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.

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Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.

Civilization and Chaos

Last time, we talked about Star Trek and Star Wars—but especially Star Trek—as expressing the ideal of a certain type of civilization.  Now we can broaden the range of examples.  Science fiction and fantasy make an excellent laboratory for thought-experiments here, as in so many things.

Staving Off the Fall

The threat that civilization will fail and collapse is a classic way to create a dramatic situation for a SF story.  The most common historical analogue, of course, is the fall of the Roman Empire in the West.

Foundation's Edge cover artIsaac Asimov’s classic Foundation series (1942-1953) deliberately drew on that model; Asimov had been reading Gibbons’ History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  In the Foundation universe, Hari Seldon has developed a science of “psychohistory” that predicts the Galactic Empire’s inevitable decline.  There’s no chance of preventing the fall.  But Seldon’s psychohistory offers a way to cut short the ensuing dark age from thirty thousand years to a single thousand.  The emotional charge of the original Foundation stories centers on the Seldon Plan’s bid to minimize the period of barbarism, with its chaos, violence, tyranny and suffering.  (Later developments of the series, too involved to discuss here, go off in somewhat different directions.)

I’ve mentioned H. Beam Piper’s Terro-Human Future History, which includes at least one such decline-and-fall.  The novel Space Viking (1963) gives us a whole culture of space-traveling barbarians, raiding the decadent worlds of the old Federation.  The events of the story suggest the hope of a return to lawfulness in the formation of a “League of Civilized Worlds.”  But given Piper’s cyclical theory of history, this initiative will yield no permanent resolution; the story has a happy ending, but the history does not.

Poul Anderson wrote a series of stories about Sir Dominic Flandry, a dashing secret agent of the Terran Empire reminiscent of a far-future James Bond (though Flandry first appeared in 1951, Bond in 1953).  When he can spare a moment from chasing women and loose living, Flandry devotes his efforts to shoring up the decaying Empire, though he realizes that in the end the “Long Night” is inevitable.

There’s a certain kind of romance, a mood of grandeur and doom, about these falling empires.  Naturally, they tend toward the somber and the tragic.

Defending Civilization

A more upbeat tone characterizes stories in which the fight to preserve civilization has a chance of succeeding.

Lensman imageIn the Lensman series, E.E. Smith actually refers to the heroes’ multispecies galactic community simply as “Civilization.”  That polity reflects the cooperative, yet freedom-loving, nature of the beneficent Arisians, who have nurtured it in secret over millions of years.  The Lensmen’s opponent is “Boskone,” which originally appears to be a mere conspiracy of space pirates or drug dealers.  When Boskone eventually turns out to be a whole independent culture of its own, based in another galaxy, the conflict becomes one of diametrically opposed cultures, rather than simply of order vs. disorder.

But the Boskonian culture is one of thoroughgoing tyranny, from top to bottom.  At every level, those in power scheme against each other.  Lacking any honor or ethical code, they engage in assassination and undermine each other’s plans.  Those at the bottom are essentially slaves.  The Civilization led by humans, on the contrary, respects human dignity and freedom—although the fact that these cultures have been essentially on a war footing throughout their entire history renders that freedom a little less far-ranging than we might imagine.

The Lensman example reminds us that the defenders of civilization are not always fighting against barbarians.  Autocracy and regimentation bring their own kind of chaos, as lawless warlords battle among themselves, not caring what common folk are trampled in the process.  It’s a particular kind of civilization that’s worth preserving.

This is true whether we’re in the future or the past.  We’ve seen that the power of the Arthurian legend stems partly from the theme of defending order and decency against the chaos that lies in wait.  (We may also mention Arthur’s more historically-based successor, King Alfred, who defended England against the real (not Space) Vikings.)

The embattled Arthurian Camelot is frequently connected with Rome itself, the ur-example.  The Last Legion (book and movie) provides a good example.  The waning Roman presence in Britain, as the Dark Ages set in, is a natural setting for the ideal of the lonely, valiant defender.  One example is brought up indirectly by a character’s name.  As Wikipedia puts it,  “Legio XX Valeria Victrix lends its name to the character Valeria Matuchek in Poul Anderson‘s Operation Chaos and its sequel Operation Luna; her mother is said to describe this legion as the last to leave Britain—‘the last that stood against Chaos.’”

