Books About Building

Conflict and Challenge

The “conflict” we expect in a story can take many forms.  External, internal; protagonists against themselves, against other people, against nature, against society.  If you grew up on adventure stories, as I did, you may tend to focus on showy external struggles—wars and battles.  (Explosions!!)  Even more so if your formative reading included comic books:  the first question for a new issue was always, who is Spider-Man fighting this month?—even if there might be more long-term interest in the issue’s developments regarding Spidey’s love life or character development.

But in some stories, or parts of stories, the focus is on building or making something, rather than fighting something.  The underlying engine of such a story might better be called challenge than “conflict”—a struggle to achieve some definite end product, rather than to defeat an adversary.  It’s a sort of engineering story, rather than a crisis—although there may be crises along the way.

Bob the Builder

We Are Legion coverAlmost every possible kind of conflict can be found in Dennis Taylor’s “Bobiverse” science fiction novels:  We are Legion (We are Bob), For We Are Many, All These Worlds (2016-2017).  (Looking them up, I’m pleased to see a new sequel, Heaven’s River, is now out in audiobook form.)  The series touches on a whole range of SF tropes, from first contact to space war to ecological catastrophe.

Bob Johansson, software magnate, dies in the 21st century and wakes up a hundred years later as a sapient computer program, intended to be the guiding intelligence of an interstellar probe, like a computerized version of Jerome Corbell in Niven’s A World Out of Time.  Once under way, however, Bob strikes out on his own, becoming involved with rival probes from another country, the evacuation of a failing Earth, and (eventually) honest-to-goodness aliens.  His probe is equipped with 3-D printers and other gear that allows him to “clone” himself—build new ships run by copies of the Bob program.  Each Bob instance takes a new name and, once running independently, develops a slightly different personality.  Hence the book titles:  we eventually have a whole armada of Bob spaceships, single-handedly—if that’s the right description—planting new human colonies and conducting interstellar wars.

But you don’t bootstrap your way into an armada overnight.  A good bit of the story, especially in the early parts, requires Bob to balance multiple demands.  How much of his productive capacity should be directed to manufacturing new Bobs, and how much to hunting down dangerous opponents?  Or transporting human refugees to new worlds?  To make matters more interesting, some of the Bobs specialize in research, coming up with new scientific discoveries that need to be engineered and adapted for others’ use—as time, transport, and communications permit.

Part of the fascination involves how Bob gradually builds up a sort of interstellar network of cooperating AI ships.  (Of course they cooperate; they’re all Bob.  Sort of.)  How he does this, what difficulties and complications he runs into, is as intriguing as the more exotic or action-oriented sequences.  It’s very cool to see one lone intelligent probe gradually develop into an entire star-spanning civilization.

Building Ships and Planets

Rissa Kerguelen coverF.M. Busby’s Rissa Kerguelen books (1976)—published in various combinations—are the saga of a young woman who starts out as an enslaved orphan under a vicious tyranny on Earth, and ends by bringing back a space fleet to overthrow the tyranny.  She allies herself (both militarily and maritally) with the equally formidable Bran Tregare and the Hulzein family, who share that goal.

When I say “space fleet,” I’m not talking about thousands of massive ships.  This is a bunch of modest-sized spacecraft manned by an assemblage of quirky, anarchic individuals—more like a Star Wars rebel fleet than an Honor Harrington space navy.  Much of the middle section of the story is taken up with the long-term preparations needed for the eventual battles.  Rissa and Tregare redesign and refit their stolen spaceships for combat; pull together the aforesaid individualists into a functional fighting group; and gradually, cautiously, get to know and love each other, after a battleground marriage for political purposes.  That simultaneous slow build of machinery, financing, and relationships is as engrossing as Rissa’s initial escape from the “Total Welfare” system or the ultimate invasion of Earth.  Even the engineering problems, solved in the context of these budding relationships, hold my interest throughout.

Or take Heinlein’s juvenile novel Farmer in the Sky (1950).  Teenaged Bill Lermer emigrates with his family to Ganymede, which is being terraformed into a habitable site for Earthly settlers.  The big moon is completely barren, devoid of life.  The “terraforming” involves not just big technology, like the atmosphere plant and heat trap, but also the creation of soil suitable for farming, inch by inch.  Rock has to be ground into soil, then seeded with Terrestrial microbes, earthworms, and the like, before the first crop can be planted.  This process, which Bill sees at ground level—he’s a farmer-to-be, not a planner or engineer—is endlessly fascinating, though no doubt the details would differ if the book were written today, with seventy years’ more knowledge about the solar system.  It left me with an abiding sense of how complex the web of geological and biological factors really is, underlying something so seemingly simple as dirt farming.

