The Select Society of Protectors

Sorry about the delay between posts—I’ve been under the weather lately.

 

I was recently reading a new “Sharing Knife” story by Lois McMaster Bujold, and it suddenly occurred to me that the relationship of Bujold’s Lakewalkers to Farmers is exactly that of Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders to Holders.

But let me back up a bit.

The Sharing Knife

The world of Bujold’s Sharing Knife series is a difficult and dangerous one.  Most people live in a basically agrarian culture, a sort of cross between the traditional medieval fantasy world and the Wild West.  They fear the enigmatic “Lakewalkers,” men and women who wander about the countryside in “patrol” groups and are rumored to have magical powers.  The Lakewalkers claim to be searching for what ordinary people call “blight bogles,” but some consider these to be a mere myth.

They’re not a myth, of course.  In reality the Lakewalkers, who have the ability to use a kind of magic they call “groundwork” (an extremely interesting and well-developed idea in itself), are constantly on the watch to destroy “malices” as they arise.  These malices are truly nasty beings that can mentally enthrall normal humans and mutate animals into humanoid minions.  If the Lakewalkers weren’t killing them off (via the grim “sharing knife” methd of the title), the malices would overrun the whole world.

Many Lakewalkers tend to look down on the people they are defending, whom they refer to generally as “farmers.”  Much of the interest of the story has to do with the prickly relationship between these two interdependent groups, explored through the romance between a farm girl, Fawn, and a Lakewalker patroller, Dag.

The Dragonriders of Pern

As I mentioned in an earlier post, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern is a science fiction series that reads like fantasy.  The planet Pern is protected by men and women riding flying dragons.  The dragons breathe fire to destroy an alien organic “Thread” that falls from the sky and, if allowed to spread, would multiply to consume the planet.  To qualify as a full-fledged dragonrider, one must have the potential for a certain kind of telepathy that allows rider and dragon to bond at the dragons’ birth.

Dragonflight coverOne of the things that makes the Pern stories sound like fantasy is the quasi-medieval political structure.  A “Lord Holder” resembles a feudal monarch ruling over a sizable population of farmer/serfs, crafters, and minor nobility.  But here the dragonriders form a separate hierarchy.  The riders’ internal pecking order is a combination of aristocracy and meritocracy:  the rider of the senior gold (female) dragon is a kind of queen; the rider whose bronze dragon mates with the gold becomes leader of the entire group that constitutes a Weyr; and those who lack the telepathic talent are servitors (at the lowest level, “drudges”).

While the depiction of Pernese society mellowed a good bit over the course of the series—both holders and riders were pretty high-handed and violent at the beginning, less so later—one consistent theme is the uneasy relationship between the dragonriders and the common folk.  Everyone knows (though they may forget in the generations between periodic Thread attacks) that the riders are essential to preserve the planet:  “Worlds are lost or worlds are saved / From those dangers dragon-braved.”  But the holders often resent the taxes imposed to support the Weyrs and the “searches” in which the dragonriders carry off likely young people to see if they can “impress” a dragon.  Managing this tension consumes a good deal of the main characters’ time in the early books.

The Protectors and the Protected

Now I can make clear the analogy I noticed.  In each case we have a relatively small society of people set apart from ordinary folks, in a good cause:  they are dedicated to protecting the larger population.  The select group of protectors are genuine heroes who possess special talents that fit them for the role.  But the protectors are not stainless; they can abuse their powers.  And the grateful population they defend aren’t always grateful; they may resent the special powers and privileges of the defenders, even aside from the possible abuse of those advantages.

It seems to be a fruitful trope for storytelling.