To Valeria’s mother Virginia, “the last that stood against Chaos” is a phrase to conjure with.  That’s true for me, too.

The Right Kind of Order

If civilization represents a certain kind of order—that of the Lensmen, not Boskone—what kind are we talking about?  It’s not always easy to explain.

Thus, if one asked an ordinary intelligent man, on the spur of the moment, “Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?” he would look wildly around at object after object, and would only be able to answer vaguely, “Why, there is that bookcase . . . and the coals in the coal-scuttle . . . and pianos . . . and policemen.”  The whole case for civilization is that the case for it is complex.  It has done so many things.  But that very multiplicity of proof which ought to make reply overwhelming makes reply impossible.  (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, NY:  Image Books, 1959), ch. 6, p. 83)

Chesterton’s random examples do cast some light on the question.  A community that has bookcases has books—implying a continuity of knowledge and literature, as well as the leisure to read them.  Coals to keep one warm in winter suggest both the satisfaction of basic human needs, and the whole machinery of society and technology that brings the fuel from the mine to the fireside.  Pianos reflect art and a developed culture.  And policemen indicate a society in which there is at least some attempt to defend the ordinary citizen against the depredations of the powerful and unscrupulous—the rule of law, of which more anon.

In the particular culture to which I belong, when we hold up a certain sort of civilization as an ideal worth defending, what we have in mind is a good order in which spontaneity and creativity can flourish, and people can live their lives without constant fear or privation.  There’s an order that protects the weak against the strong, but there is also enough looseness for individual variation, experiment, and adaptation.  In the “alignment” terms we discussed last time, you might say the position I’m taking is neutral good, tending to lawful.

Greco-Roman sceneThe classical roots of this ideal are found in the Greek notion of the polis and the Roman notion of civitas.  But it’s been shaped by the whole history of Western thought into what’s sometimes called the “liberal” ideal of a free society—“liberal” not in the political sense, but the root sense of “free.”

There’s one particular aspect of this ideal, though, that science fiction is peculiarly suited to address.  We’ll talk next time about civilization and science.

Meta-reading

The Sign of the Sequel

Ever find yourself approaching the end of a new book—and you realize there’s no way the author can tie up the plot in what remains of the novel?  It’s that moment when you realize:  we’re in for a sequel.

That realization may be awful, or it may be exciting, depending on how much you enjoy the story so far.  But it changes the way you look at the book you’re reading, to know it isn’t complete in itself, but only part of a larger tapestry.  Your sense of the pacing and the shape of the story has to adjust.

Book, fanned openBut the story alone hasn’t told us there will be a sequel.  Rather, we’re drawing on something outside the text itself—our knowledge of how much of the book remains—to tell us something about the story.

Years ago, when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Second Foundation, I almost missed the last chapter altogether.  The conclusion of the novel consists of a series of successive surprises, each overturning the last.  The second-to-last chapter seemed to end so conclusively that I only turned the page because I was in the habit of reflectively turning over the blank endpapers of a book.  —And there was the final chapter!  I could only make that mistake, however, because the last chapter was so short—six pages in my hardcover edition.

It’s harder to make that kind of observation in an e-book, where there are no physical pages to observe.  You can usually find a percentage or “location” indicator, but it’s not quite as obvious as the physical thickness of the pages.

Let’s call this process of drawing on outside information “meta-reading.”

Sources of Meta-Information

There are a number of sources from which we glean this meta-information, consciously or not.

Starting from the broadest case, we get some information from the genre to which the book belongs.  If you find a book in the science fiction section of the bookstore, then no matter how mundane the opening scenes may be, you can be pretty sure that something out of the ordinary is going to turn up at some point.  If you’re reading a genre romance, you can rely on the ironclad rule that a genre romance must have a happy ending:  either “happily ever after,” or at least “happily for now”—HEA or HFN, in the jargon of the trade.  Even if the characters’ relationship seems doomed as you approach the ending, you can be pretty sure it’ll turn out well—which may not be the case in a “mainstream” novel.