Building a Business

Not that you have to go to Ganymede to find a narrative about constructing something new.  I recently mentioned R.F. Delderfield’s “Swann saga.”  The hero (and the heroine) here are building up something apparently mundane:  a trucking business, using the newfangled horseless carriages, to connect the railroad network to the small towns and hamlets of Victorian England.  The characters tumble in and out of various conflicts, but the underlying thrust of the story is about the growth of a business.  We see its material factors—vehicles, storehouses, roadways, Adam Swann’s unique organizational planning gizmo—but, more importantly, the varied people whose talents and peculiarities contribute to the success of the whole operation.  Building a business enterprise can be as rewarding as building a spaceship—or a planet.

Working Girl, Tess at conference tableOccasionally this kind of constructive work also crops up in a modern corporate context.  My catalogue of movie favorites contains only two stories I can think of that convey some of the excitement—the romance (in both senses of the word)—of big business.  The Secret of My Success (1987), with Michael J. Fox and Helen Slater, is mostly a knockabout farce, but we do respond to the infectious enthusiasm of Fox’s character.  What makes him more engaging than the other “suits” is that he’s excited about the idea of serving customers and making a productive business grow.  Similarly, in Working Girl (1988), we’re mostly taken up in the plucky struggles of Melanie Griffith’s Tess McGill to break the glass ceiling of the secretarial pool; but we can also admire the artistry and accomplishment of the radio broadcasting merger deal she puts together.

Castaways and Escapes

Construction in the midst of a crisis can become an epic in itself.  In Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer’s When Worlds Collide (1933), much of the story is taken up with the desperate challenges the protagonists must overcome as they race against time to build the spaceship that will enable them to escape Earth’s destruction.  (Pay no attention to the 1951 movie version, which is a catastrophe in its own right.)

When Worlds Collide coverThe oncoming disaster adds dramatic tension to an effort that would be heroic even if it were undertaken without that threat in view.  We see the thousand dedicated people of Cole Hendron’s “cantonment” working on the massive project; striving to obtain the necessary resources as civilization begins to crumble around them; making the scientific breakthrough they need to control atomic energy for their engines; defending the ship against attacks by mobs reverted to barbarism; and rejoicing in immense relief when they find they can construct a second ship that will allow all of them, not just a fraction, to escape Earth’s doom.  Even the momentary pauses to describe the design of the ship, or the careful preparations to take along the necessary plants, animals, and knowledge to recreate Earthly life on the new world, are engrossing in the context of the mighty achievement.  In fact, after all this build-up, the actual brief space-flight is almost an anticlimax.

The whole subgenre of castaway or “desert island” stories almost automatically incorporates themes of making and building, often by ingenious improvisation.  In an earlier post I mentioned Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island (1874), a childhood favorite of mine, and Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky (1955).  Disney fans may recall the impressive treehouse of the Swiss Family Robinson movie (1960), faithfully re-created at Disney parks.  In more modern renditions such as Eric Flint and Ryk Spoor’s Castaway Planet series, the main characters are similarly involved in carving out a place to live in an otherwise uninhabited locale.

Resources and Technology

Civilization VI screenshotThe interest of stories like these is akin to the way we enjoy playing certain kinds of games, those with a “resource management” feature.  I am, for example, perpetually fascinated with Sid Meier’s famous Civilization games.  In managing a selected civilization throughout its history, we can get into wars with other “civs,” whether they are run by the computer or (in some versions) by another human player.  But war is not essential to winning the game, as it is in chess.  Exploration, the founding of new cities, and scientific development are vital, and offer other ways to win.  While the danger of war with other cultures adds an important spice to the game, I find I’m more interested in discovering new places and developing a well-functioning culture.

Similar features can be found in other popular video games—Starcraft, Warcraft (but not World of Warcraft, which is a role-playing game), Settlers of Catan.  Even the venerable Monopoly fits this description to some extent.  To the extent to which these games are focused on winning, we do engage in a conflict; we seek a higher score than our competitors achieve.  But sometimes it’s a relief to play a game that doesn’t directly involve fighting.

I mentioned scientific development in connection with Civilization.  Researching how to make new sorts of units and improvements is crucial to that game.  (By contrast, in Monopoly all we need to build houses and hotels is money, and monopolies.)  Stories about building frequently involve playing out the consequences of a new technology, if only because new tech opens new opportunities and hence new fields for development.

The Ring Of Charon coverOld-time space operas sometimes touched on this factor, but tended to short-cut the extensive work of implementing a new technology in favor of getting directly to the action.  E.E. Smith’s Skylark Duquesne (1965), last of the Skylark tetralogy, alludes briefly in chapter 8 to the impact on Earthly industry of the fantastic scientific advances in the previous volumes.  But those changes hardly have an impact on the story.  We see a slightly more gradual and plausible development in a couple of books from Roger MacBride Allen, The Ring of Charon (1990) and The Shattered Sphere (1994), where a newly discovered artificial gravity technique gets put to use in progressively more advanced ways.  Even the Delderfield Swann series mentioned above is based on the new opportunities created in the 19th Century by railroads and the internal-combustion engine.

Blessed are the Peaceful Makers

The peculiar enjoyment of stories about building comes, I think, partly from the sense we share with the characters of accomplishing something.  The action of the story is constructive rather than destructive.