Rangers and Protectors

Strider with pipe at the Prancing PonyWe can find a similar structure, though not so dominant, back in The Lord of the Rings.  You’ll recall that Strider—Aragorn—is one of a mysterious group of wanderers who travel the countryside, the Dúnedain or Rangers.  They are regarded with suspicion by the ordinary folks in Bree; Barliman Butterbur the innkeeper warns Frodo about the suspicious-looking stranger sitting in the corner.  Yet all the time the Rangers are patrolling the borders of the peaceful lands of Bree and the Shire, fending off possible threats.  Aragorn says at the Council of Elrond:

‘Strider’ I am to one fat man who lives within a day’s march of foes that would freeze his heart, or lay his little town in ruin, if he were not guarded ceaselessly.  Yet we would not have it otherwise.  If simple folk are free from care and fear, simple they will be, and we must be secret to keep them so.  (Fellowship of the Ring, II.2, p. 261)

Aragorn’s fond, if slightly aggrieved, remark brings out a difference.  Pern’s dragonriders are a public society of defenders; everyone knows of their special role.  But Tolkien’s Dúnedain, like the Lakewalkers in Bujold’s more recent fantasy, play a less public role.  They are set apart, but because their heroism is unrecognized, they are objects more of suspicion than of admiration.

Pak protector (by Christopher Bretz)

Pak protector – illustration courtesy of Christopher Bretz (bretz@bretz.ca)

For a more science-fictional take, consider Larry Niven’s Protectors, which figure in the novel Protector (naturally) and in the Ringworld stories.  Niven imagines that humanity is descended from a species called the Pak, which matures through three life stages:  child, breeder, and protector.  The transition from the not-very-bright breeder stage to the highly intelligent and formidable protector stage is triggered by eating a root the characters call “tree-of-life.”  When a Pak colony arrived on Earth ages ago, however, the soil lacked a chemical necessary for the tree-of-life root to function.  The “breeders” could not change into protectors; instead, they evolved on their own into modern-day humans.  Niven’s intriguing conceit is what we see as symptoms of old age actually represent the incomplete transition to the gaunt, tough, hairless protector stage.

Niven depicts the protectors as genetically compelled to protect the members of their own family or clan—the ones who “smell right.”  A functioning Pak colony wouldn’t be as much like a human society as on Pern or Middle-Earth or Bujold’s imaginary world:  it would consist of carefree, barely-sentient breeders watched over by creatures ruthlessly dedicated to their preservation.  Think of it as an extreme case of the separation of defenders from defended.

Counter-Examples

On the other hand, a number of stories depict defenders who are much more thoroughly integrated into their broader societies.

Nita and Kit ascend over New York, from Young Wizards

Young Wizards

In Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, youngsters with the potential for wizardry are called, not by receiving a letter from Hogwarts, but in more obscure ways—for example, running across a library book called So You Want To Be A Wizard.  There are more wizards around than one might think, because on our planet they don’t advertise their powers:  young wizards still go to school, grown-up wizards might be writers or sell advertising.  (And not all of them are human; there are some very entertaining books about feline wizards.)  But all of them are dedicated to the preservation and fostering of Life, by way of the Wizard’s Oath each must take.  In this setup, there’s no resentment of the society of protectors because no one knows they exist; and abuse of wizardly powers is almost unheard-of, since violating the Oath tends to result in forgetting that wizardry even exists.

Lensman image

Kim Kinnison, Gray Lensman

By contrast, the elite corps of Lensmen in E.E. Smith’s famous series are publicly known and highly respected.  They play the role of galactic policemen and secret agents, with particular attention to the mysterious pirates and drug-runners called “Boskone.”  Like the Young Wizards, the Lensmen are (conveniently) incorruptible, being screened at the outset by the equally mysterious but benevolent Arisians.  (This whole business of incorruptibility is something we need to examine more closely on another occasion.)  But they don’t mind mixing in ordinary society—Gray Lensman includes a scene set at a formal ball—although their grave responsibilities often make them feel set apart in their lonely dedication.

Superheroes, as a class, may occupy the same position.  They live as part of the general public, though their identities are usually secret.  They tend to act as individuals rather than as a whole society, though they do come in small groups (and may occasionally take part in mega-battles that engage the whole range of heroes).  But the modern superhero does show the ambivalence that often characterizes the select defender (Mr. Incredible’s remark that he sometimes wishes the world would just stay saved for a while).  And some graphic novels take up the question of what it’s like for the ordinary person to live in a world full of superheroes—notably Kurt Busiek’s thoughtful Marvels (1994).