Getting to know an author’s habits and preferences is another way to guess what’s going to happen in the end.  If we’ve read a fair sampling of an author’s work, we can gauge fairly well the chances of a happy ending, the likelihood of violence or sex scenes, the kinds of characters you’re likely to meet up with.  It’s a little more tense approaching the end of a book by a new author, because we’re not yet familiar with what kinds of tricks the writer may (or may not) be willing to pull at the denouement.

Then there’s the back-cover blurb, or the flyleaf—often the reason we pick up the book in the first place.  The half-dozen paragraphs or so of teaser text on the flyleaf are designed to tell us just enough to get us interested.  They shouldn’t give away the whole plot, but they do create expectations—which the book as a whole may or may not meet.  Something that comes as a complete surprise to the characters may be something the reader is already primed for, because it’s part of the plot setup that the blurb describes.

Reviews take this principle further.  A review may include spoilers, but even without actual spoilers, it tells is something even before we open page one.

Once we get into the book, there are still more clues.  Chapter titles are out of fashion these days, but if there are such titles, they inevitably tell us something about what’s going to happen.  In my current novel-in-progress, I use temporary chapter titles that remind me what happens in the chapter, but remain obscure enough not to telegraph the outcome to test readers.  Still, when you reach the chapter titled “The Battle of Tremont,” you’re inevitably going to have an idea what to expect.

Finally, in the example I started with, the length of the book tells us something.  As we move through the story, we can measure our sense of pacing with the literal progress through the pages.  There have been a number of cases where it’s looked as if the plot was being wrapped up nicely, and I’ve looked at the mass of material still to come and thought, Something’s bound to come unglued here . . . or we wouldn’t have a hundred pages to go.

Setting Expectations

This kind of insight relies on an awareness of narrative practices.  There are internal necessities to good storytelling.  Guessing the imminence of the climax from the number of remaining pages, for example, depends on our assumptions about how much time after the climax will be devoted to wrapping things up—which, in a long story like The Lord of the Rings, can take quite a while.

Likewise, gauging the amount of space needed to resolve the plot assumes that the plot will be resolved:  good authors, at least, don’t leave things totally dangling.  Our use of meta-reading plays off our assumptions about how stories are told—and can go awry if the author’s views are radically different from the reader’s.

For that very reason, the writer of a story has to take into account the context in which the reader encounters the story, and the expectations raised in that context.  The reader doesn’t come to the story as a blank slate.

If there will be major surprises in the tale, the writer (and publisher) need to make sure they aren’t given away in the blurbs.  If the author wishes to undermine the expectations created by genre classification or advertising, it’s important to be aware of the consequences.  Subverting reader expectations can be illuminating and satisfying to the reader, but it can also be annoying and frustrating. The implicit contract between writer and reader—‘I’m going to tell you a story you will enjoy’—places boundaries on just how subversive one can be without leaving the reader feeling cheated.

The writer’s conversation with the reader, then, extends well beyond the contents of the text itself.  It’s something that’s useful to remember for the writer—and the reader as well.

The Good King

I began to wonder some years back about the curious preference for monarchy in futuristic settings.  In the world at large, monarchies have been retreating in favor of republics and democracies, at least in theory, since 1776.  Why are SF writers so fond of equipping future societies with kings, emperors, and aristocracies?

Star Kingdoms

We can pass lightly over the old-time, pulp-type stories where royal rule is merely part of the local color:  Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars (1912), Edmond Hamilton’s The Star Kings (1949), E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (1928) with its Osnomian royal families.  Here, like flashing swords and exotic costumes, monarchy is simply part of a deliberately anachronistic setting.  Similarly in high fantasy, where aristocracy comes naturally in the typical pseudo-medieval milieu.