Granted, we’re perfectly willing to applaud destruction too, in a good cause.  (Take that, Death Star!)  And stories of violent conflict are perfectly suited to give us edge-of-the-seat thrills that are harder to come by in narratives of making.  Still, we don’t always want an adrenaline rush all the time.  It can be quietly satisfying when we don’t have to focus on winning a war, or on the danger of losing something dear to us and the desperation of defending it.

Witness house raising sceneThe satisfaction of successful making came up in a post last Christmas about the appeal of concreteness, whether in baking cookies or in building ships (as in the denouement of Pretty Woman).  Both construction and destruction are sometimes necessary:  “A time to build up, a time to break down.”  But building responds to a different facet of our humanity than destroying.  A good story may speak to one or the other, or to both.

A Pride of Brothers

This week we have a guest post from Peggy Jaeger, a fellow author at the Wild Rose Press.  She’s got a new romance series going, “A Pride of Brothers.”  Since the name of the first book’s hero is Rick, she’s obviously setting off on the right foot.

In today’s post, she talks about moving into writing for a new subgenre.  Over to you, Peggy!

A Pride of Brothers:  Rick

For most of my fiction writing career (all 5 years if it!) I’ve written contemporary romance novels and RomComs, or romantic comedies.  Since these are my favorite romance books to read, it stands to reason they’d be my favorite to write.

A Pride of Brothers: Rick, coverThe publication of my newest book, though, A Pride of Brothers:  Rick, is a bit of a departure for me, writing-structure-wise.  With this book and the two others planned for the series, I’m delving into the romantic suspense lite genre. I’ll explain the “lite” portion in a bit, but first . . .

Writing romance isn’t easy, but there are some tried and true rules you must follow to have a book classified as a romance in any of the subgenres.

  1. You must have a central love interest in the story. It can be between a man and a woman, two men, a woman and a shape-shifting dragon . . . you get the idea.  As long as there is a central love story within the book, you have a qualified romance.
  2. You must have a happily ever after (HEA) ending, or at least a final happy for now (HFN) one. The obvious definition of the first is the classic, And they lived happily ever after, where a marriage and an emotional commitment is solidified at the end of the book.  This used to mean marriage and only marriage.  Nowadays, a romance can have a happy for now ending and still be qualified as a romantic read as long as the people involved in the central love story are committed to one another.  The hope of a lifetime commitment is there, written as a promise, but not explicitly divulged on the page.  Get the difference?
  3. Taboo subjects you must never include as the central theme in a romance are rape, incest, child abuse, sexual abuse—really, abuse of any kind—cruelty, and bestiality.

If you follow these rules you can write a romance.

Pride of Brothers, graphic with quote

The structure of writing a romantic suspense is a bit different.

Yes, you must still have a love interest within the plot, and yes, it still needs to have an HEA or a HFN ending.  Rule number 3 applies to every book, so I don’t need to reiterate it here.

The difference in this subgenre that is apparent, though, is in the name: romantic suspense.

The definition of this subgenre varies a bit, but basically it is any romance novel in which suspense, mystery or thriller elements constitute an integral part of the plot, or one that features a prominent mystery, suspense or thriller story line.

When I was a teenager in the ‘80s this type of book was called a WOMAN IN JEOPARDY story because the plot centered around a woman who had some kind of danger in her life like an abusive ex-beau, or a stalker.  The implication of the tag line was that a woman needed a man to help her out of the bad situation (the “jeopardy”), and in so doing, they’d fall in love.

Nowadays, that sexist and archaic description is gone, replaced with “Romantic Suspense,” and it’s not only the gals who need help with a problem any longer.  There are plenty of bad-ass female bounty hunters, cops, etc., out there who help the hero with an issue.

Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

So, I promised an explanation of the term romantic suspense lite with regards to my writing.

I didn’t set out to write a romantic suspense when I came up with the story line for the first Pride of Brothers book.  I wanted to tell a frenemies-to-lovers story about two strong and opposite personalities who wound up falling in love.  That’s the romance aspect of the tale.  I had to make them foils, and the plot needed to revolve around something where one of them would need to help the other out of a situation.

What I came up with was a story about a lawyer who fights for disenfranchised women and their children, and a man who was the definition of disenfranchised as a child.  When the husband of a client threatens the lawyer and then subsequently tries to murder his wife and kidnap his son, the hero vows to protect the heroine from danger.  She isn’t convinced she is in danger, but a series of events unfolds that proves she is.  That’s the suspense part.  It’s the hero’s job to keep her safe, even though she can do that on her own.

The reason I dub it a lite romantic suspense is that more than 60% of the tale is the evolving romance between the two protagonists, with about 40% steeped in the actual thriller/suspense part of it.  There is a forced proximity aspect to the storyline, which is a classic romsusp factor, along with knife fights, guns, and kidnapping—all elements you don’t find in your everyday regular small town romance novel.

I am hopeful I’ve done the subgenre proud with the release of this book. It was an absolute blast to write and I can only hope it is enjoyable to readers as well.

Look for book two, A PRIDE OF BROTHERS: DYLAN early in 2021.