Narrative Tensions

The select society of protectors is a fine place for heroes.  But it’s also dangerous.  What if the protectors aren’t incorruptible, and turn bad?  What if they become contemptuous of the people they protect, and come to think of themselves as better than the “rabble”?  In many of the scenarios above, it takes special talents to qualify as one of the defenders.  How likely is it that those who see themselves as specially qualified will end up thinking of themselves as superior?  These questions form fertile ground for various plotlines.

The notion of the select (if not superior) set of defenders may even be seen as applying to a military organization, whose purpose is to protect the general public.  “Citizen soldiers,” or draftees, may see themselves as primarily part of the overall society, temporarily detailed to do their civic duty; but a professional military, which can form its own tightly-knit society with its families and dependents, may be more easily tempted to think of itself as a group apart, with its own loyalties and camaraderie.  In fiction, the entire genre of military SF borders the trope we’re examining here.  In real life, the American military, at least, seems to have avoided that trap; we have not yet seen anything like a military coup.

Everyone Is a Tuvela

It’s interesting to contemplate the opposite trope:  the citizen soldier model taken to its limit.

The Demon Breed, coverIn James Schmitz’s 1968 novel The Demon Breed, a biochemist named Nile Etland on the human colony world Nandy-Cline discovers that independent researcher Ticos Cay has been captured by cruel and formidable aliens called the Parahuans.  Ticos has played on the Parahuans’ own near-superstitious fears to convince them that Nile is a Tuvela, a member of a secret society of superhumans that are the real rulers of human civilization.  All Nile has to do is convince the invaders that she is, in fact, a superior being it would be death to tangle with.  And, with the help of Ticos, two mutant otters, and her own encyclopedic knowledge of the unique biology of Nandy-Cline, she does a marvelous job of pulling the wool over the Parahuans’ eyes and sending them fleeing back to their own worlds.

But there are no Tuvelas.  Nile is a brilliantly resourceful and competent woman, but she’s not superhuman.  Neither is Ticos, nor any of the other inhabitants who are involved at the end in dispersing the Parahuans.  They’re simply ordinary humans.  And there is no secret organization.  Rather, Schmitz’s hypothesis is that a significant fraction of ordinary people (Ticos calls them “antipredators”) can take on that defensive role when extraordinary circumstances require them to do so.  As one character remarks, the Parahuans would have run into “Tuvela” behavior no matter where they sought to attack.

The title The Demon Breed doesn’t refer to the Parahuans.  It refers, from the unfortunate Parahuans’ point of view, to the uncannily resilient humans.  Like the sturdy hobbits of the Shire, human beings are capable of rising to the occasion.  At the end of the story, when the local Nandy-Cline military forces have mobilized to make sure the fleeing Parahuans don’t escape, Nile reflects:  “The human demon was awake and snarling on Nandy-Cline” (ch. 9).

The select society of defenders is a potent storytelling trope; but so is the distributed resourcefulness of the ordinary person.  And both may be useful to keep in mind as we act where we are needed.

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The Stroke of Lightning

Love at First Sight

In French it’s “le coup de foudre,” “the stroke of lightning.”  Love at first sight—if we’re going to be talking about it so much, let’s call it LAFS for short (an especially good term if we’re doing romantic comedy)—is one of the most ancient, familiar, and infamous romance tropes.  But contemporary genre romance has its own spin on the matter.

Scene from It Only Takes A MomentThere are, of course, innumerable songs that memorialize this phenomenon, from the classic “Some Enchanted Evening” (from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific)—“you may see a stranger, across a crowded room”—to a more recent Colbie Caillat song, Brighter Than the Sun, which actually uses the phrase “lightning strikes the heart.”  Or simply consider the title of “It Only Takes a Moment,” which originated in Hello Dolly (1964) and was used to poignant effect in WALL-E (2008).