But we see royal or aristocratic governments in more modern stories too.  Asimov’s Foundation stories are centered around a Galactic Empire.  (Since that series was based on Gibbons’ The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an Empire was inevitable.)  Similarly in Star Wars, which draws heavily on Asimov.  Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium future history has a First and a Second “Empire of Man.”  David Weber’s heroine Honor Harrington serves the “Star Kingdom of Manticore” (later “Star Empire”), modeled closely on England around 1810.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga contains a number of polities with different forms of government, but many of the stories focus on Barrayar, which has an Emperor.  Anne McCaffrey’s popular Pern series has no monarch, but has two parallel aristocracies (the feudal Holders and the meritocratic dragonriders).  It got to the point where I began to feel a decided preference for avoiding monarchical or imperial governments in SF storytelling.

The Lure of Kingship

Aragorn with crownThere’s something that attracts us in royalty—or we wouldn’t see so much of it.  I encountered this puzzlement directly.  As a kid reading The Lord of the Rings, I was as moved as anyone by the return of the true King.  I asked myself why.  If I don’t even approve of kingship in theory, why am I cheering for Aragorn?

The reasons we’re drawn to monarchy seem to include—

  • Kings are colorful. (So are princesses.)
  • Stability
  • Personal loyalty
  • Individual agency

The first point is obvious, but the others are worth examining.

Stability

It’s been pointed out that even in a constitutional government, a monarch provides a symbolic continuity that may help to hold a nation together.  British prime ministers may come and go, but Queen Elizabeth is always there.  (Literally, at least within my lifetime.)  This gives some plausibility to the idea of a future society’s returning to monarchy.

Something like this stabilizing function is behind commoner Kevin Renner’s half-embarrassed harangue to Captain Rod Blaine, future Marquis of Crucis, in Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye:  “maybe back home we’re not so thick on Imperialism as you are in the Capital, but part of that’s because we trust you aristocrats to run the show.  We do our part, and we expect you characters with all the privileges to do yours!”  (ch. 40)

Unfortunately, relying on the noblesse oblige of the aristocrats doesn’t always work out well.  It depends on who they are.  For every Imperial Britain, there’s a North Korea.  When the hereditary succession breaks down, you get a War of the Roses or Game of Thrones.

Too much depends on getting the right monarch.  By the law of averages, it doesn’t take long before you get a bad ruler, whether by inheritance or by “right of conquest”—and you’re up the well-known creek.

Personal Loyalty

Personal loyalty appeals to us more strongly than loyalty to an institution.  One can pledge allegiance to a state—but even the American Pledge of Allegiance starts with a symbol:  the flag, and then “the Republic for which it stands.”  Loyalty to an individual moves us more easily.

This kind of loyalty doesn’t have to be to a monarch.  Niven & Pournelle’s Oath of Fealty explores how loyalty among, and to, a trusted group of managers can form a stronger bond than the mere institutional connections of a typical modern bureaucracy.  One can be faithful to family (the root of the hereditary element in kingship), to friends, or even an institution or a people.  But it’s easiest with an individual.  This loyalty is the basis for the stability factor above.

Individual Agency

The vast machinery of modern government sometimes seems to operate entirely in the abstract, without real people involved.  “Washington said today . . .”

In fact it’s always people who are acting.  But it’s easier to visualize this when you have a single person to focus on.  “When Grant advanced toward Richmond . . .”  In the extreme case, we have the ruler who claims to embody the state in his own person:  “L’état, c’est moi” (attributed to Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France).

In a fascinating 2008 essay, Jo Walton quotes Bujold on political themes in SF:  “In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency.”  A science fiction character is frequently involved in effecting a revolution, facing down a potential dictator, or establishing a new order—exercising autonomous power.  Walton links this notion of political agency to the fact that SF illustrates change:  “SF is the literature of changing the world.”  The world-changers can be outsiders, or they can be the rulers themselves—as in a number of the examples above.