Until next time ~ Peg

A Pride of Brothers:  Rick at
Amazon ~ Barnes & Noble ~ Apple Books ~Books-A-Million

 

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

Science fiction writer Becky Chambers is up for a Hugo award (SF’s equivalent of the Oscars or Pulitzer Prize) this year—twice.  Her 2018 novel Record of a Spaceborn Few has been nominated for best novel.  The Wayfarers series, of which Record is the third book, is also in the running for best series this year.

Wayfarers series coversThe series as a whole, and especially the most recent book, highlight a facet of SF that can sometimes be neglected in the shadow of the world-shaking blockbuster epics:  stories that are concerned more with what happens to individuals and small groups than with the Fate of the World.  I’m going to tag this subcategory “domestic SF.”

I don’t mean to imply that Chambers’ tales are concerned with cosy traditional family life.  On the contrary, some of her characters’ situations are decidedly nonconventional.  This is science fiction, after all.  But family and home do play a central role.

High Stakes

When we think of science fiction—especially early modern SF, from about 1920-1940—we tend to think of adventure stories:  space opera, “planetary romances” like Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter stories, or the modern revival in Star Trek and Star Wars.  In these tales, conflict was a must, and often on a grand scale.  We were Saving the World, or even the galaxy, the universe; or at least (for instance) the beloved city of Helium, as John Carter was wont to do.

Many of these early epics had to do with exploration.  We were ‘going where no one had gone before’ in the Jules Verne Voyages Extraordinaires, or in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds (though in the latter case one might say instead that ‘where no one had gone before’ was coming to us).  The heroes were frequently achieving the first of something, a momentous event:  first spaceflight, first interstellar flight, first contact with nonhuman intelligence, or (when spaceflight had become routine) first landing on some particularly odd sort of planet.  Whatever they were doing, it was a big deal.

Of course this was never all of science fiction; but it made up a major part of modern SF.  And this tendency continued into the mid-20th century.  Even a scenario that initially seemed purely local and personal often turned out to have grand-scale implications.

In Heinlein’s The Star Beast (1954), for example, the Everyboy teenage hero is unusual only in having a pet that was puppy-sized when his great-grandfather brought it back from an interstellar trip, but has gradually grown to the scale of a medium-sized dinosaur.  The story opens with “Lummox” getting into trouble by eating a neighbor’s roses, plowing straight through a set of greenhouses, and so forth—the kind of domestic turmoil that might turn up in any situation comedy.  (At least in science fiction.)  But it eventually turns out that Lummox is actually a mere child from a fearsomely intelligent and pugnacious extraterrestrial species that lives for centuries.  When her relatives come calling, it requires a major diplomatic effort to head off an interstellar war.  What started out as a neighborhood squabble has become a planetary crisis.

E.T. poster, fingers touchingWe see something of the same development, but with a different twist, in the movie E.T.:  the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).  The first part of the story focuses mainly on the friendship that develops between E.T. and young Elliott.  The situation grows into an adult-level crisis in the second part.  But Spielberg has a different take:  even at the end, the story remains centered on that personal relationship between the two main characters.  The trail of candies Elliott lays out for E.T. leads to a momentous first-contact moment; but it isn’t clear at the end whether Elliott’s contact will lead to some kind of new era for humanity, or whether things will return to normal once the alien spacecraft departs.

E.T. shows that what’s at stake in SF doesn’t have to be world-shaking.  The whole story may simply revolve around the lives of a few main characters.  And that’s what I mean by ‘domestic SF.’

The Wayfarers Books

Chambers’ first novel, The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2014), opens when a young woman named Rosemary Harper joins the motley crew of an aging spaceship-for-hire called the Wayfarer.  Her relationships with the varied personalities (and species) of the crew draw her out of herself and allow her to develop her potential in classic bildungsroman fashion.  As the plot thickens, Wayfarer does get involved in major diplomatic affairs, in a small way.  But, as with E.T., the focus stays on the characters and their interactions.  We’re much more concerned about whether (for instance) the ship’s AI, Lovelace, will succeed in being downloaded into a human body at the urging of her human beloved, than in galactic politics.  Wikipedia puts it concisely:  “The novel concerns itself with character development rather than adventure.”

This tendency is even more pronounced in the second story.  A Closed and Common Orbit (2016) leaves behind most of the characters of the first book to follow the distinct, newborn AI that ended up occupying the human body in question at the end of The Long WayOrbit entirely eschews the grand scale in favor of personal relationships, as the main character tries to decide how to manage this strange new life in the flesh while making friends with a woman who herself had an extremely odd childhood.  One review correctly observed that Orbit is even “more intimate than its predecessor.”

The third story, Record of a Spaceborn Few, takes place in the same universe but, again, mobilizes an entirely different cast of characters.  Chambers is not writing a cumulative single story on the model of, say, the Star Wars movies.  Rather, each book is complete in itself, although they share a common background and characters occasionally cross over.  This in itself indicates that we are not building up to a single galaxy-spanning climax.  The author’s interests lie elsewhere.