Shakespeare goes so far as to say “Who ever lov’d that lov’d not at first sight?” (As You Like It, III.5.81), an homage to Christopher Marlowe, who’d said it before in his 1598 poem Hero and Leander (according to Wikipedia).  I need not mention Romeo and Juliet.

Aside from romance strictly speaking, LAFS can be useful in an adventure story, by way of what TV Tropes calls The Dulcinea Effect:  “the compulsion many male heroes have to champion, quest for, or die for girls they met five minutes ago.”  This can be contrasted with, or may lead to, a romance “forged in fire”—the notion that a couple may bond through having an adventure together.  I’m fond of this one myself, perhaps applied with one spin or another.

For the moment, let’s note that the instant-love convention is fun, but often seems implausible, not to mention clichéd.  One can see LAFS simply as a dramatic convention, like the Shakespearean soliloquy—but perhaps that’s not all there is to it.

Lust at First Sight

Shanna, book cover

The contemporary romance, more preoccupied with eros.

In modern genre romances, a great deal more emphasis is placed on physical desire than was the case in earlier tales.  As a result, LAFS takes a slightly different form.

In a “Some Enchanted Evening” or Romeo and Juliet scenario, the lovers’ beguilement may be almost spiritual, a sort of epiphany.  They are attracted to each other’s beauty, but there may be an element of reverence mixed in.  In the contemporary romance, on the other hand, the first impression is decidedly physical.  Once the main characters meet, they can hardly keep their hands off each other.

This sort of LAFS is both more plausible and less substantial than the more general sort.  It’s plausible because physical desirability can be evident at first sight.  It can be intensified by further acquaintance—getting to know the voice, actions, words, varied aspects of the beloved.  But the sexual attraction, at least, can be immediate.  This is traditionally true for males, but contemporary romance makes it abundantly clear that in at least some cases women react the same way.  Examples are so omnipresent as to make it unnecessary to cite them.

To do these stories justice, they recognize that insta-lust isn’t enough.  The main characters typically take an entire novel’s worth of events to really fall in love.  Lust (or, less tendentiously, sexual desire) is just the initial driver.  There’s a lot of “getting to know you” to be done before the story is over.  And a good deal of that usually happens through meeting obstacles or countervailing forces that need to be overcome.

Tension and Obstacle

If the romantic leads fall in love immediately, there have to be obstacles that prevent them from getting together at once.  Otherwise, the story will be very short.  I believe it’s from an entertaining opus entitled Writing a Romance Novel for Dummies that I recall the sage advice:  “If your story is ‘they came, they saw, they dated,’ then you don’t have a story yet.”  With intense attraction pulling the lovers together, they’ll collapse into each other at once unless there’s also something to push them apart.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t precisely true.  One could simply depict a couple gradually growing more interested in each other.  At first the romantic interest is just somebody they know or meet.  Then a greater interest awakens, attraction strengthens, and they reach that obsessive fascination that marks the “falling in love” stage.  This type of relationship might be the most common and realistic of all.  But it’s the hardest to manage for an author:  it requires depicting a whole series of attitudes developing at just the right pace.

I would love to see such a story.  But it would be much subtler and more gradual than the tempestuous narratives audiences tend to prefer.  Your average handbook on fiction writing will dwell at length on the importance of conflict in holding a reader’s interest—and for good reason.

Count to a Trillion coverThe obstacles that keep the lovers apart, then, may be external or internal.  The simplest external problem is physical separation.  In John C. Wright’s “Count to the Eschaton” series (it begins with Count to a Trillion, 2011), the star-crossed lovers connect in volume one.  However, the female lead, Rania, must embark on a slower-than-light interstellar voyage that will last twelve thousand years.  She will survive due to time dilation.  But it’s a good thing her earthbound partner, Menelaus Illation Montrose (there’s a name for you!), has ways of prolonging his life over the intervening millennia.  In the meantime, their relationship is on hold.

