her acquiescent brother and dance partner Ryan.  Having three factions in play complicates the standard “Two houses, both alike in dignity” plotline.  It also allows for a satisfying alliance of the sports and science factions at the climax, when they conspire to create simultaneous disruptions so that Troy and Gabriella can appear at the all-important (I’m trying to say that with a straight face) callback auditions.

High School Musical, creme bruleeSimilarly, the basic theme of the show is a classic (especially for teenagers) “do your own thing” or “be yourself” message.  But the three-party problem points this up in a slightly unexpected way.  Troy and Gabriella don’t need to recognize each other’s existing strengths; they’re each trying to do something that’s new to both of them.  The same theme works its way down through the minor characters.  In a song about sticking to the status quo, various people confess their unorthodox ambitions.  To me there seems to be something whimsically specific about a basketball player’s dream of cooking the perfect crème brulée, which becomes a running joke.

The HSM characters are typical high-school stereotypes, but with a little more to them.  They are, at least, multi-talented; and they’re capable (in the end) of appreciating each other’s disparate abilities.  It’s just enough of a spin to lift HSM out of the run of teenage comedies.

The Music

The musical numbers are pretty good pop-rock songs, IMHO.  The comic pieces are well done, and they’re carried off with great joie de vivre by the enthusiastic cast.  The love songs—“Start of Something New,” “What I’ve Been Looking For,” “Breaking Free”—are enjoyable enough that they’re worth listening to even aside from the video.  The big finale, “We’re All In This Together,” is just the kind of rousing, energetic closer one wants for an entertainment of this sort.


High School Musical, finaleThere are, of course, flaws.  Characters don’t always act consistently; for instance, the drama club moderator Miss Darbus is sometimes flagrantly biased in favor of her pet prodigies Sharpay and Ryan, while at other times she goes out of her way to give the newbies a fair chance.  The final wrap-up, in which everyone from all factions become friends (temporarily, until the next episode), is endearing but just too neat.

But to my mind, HSM succeeds at being good light entertainment—and that’s not something to sneeze at.  It can be harder to bring off a light comedy than to craft a drama or an action-adventure flick, just as it can be easier to broil a steak than to make a good soufflé.  (Or crème brulée, perhaps.)

Kelsi Nielsen, HSM's "composer"

Olesya Rulin as Kelsi Nielsen

I also have a particular fondness for HSM’s acknowledgement of the composer of the musical as an unsung hero.  The drama club’s musical is being written by a younger student, Kelsi Nielsen.  The senior drama people act superior with Kelsi, but Troy points out to her that in basketball terms she’s the “playmaker”—the one who makes everybody else look good.  That’s an especially satisfying observation to those of us whose activities lie more in the writing and composition areas than in onstage performance.  It’s another welcome subtlety I wouldn’t necessarily have expected in a casual Disney Channel production.

No one will mistake HSM for high drama.  But it’s undeniably fun, and it reminds us that even the most well-worn tropes can be fresh if you throw in a few new twists.