Record of a Spaceborn Few

Record of a Spaceborn Few coverThe most recent book builds on the backstory of which we’ve seen glimpses in the prior volumes.  In Chambers’ future history, humanity, having ruined its home planet, sets out en masse to search for new homes in slower-than-light generation ships, the “Exodus fleet.”  It’s only when the are discovered by more advanced nonhuman species that they gain limited access, as impoverished refugees, to higher technologies and faster-than-light travel.  By the time of the stories, people from the Fleet have spread out to live among other species on numerous other worlds; some have even returned to their own solar system to colonize Mars.  But a substantial number of humans still remain aboard the immense ships that had been their ancestors’ homes for so long, which have now been put in permanent orbits around a star loaned to them by another species.

Record explores possible options for choosing to live one’s life in these circumstances.  Some of the “Exodans,” like young Kip, pine for the wider horizons of a planet, yet end up opting for a place within the Fleet—after spending some time going to college “abroad,” onplanet.  Others, like Tessa and her family, do take on the new experience of living in the open, on a planet.  Meanwhile, some of the dispersed humans born on planets come to decide they’d rather live aboard the Fleet, whose close-knit culture has its attractions despite the shabby and relatively modest conditions aboard; and some of the Exodans choose to create a “cultural education” center to train these returnees so they can fit into that culture.

A friendly alien observer, visiting the Fleet to gain material for a study and staying with one of the main characters, provides an external viewpoint to place these various life decisions in context.  But the core of the story is how each individual or family chooses among the different possible ways of life.  There’s no great crisis or climax, and the story doesn’t come down on the side of one lifestyle or another.  It simply lays out the possibilities.

Family Life Out There

Chambers’ stories, then, seem to be moving more and more in the direction of ‘domestic’ or small-scale concerns.  There’s a continuing theme of belonging to a family group, or something like one—even when the “family” in question, as in Orbit, consists of both ordinary embodied humans and “sessile” AIs that never leave the home they operate (giving a whole new meaning to the term “homemaker”).

The Rolling Stones coverWith Chambers as the bellwether, so to speak, we can trace similar kinds of stories back through the history of SF.  For example, another Heinlein “juvenile” novel, The Rolling Stones (1952), really is a domestic story:  the Stone family, bored with their comfortable life on the quietly citified Moon, buys a spaceship and sets off to visit Mars and then the asteroid belt, getting into various scrapes and small-scale adventures as they go.

These “adventures” can be as mundane as the teenage twins’ run-in with bureaucracy and the law when they try to import bicycles to Mars without first researching the customs duties—or as serious as a life-endangering spacecraft malfunction.  But there are no grander events or interplanetary crises involved.  (Incidentally, the book has nothing at all to do with the band The Rolling Stones, not even if you try to compare the “rocks” of the asteroid belt with—no, even I’m not going to go there.)

Another perennial favorite of mine is Zenna Henderson’s tales of the People, refugees from a far-off world who are scattered across the Earth when they must escape in “life-slips” as their spacecraft breaks up on entering our atmosphere.  These short stories each center on different individuals or families of characters, built around a common theme of finding the lost and bringing them back to their own people.  The unusual powers of the People often evoke xenophobic hostility in the Earthlings among whom they are hiding—but just as often bring out compassion and kindness from the people who take them in and help them.  The array of short stories does not really build to any climax or conclusion.  Rather, each person’s fate is a story in itself—though it is intimately bound up with those of others.

Whole subgenres of SF are inherently oriented toward the small and personal.  There’s a significant category of science fiction murder mysteriesIsaac Asimov was famous for these—which by definition revolve around a particular individual’s death, which may or may not have cosmic ramifications.  Similarly, a SF romance necessarily focuses on a particular couple; and again, while their relationship may have broad-scale importance, the story is just as sound if what matters is only the two of them.

On the Big Screen

My impression is that SF movies, even more than books, have tended to concentrate on big crises and broad scope; perhaps a visual medium evokes a particular fascination with spectacle.  (Explosions, give me lots of explosions.)  But that’s not always the case.  Now that we’ve shown we can do believably spectacular stories along the Star Wars lines, moviemakers may be turning back toward more personal-level tales.

The Space Between Us posterA good example is the teenage SF romance The Space Between Us (2017).  I’m fond of this film, though it didn’t do well as the box office and was disliked by critics.  The movie fits our survey here because it’s all about the particular pair and the other people involved with them.  There’s a base or colony on Mars, but that’s just the background that sets up the essential premise of the story—how a boy born and raised in a scientific station on Mars is determined to visit the home planet and to meet the girl he’s been corresponding with there.

I’m tempted also to cite the Chris Pratt-Jennifer Lawrence film Passengers (2016).  It’s all about the two principal characters (who are the only characters for much of the story).  The stakes do rise at least to “save the ship” level when the main characters have to perform death-defying acts to prevent the destruction of the sleeper ship they’re on.  But, as a romance, it does maintain a focus on the fates of those two people—in a way that is rather poignantly realized at the end.