A more conventional separation can be seen in tales from the Age of Sail, when sea travel around the world might take years—shorter than millennia, but long enough in a human life.  Captain Jack Aubrey, for example, the perennial hero of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series, frequently spends months at a time apart from his beloved Sophie.

External obstacles may also include dangers that keep the characters otherwise occupied—from immediate peril in an action-adventure story to blackmail or other threats—as well as social or cultural barriers like those faced by Romeo and Juliet.

In a less action-oriented tale, the obstacles are more character-based or internal.  The love affair may be interrupted by disputes (You’ve Got Mail), misunderstandings, antipathy for one reason or another (Pride and Prejudice), or by one or the other person’s inner character issues, such as previous bad experiences or trust issues (where the Big Lie often plays a role).  External and internal problems can be combined in romantic thrillers like Don’t Look Down (Jennifer Crusie and Bob Mayer, 2007).

In each case, the characters’ initial attraction, the LAFS moment, keeps pulling them together in spite of the difficulties, ad astra per aspera.  They just can’t resist each other, no matter what plausible reasons might be given for trying.  The combination of opposing drives creates the fruitful tension that keeps the reader’s interest.

White Smoke coverIt’s worth noting that Andrew Greeley counterposes desire in a similar way to the more mundane obstacles of daily life.  In White Smoke (1996), Blackie Ryan, a frequent Greeley spokesperson character, observes:  “human sexuality is distinct from the sex of other primates in that it is for bonding as well as for procreation.  The bond between husband and wife stretches like a rubber band. . . . Then, when it is at the breaking point, the force of passionate love draws them together again.”  This is a constant theme in Greeley’s novels.  In other words, lust or desire isn’t just for beginnings, for LAFS.  It continues to play a vital role throughout a love affair and into marriage.

But I digress.

Retrospective Love

One of my brothers once asked the other two of us whether we believed in LAFS.  The three of us ultimately came to the same conclusion.  You can fall for someone at first sight, yes; but you won’t know if it’s love until much later.

The instant attraction is a good starting point.  But it can’t ripen into love unless the participants come to know more about each other’s personality, character, interests, and so on.  We have to see someone in a variety of circumstances:  what they’re like with family, friends, enemies; when they’re mad, happy, sleepy; over the long run.  (The plausibility of the “forged in fire” adventure-romance is that strenuous situations reveal more about someone’s character than more ordinary casual interactions.)  As an old Orleans song puts it, “love takes time.”

Later on, when the couple has grown closer enough to know that they really do love each other, they can look back at their first meeting and say, that was when we began to fall in love.  And they won’t be wrong.  Chances are they felt that initial attraction right then, and now they know that was the beginning of a love story.

But that couldn’t have been predicted from the moment of LAFS.  Some such moments sputter out:  they prove to be mere temporary infatuation, or the admired individual turns out to be unavailable (already married, for instance), or on getting to know them better they find that they aren’t as good a fit as they thought.  We can’t know, from the initial thunderbolt alone, that it’s going to lead to a true love story.

So we can fall in love at first sight; but we can only say that retrospectively, after the fact.

Emma, coverThis points up an important difference between stories and real life.  If we’re reading a story—particularly a genre romance—we can generally be confident that LAFS will lead to a deeper relationship between the characters.  We predict that not from LAFS itself, but from genre and narrative expectations.  This isn’t always borne out:  some tales will start by introducing a romantic interest who doesn’t turn out to be The One, later to be displaced by the real article.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a brilliant example of this twist:  among other comic errors, the heroine thinks she’s in love with Frank Churchill, but it takes the entire novel for her to realize that it’s her longtime friend George Knightley that she really loves.  But as a rule, if the heroine is devastated by the attractions of someone in Chapter the First, that’s who she will end up with in Chapter the Last.

In real life, we have no such guarantee.  Life is a story, but it’s not always constructed according to our narrative rules—at least in the short run.  We cannot know in advance whether the object of desire who’s just swum into our ken is really our destiny.