It’s not surprising that we’re attracted to characters who act outside the normal rules.  We (especially Americans, perhaps) are fond of the idea that good people can act in ways that are untrammeled by the usual conventions.  I’ve already mentioned Robin Hood.  And the whole concept of the superhero—the uniquely powerful vigilante who can be relied on to act for the good—is powered by this attraction.

But this idealization of individual initiative is also dangerous.  Too much depends on getting the right hero—or the right monarch.  It can only work if the independent agent is seriously and reliably good:  virtuous, in the classical sense of virtue as a well-directed “habit” or fixed character trait.  Even then, we may be reluctant to give any hero unlimited power.  Too much is at stake if it goes wrong.

The Rule of Law

Our admiration for the powerful ruler is always in tension with our dedication to the rule of law:  “a government of laws, not of men,” in the well-known phrase attributed to John Adams.  We can see this as far back as Aristotle:  “law should rule rather than any single one of the citizens.  And following this same line of reasoning . . . even if it is better that certain persons rule, these persons should be appointed as guardians of the laws and as their servants.”  (Politics book III, ch. 16, 1287a)

No human being can be trusted with absolute authority.  This is the kernel of truth in the aphorism that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  But we can’t get along without entrusting some power to someone.  When we do, it had better be someone who’s as trustworthy as possible.

The Ideal of the Good King

Thus the true king must be a virtuous person—a person of real excellence.  This is the ideal of an Aragorn or a King Arthur, whose return we’re moved to applaud (even against our better judgment).  (It should be obvious that the same principles apply to the good queen—or emperor, empress, princess, prince:  the leader we follow.  But I’ll continue using “king” for simplicity’s sake.)

What virtues do we look for in a good monarch—aside from the obvious ones of justice, wisdom, courage, self-control?

If the ruler or rulers are going to be “servants of the laws,” they require humility.  A king who serves the law can’t claim to be its master.  Arrogance and hubris are fatal flaws in a ruler.  For example, we should always beware of the leader who claims he can do everything himself and is unable to work with others.

The good king is also selfless—seeking the common good of the people, not his own.  Self-aggrandizement is another fatal flaw.

In effect, what we’re looking for is a ruler who doesn’t want to rule:  a king who believes in the sovereignty and the excellence of common people.

Aragorn defers to FrodoIt’s significant that Aragorn, our model of the good king, is introduced in LotR as “Strider,” a scruffy stranger smoking in a corner of a common inn.  Even when he’s crowned in victory, he remembers to exalt the humble.  The movie has him tell the four hobbits, “You kneel to no one.”  Tolkien’s text is more ceremonious:  “And then to Sam’s surprise and utter confusion he bowed his knee before them; and taking them by the hand . . . he led them to the throne, and setting them upon it, he turned . . . and spoke, so that his voice rang over all the host, crying:  ‘Praise them with great praise!’”  (Book VI, ch. 4, p. 232)

We see the same essential humility and selflessness in other admirable leaders, kings or not:  Taran in the Chronicles of Prydain, and the revolutionary princess in Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy; Niven & Pournelle’s Rod Blaine; Jack Ryan in Tom Clancy’s novels; “Dev” Logan, head of Omnitopia Inc. in Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn—the unpretentious opposite of the “imperial CEO.”  America was fortunate enough to have such an example in the pivotal position of first President, George Washington.

The Alternative

At the other end of the spectrum, the most dangerous person to trust is an unprincipled and unscrupulous autocrat—someone convinced of his personal superiority and infallibility.  Giving power to an individual who has no interest in serving the common good, but only in self-aggrandizement, puts a nation in subjection to a Putin, a Mussolini, a Kim Jong-un.

The antithesis of the good king is the tyrant, who, however innocently he may start out, figures in our stories mainly as the oppressor to be overthrown.  It’s much better, if possible, to intercept such a potentially ruinous ruler before the tyranny comes into effect:  Senator Palpatine before he becomes Emperor, Nehemiah Scudder before he wins his first election.  Allowing the tyrant to gain power may make for good stories, but it generates very bad politics.

If we must have strong leaders, then in real life as well as in stories, character is key—and hubris is deadly.