Conclusion

Becky Chambers’ Hugo nominees thus illustrate that aspect of SF that deals with the personal and local rather than the grand and spectacular.  I’m all for more of this.  Once we get over the initial amazement at space travel and other scientific advances, we can settle down to telling the small individual stories that these advances make possible—without giving up the grand-scale tales as well, of course.  In a literary realm, eating our cake and still having it is a consummation devoutly to be wished.

The Manly Virtues—Regency Style

Heroic Virtues

Picture of Regency heroThe “hero” of a romance, the male lead, holds up a mirror to a given age’s conception of the virtues a man should have.  If the romance is to work at all, the hero must be someone we’re willing to see the heroine give her heart to.  He may not be perfect; in fact, he frequently has flaws or emotional wounds that help provide obstacles in the story.  But he has to be admirable enough to win our approval.

We’re not talking just about the kinds of physical attributes a woman might sigh over.  The reader is supposed to respect the man as well.

This assumption is largely tacit.  Probably no one in the story comes right out and says “this is what a man should be.”  It’s a matter of what the story presents as desirable or worthy of respect.  We can learn a lot more from how the story treats a character than just what the author tells us.

In other words, romantic stories can give us clues about the archetypes or role models for males (and of course females) in a given period.

These ideals aren’t necessarily the same in different eras.  Cultural differences affect what qualities we see as admirable.  There’s a fairly constant core—virtues that are respected in every generation—but there’s also a good deal of divergence.

 

Hero Types

There’s a fair amount of variety in the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s twenty to thirty Regency novels (the count depends on how loosely one defines the Regency period).  We can see this from the fact that attempts to categorize the heroes have to deal with a lot of exceptions.

The standard division, originating with Heyer herself, proposes two principal archetypes.  Jane Aiken-Hodge, in The Private World of Georgette Heyer (1984), is quoted in Laurel Ann Nattress, Heyer’s Heroes:  Immutable Romance Archetypes, on Austenprose (2010), as saying that “Georgette Heyer put her heroes into two basic categories: the Mark I hero, who is ‘The brusque, savage sort with a foul temper’ and the Mark II hero, who is ‘Suave, well-dressed, rich, and a famous whip.’

Dorothy Dunnett added in a Washington Post article (1984):  “If hero Mark I was firmly based on Charlotte Bronte’s Mr. Rochester, Mark II is the very embodiment of Sir Percy Blakeney, Baroness Orczy’s languid aristocrat of The Scarlet Pimpernel” (links and italics added).  TV Tropes’ Creator page on Heyer notes this division of heroes (and a corresponding classification of heroines).

The Foundling, coverBut these dual archetypes don’t exhaust the roster.  Nattress notes that the Duke of Sale in The Foundling “perhaps requires one to add at least one more category to Heyer’s own classification scheme, since he, like the heroes of Charity Girl, Cotillion, and Friday’s Child, is neither “suave” nor “brusque.”  That’s four stories that apparently escape the Mark I/II dichotomy.  Nattress adds:  “In addition, one might have to create a small category for Heyer’s military heroes who are neither ‘suave’ nor ‘brusque’ but instead have a penchant for behaving in unexpectedly unconventional ways, and which would contain the heroes of Beauvallet, The Spanish Bride, The Toll Gate and The Unknown Ajax.”  We’re now up to eight exceptions.

Common Characteristics

On the other hand, the romantic heroes do have a pretty consistent set of common features.  Let’s divide the personal qualities—not the characters—into two groups (no relation to the Mark I/II character types).

Group 1 features:  General

  • The hero has plenty of money. Sometimes this is important because the heroine is in financial need; sometimes it isn’t, because she’s not.  But the male lead is almost always solvent, if not extraordinarily wealthy.  A rare counter-example is Adam Deveril of A Civil Contract (1961), whose attempt to achieve financial stability for his family is a main plotline of the story.
  • Black Sheep (Georgette Heyer) coverHe typically looks good, both in the sense of physical handsomeness and in that of being well-dressed and “put together.” A rare counter-example here is Miles Calverleigh in Black Sheep (1966), who is described as a man “with harsh features in a deeply lined face, a deplorably sallow skin, and not the smallest air of fashion” (ch. 3, p. 34).
  • He’s kind to his lady. They may start out at odds; he may be brusque or formidable to others; but to the heroine, at least, he is considerate and caring.
  • In a pinch, he’s cool under pressure. There may or may not be any situation in the story that calls for physical courage; but if so, he’s got it.
  • Loyalty and, more narrowly, fidelity to his lady is another hallmark. We’re talking here about fidelity after they fall in love.  Heyer makes clear that the hero has previously sown his wild oats, which makes him experienced in carnal matters and confident in his wooing.  But once he falls for the heroine, all that is behind him.

It should be noted that Heyer’s novels do not deal with actual sexual activity at all.  Physical attraction, while it is obviously present, does not feature largely in the storylines—so it is not a requirement that the hero be outrageously sexy.  In this respect Heyer differs considerably from many modern genre romances, even Regency romances.  (On this aspect of Heyer’s character, see Jennifer Kloester’s biography Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller (2011).)