Conclusion

As the famous sage Wikipedia observes, LAFS fits in neatly with the notion, put forth as far back as Plato, that the beloved is our “other half,” the one who makes us complete—what we might call the theory of complementarity.  In Plato’s dialogue, Aristophanes suggests that meeting our other half leads directly to an intoxicating attachment to the other person.

Would that it were so simple.  If our whole selves were evident at first glance—if our appearance fully expressed our selves—that might work:  who you really are would be “written all over your face.”  But in fact a given moment or aspect expresses something about who we are, but not everything.  Even in the best case, we can’t possibly absorb everything about a person at first sight—which may be a good thing, as it allows us some privacy and reserve.  In worse cases, though, the other may deliberately deceive us or conceal things that would compromise our love.  That’s why love takes time.

Lois McMaster Bujold once said, “The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not ‘Do these two people get together?’ but rather ‘Can I trust you?’  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.”  The answer to that question we can only learn by extensive experience—though perhaps that experience can be compressed to some degree by experiences that show our true natures in condensed fashion (the “forged in fire” trope).  Only at length can we really know love at first sight.

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.

Romance and the Big Lie

Often a story is built around an elaborate deception.  It may be a caper or heist story, like the Ocean’s Eleven series.  It may be a spy story or thriller.  But there’s more at stake when the Big Lie is central to the main characters’ relationship.  Million-dollar prizes or secret papers are small potatoes; love is serious business.

Let’s look at cases where a romance is founded on a Big Lie.  Resolving that discontinuity—bringing the relationship safely onto a firmer footing—tends to become the main issue of the storyline.  And because at least some of the characters are mistaken about what’s going on, incongruities abound, and the natural home of such stories is romantic comedy.

Dramatic Deceptions

A Big Lie imperils a romance in the most challenging way is if the lie is about the relationship itself.  We can be confused about a potential lover’s name, or status, or identity:  consider all those songs that say ‘I don’t care who you are, only that you love me.’  But if the love itself is false—based on ulterior motives—we’ve got trouble.

10 Things I Hate About You (movie poster)The high-school rom-com 10 Things I Hate About You (1999), loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, is a simple example.  Sophomore Bianca’s overcautious dad won’t let her date unless her older sister, the prickly and unsociable Kat, does too.  Bianca and an admirer arrange for “bad boy” Patrick Verona to be paid to date Kat.  Naturally, Patrick has a hard time convincing Kat he’s really interested in her; but by the time we reach the climactic prom, he actually is.  Naturally, that’s when the secret about the bribe is revealed, leading Kat to reject Pat and storm out.  When she realizes she’s fallen for him, and that he really does care, we arrive at the happy ending.

If A starts out pursuing B for base motives in a comedy, we’re almost bound to be riding the trope where an attachment that starts out fake becomes real.  It may be a cliché, but the pattern has everything going for it:  at least one of the lovers experiences a reluctant or unexpected change, providing a character development arc; the secret creates tension; the inevitable reveal produces emotional drama; and the shift from cynical motives to genuine affection pleases those of us who aren’t already too cynical to be convinced.  TV Tropes locates this plotline at the intersection of the tropes “Was It All A Lie“ and “Becoming the Mask.”

27 Dresses (movie poster)For a grown-up example, try 27 Dresses (2008), with Katherine Heigl and James Marsden.  The unholy motivation here isn’t money, but ambition.  Newspaperman Kevin Doyle (Marsden) wants to shift from writing fluffy wedding reviews to serious investigative journalism.  When he realizes that always-a-bridesmaid Jane Nichols has been in no fewer than 27 of her friends’ weddings, he figures that writing an exposé article about her is his ticket to making the transition to Real Journalist.  But as he gets to know her, he finds she’s not as shallow as he thought.  His attraction becomes genuine just at the point where the unexpected publication of his exposé reveals that he’s been using her for professional advancement.  Because there are other character issues in play, a good deal of further action is needed before Jane recognizes that Kevin’s the one for her.