The Group 1 traits are probably common, in some form, to the ideal mate for a woman in any era.  Having plenty of money, in particular, may represent a kind of wish-fulfillment for the traditional female reader (Heyer’s 1920s-1960s audience):  the hero is someone who can be relied upon to provide a safe support for the necessities and amenities of life.

How this is expressed may differ by society.  In the Regency period, a fortune was generally inherited; in a modern story, the traditional millionaire romantic interest probably earned his stash.  In a fantasy or science-fiction world, the currency of survival may be something other than money per se.  But some reliable means of support is generally attractive.

The corresponding wish-fulfillment quality in a female for male readers/viewers, by the way, is beauty.  One doesn’t cast unattractive Bond girls.  It would be considered shallow for either sex to value only these qualities in a potential mate; but they do form part of the complete package for the ideal romantic interest.

In addition to the Group 1 virtues, a Heyer hero is expected to have some more period-specific qualities.

Group 2 features:  Regency-specific

  • Gentleman Jackson's Boxing Salon, 1821 woodcutThe ideal Regency gentleman, as Heyer see it, knows how to fist-fight. Typically, he frequents Gentleman Jackson’s Boxing Salon, where he attains some skill using his “fives” in an art the ladies generally deplore, but still rather admire.  At least some brief mention of this ability turns up for almost all of Heyer’s heroes.
  • Moreover, he can fight with firearms. The hero is generally a good shot, spending some of his off hours target-shooting or hunting.  Even in a story where neither fist-fighting nor shooting plays a part, these talents seem to be indispensable:  the proper hero is prepared to fight should the need arise.
  • He can ride a horse. Whether he’s a “notable whip” or merely a very competent horseman, he’s particularly good at riding, even in an era where the horse was a standard mode of transportation.
  • In Regency high society, a man’s integrity is expressed especially in honoring his bets in the ubiquitous gaming. A hero always makes good on his gaming obligations; someone who doesn’t is instantly recognizable as a villain.  (Note that this is closely related to the general virtue of having plenty of money available.)
  • Almost invariably, he has a sense of humor; frequently the heroine wishes she could share some absurd incident with the hero when he’s absent. This sense of humor may be a survival trait when you’re in a romantic comedy.
  • Last of the Mohicans action sceneIn a society where almost all one’s time is spent in social interactions, social competence is a key feature. The proper hero can cope with any social difficulty or complication.  Some of them do so calmly, with aplomb, while others may be brusque and seemingly unconventional (I mentioned Black Sheep above).  In a primitive or frontier situation—say, if you’re in The Last of the Mohicans, or a Heinlein adventure—competence may mean basic survival skills.  But in a highly formalized society like the Regency, social skill is what competence in general looks like.

Of course we’re talking about the aristocracy here—what the stories refer to, tellingly, as “the Quality.”  Heyer’s stories only glancingly involve the kinds of street urchins or poor tradespeople who grace the pages of (for example) Dickens.  While later Regencies may try to work in a more egalitarian perspective, the Heyer-type stories focus on the leisured class.

Cotillion

We can see what the essential characteristics are by looking at an exception to what one would think of as the typical alpha hero:  Freddy Standen of Cotillion (N.Y.:  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, A Jove Book, 1953, 1982).

Cotillion (Georgette Heyer), coverIn this light-hearted tale, heroine Kitty Charing is the ward of crochety old Uncle Matthew, who’s determined to marry her off, along with his considerable fortune, to one of his nephews.  Kitty’s in love with the rakish Jack, who is too proud to show up when Uncle Matthew calls the nephews together.  Instead, she convinces the amiable Freddy to pretend to be engaged to her, which allows her the London experience she’s always wanted, and (not incidentally) the chance to convince Jack to offer for her.  In the course of the story, she discovers Jack’s unlikable features, and ends up falling for Freddy after all—and vice versa, of course.

You might expect Jack to be the hero.  He’s handsome, devil-may-care, knows how to fight, and so forth.  He’s the classic powerful, assertive alpha male type.  But Jack is too selfish, and he doesn’t really care about Kitty; she’s merely convenient for him.  It’s the non-alpha Freddy who wins out.

Freddy is good-looking, but in an almost dandyish mode; a “Pink of the Ton” (p. 41).  He’s “kind-hearted and . . . uncritical” (p. 112), and expresses “ready sympathy” for Kitty (p. 210).  He professes to be frightened of intimidating types like Uncle Matthew (p. 53); but he really isn’t, and provides unexpected support to Kitty in dealing with difficult relatives (pp. 191, 258-59).  These are of course good things for the inexperienced heroine, though they’re milder virtues than the bold assertiveness one would expect of a stock hero.