The Big Lie’s Challenges

A plot built around the Big Lie carries with it some difficulties, which any such story will have to face (or dodge).

One is plausibility.  The bigger the fake, the more unlikely it may seem that someone could pull it off.  On the other hand, the more entertainingly appalling the secret is, the more likely we are to let it ride, just for the fun of it.  This critical leniency is what TV Tropes calls the Rule of Funny (“The limit of the Willing Suspension of Disbelief for a given element is directly proportional to its funniness”).  We can be similarly willing to bend plausibility on such grounds as the Rule of Romantic, Rule of Sexy, Rule of Cute, and of course the Rule of Cool.

More important, we may lose sympathy for the character who conducts such a deception.  A lot depends on the original motivation:  is it understandable, forgivable?  A journalist, for example, can legitimately pursue a story.  The strain occurs when the relationship becomes personal enough that the reporter’s aloof interest in a source begins to seem discordant, or when it becomes evident that the article will be taking advantage of the source’s vulnerabilities or weaknesses.  If the deceiver’s uneasiness grows in proportion to those considerations, we can continue to sympathize.

What makes this kind of plot development understandable is that it reflects a natural progression.  Our love for someone grows (sometimes, at least) as we get to know them better.  So the idea that characters initially brought together for baser motives can eventually fall in love has a built-in plausibility.  It also makes the deceiver’s change of heart more excusable.

Variations

How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days (movie poster)There are enough different ways to run this plotline to keep the Cauldron of Story boiling.

In How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003), both characters are initially acting from unromantic motives.  Andie Anderson, like Kevin Doyle, is a journalist who wants to get more serious assignments.  She decides to start dating a man and drive him away using classic mistakes women make.  Ben Barry, for business-related reasons, makes a bet that he can get any woman to fall for him.  The fact that each of them is in an equally compromised position helps take the sting out of the deceptions.

You’ve Got Mail (1998) develops into the Big Lie after Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) finds out that his intimate online friend is really Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the same woman he’s skirmishing with about business matters—and he doesn’t tell her.  From that point on, his actions are informed by something she doesn’t know.  But the characters already have a nascent affection—he’s simply grappling with what to do about it without giving her an equal opportunity, which is not as bad.

The Lie is averted in Runaway Bride (1999).  Ike Graham (Richard Gere) is trying to get to know Maggie Carpenter (Julia Roberts) better in order to write a detailed exposé and redeem his journalistic reputation.  But in this case, she’s perfectly well aware that he’s stalking her for discreditable motives, and is willing to use that for her own purposes (and to mess with his mind).  The plot develops in a different direction.  (There seems to be something about this trope that attracts reporter characters.)

These stories, on the whole, are comedies.  But the romantic deception makes up the serious part of the plot engine.  It really is a genuine issue between the characters.  The serious/comic combination isn’t really a paradox:  a comedy of this sort needs a “heart.”  Even a light comedy has to have some gravity, something we care about, at the core; pure fluff doesn’t hold our attention for long.  Even a fluffy soufflé has to be made out of real eggs.  (And that’s no yolking matter.)

Comedies of Errors

We do, however, also have a class of romantic comedies in which the deception is the comic element and not fundamental to the relationship.  Typically this involves something minor that snowballs to absurd proportions, for comic effect.  The deception isn’t about the romantic interest per se, but about something else.  As a result, the people involved come across as kinder, and the issue of character and trust isn’t quite as grave.

While You Were Sleeping (movie poster)A character might, for example, fall into a Big Lie by accident, and then (more or less plausibly) be unable to retrieve it.  While You Were Sleeping (1995) is a favorite example of mine.  Lonely Lucy Moderatz (Sandra Bullock) admires Peter Callaghan, a handsome commuter on the subway line where she’s a token collector, but she has never actually spoken to him.  When he’s mugged and falls onto the rail tracks, she saves him, though he falls into a coma.  A chance utterance from her convinces first the hospital staff, and then the unconscious man’s family, that she is actually his fiancée.