At the same time, Freddy does possess the Group 2 qualifications outlined above.  He has integrity:  he’s an honest gamer (“Play or pay, m’girl, play or pay,” pp. 108-09).  More importantly, he’s courteous and magnanimous in real life.  Jack recognizes that Freddy is “wholly incapable of making so unhandsome a gesture” (p. 267), and Heyer even describes Freddy’s willingness to help someone in difficulties as “an innate chivalry” (p. 354).

Freddy shares with his lady an appreciation for the humorous (p. 306).  He is a past master of social competence:  mild-mannered though he is, he “knew to a nicety how to blend courtesy with hauteur” when necessary (p. 305), and although he lays no claim to great intelligence, he has the practical knowledge of how to get his much smarter brother out of trouble (p. 318)—practical wisdom.  To Kitty, this is genuine heroism:

“I daresay Freddy might not be a great hand at slaying dragons, but you may depend upon it none of those knight-errants would be able to rescue one from a social fix, and you must own, Meg, that one has not the smallest need of a man who can kill dragons!”  (pp. 314-15)

At the start of the story Freddy’s own father Lord Legerwood regards him as mentally negligible.  But Legerwood is repeatedly astonished in the course of the book when Freddy comes up with a clever solution to some problem at need—at which Freddy himself is equally astonished (pp. 105, 170, 305-06).  In this respect Freddy bears some resemblance to Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster (we’ll have to discuss the remarkable Jeeves and the Wedding Bells another time).

Most strikingly, although we’re explicitly told that Freddy is no match for Jack at fisticuffs, Heyer does give him a chance to knock Jack down with a well-placed blow—in response to an insult to Kitty (p. 408).  Everyone, including Freddy and Jack, recognize that this was an impulsive and lucky hit, but at that point of the story Jack’s not going to follow it up by getting into a “mill.”  So Freddy, the least likely of combatants, is left holding the field—a neat trick by Heyer.  Even in those Group 2 qualities that aren’t his strong suit, he qualifies.

Warrior Virtues in Disguise

Why do Regency heroes (at least in Heyer) have this particular set of Group 2 qualities?

I suggest that the ideal underlying Heyer’s heroes is that of a warrior caste gone to seed.  The aristocracy depicted in these stories seems to have occupied itself almost exclusively with trivialities:  gaming, fancy dress, gossip, absurd customs and manners enforced by exaggerated social sanctions.  But that aristocracy originated in the feudal system established in England after the Norman Conquest.

Hohensalzburg fortressThe basic “social compact” of the feudal system was that a warrior caste was given overlordship of specified lands in exchange for military service—particularly in the cavalry, the realm of the traditional knight.  From the standpoint of the king, a vassal drew on the resources of his lands to equip himself and his companions to provide soldiers for the king at need.  From the standpoint of the common people, the local lord provided defense in wartime, kept the peace, and administered justice, in return for his authority over his fief.  Not that the commoners had much to say about it, of course—but there were reciprocal obligations of the lord to his people:  noblesse oblige.

Over the ensuing seven hundred years, the notion of holding lands in exchange for service gradually degenerated into a system of pure inheritance.  Succeeding landholders might be anything but warriors, and their support to the Crown was more likely to be financial than military.  Yet some of the original ideal remained, a sort of ghostly glamour in the name of remembered glory.  The Dorothy Dunnett article quoted above continues:

And the moral etiquette of the books is very much in the comfortable tradition of her time.  Behind the Corinthian stands Bulldog Drummond, defending his honor, his land and his lady; and behind them, the courts of chivalry from the days of “armor,” Georgette Heyer’s favorite period.

Our Heyer heroes may spend most of their time playing at vaguely military-like sports:  riding, boxing, shooting.  But if there ever is a call for soldiery—there they are.  And the Regency aristocrats do go to war.  Much of the Regency period overlaps that of the Napoleonic Wars, and campaigns on the Continent frequently play a role in the background of a Heyer romance.  In this respect, a classic aphorism about war and sports is apropos:

“The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” the Duke of Wellington did not say – although as the Victorian era’s principal supplier of epigrams, he certainly should have. [footnote omitted]  For apart from war and preparation for war, it’s in competitive athletics that the Clausewitzian combination of a distilled past, a planned present, and an uncertain future most explicitly come together.  (John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy (NY:  Penguin Press, 2018), ch. 1, p. 26.)

We may note briefly that Heyer’s heroines fit the pattern too.  Looking at the covers of the books, one may be tempted to think the women in the stories are purely ornamental, representing the “prize” of the warrior:  “None but the brave deserves the fair” (Dryden).  But in fact the ladies in these romances are frequently estate managers, skilled at family governance and the organization of veritable armies of workers—just as one might expect from those expected to keep things going on the home front while the defenders are away at war.  There’s more to these decorative ladies than meets the eye.

The particular sketch of the ideal male in Heyer’s Regencies, then, may be rooted in a much older ideal:  to employ a favorite phrase in jest (oddly enough) of Wodehouse’s, the parfit gentil knight, sans peur et sans reproche.  Like Tolkien’s hobbits, the Regency gentleman conceals unexpected resilience beneath an apparently trivial surface.  He makes an interesting contrast to more contemporary models of manhood.

The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.