The writers go to considerable trouble to maintain that error while keeping Lucy’s motives innocent.  By the time she has a chance to correct the mistaken impression, she’s concerned that revealing the truth might be a shock to Peter’s grandmother, who has a weak heart.  When Peter’s godfather learns the truth, he encourages Lucy’s deception—because he likes Lucy and feels that she’s as good for the family as the lively, boisterous family is for her.  In the meantime, Lucy develops a true and reciprocal affection not for the unconscious Peter, but for Peter’s brother Jack (Bill Pullman).

False Colours book coverA relatively innocent deception might also be carried out for good motives.  Georgette Heyer’s False Colours involves the Fancot twins, a responsible diplomat (Kit) and his rackety brother (Evelyn, which is in this case a male name).  Kit arrives home to find Evelyn has disappeared just when he’s supposed to meet the family of Cressy Stavely, the young lady to whom Evelyn has proposed a marriage of convenience.  Their flighty mother talks Kit into impersonating Evelyn, just for this one occasion, to save the pending marriage.  Of course circumstances conspire to require Kit to keep up the imposture a good deal longer—much to careful Kit’s dismay.

Heyer is a master at making plausible what at first seems entirely unlikely.  We hear that Kit and Evelyn used to pretend to be each other frequently when they were young.  Kit’s real affection for his brother is the foundation on which his mother cajoles him into the charade.  Moreover, no emotional damage is done, so Kit’s character is not impugned.  When Kit falls in love with Cressy himself (she’s a much better match for him than for Evelyn), it’s not too long before he finds that Cressy has actually figured out the imposture some time since—and is much fonder of him than of Evelyn.  Moreover, when Evelyn finally shows up (with a good excuse), it turns out he’s fallen in love with a different girl.  So no harm comes of the innocent deception, and we can simply enjoy the ingenious maneuvers by which Kit manages to extricate everyone from the results of sailing under “false colours.”

Conclusion

The Big Lie is an inherently tricky device, and requires some care for an author to pull off without irretrievably damaging the character of the deceiving lover.  Deception undermines trust—and the lover must be seen to be trustworthy if the romance is to succeed at all.  Lois McMaster Bujold captured the point in a recent response to a reader:

The question a romance plot must pose, and answer (showing one’s work!) is not “Do these two people get together?” but rather “Can I trust you?”  Which is most certainly not a trivial problem, in art or in life.

But if the writer is adroit enough, the Big Lie does afford opportunities for high (and low) comedy, and it can be managed to a satisfying conclusion.

Good intentions may pave the road to Hell; but on the other hand, dubious motives can be redeemed—if both parties are ultimately willing to deal with the truth.  Since we belong to a species whose motives are seldom wholly pure, there’s a certain reassurance in that.

Comfort Reading

Reading for Reassurance

Chicken soupYou’ve heard of “comfort food,” right?

In Robert A. Heinlein’s The Number of the Beast (1980), one character asks the others:  “Write down the twenty stories you have enjoyed most. . . . Make them stories you reread for pleasure when you are too tired to tackle a new book.”  (ch. 33, p. 349)

I’d never actually thought about it before I read that passage, but there is such a category.  There are times, especially toward the end of the day, when we want to immerse ourselves in a story, but not an arduous story.  Even if we’re currently reading something new that we like, we may not feel we can fully appreciate it when we’re tired out.  We’d rather relax into something less demanding.

The same can be true when we’re feeling emotionally drained.  Sometimes we pine for what we might call “comfort reading” on the analogy of “comfort food.”

We might be tempted to regard this urge for the familiar and reassuring as craven or self-indulgent.  But there’s nothing wrong with giving way to that impulse—some of the time.  We can welcome a new book as a challenge; but we don’t always have to be challenged.  Sometimes we simply need to recoup our energies for a while.

This is true in general, I think, but especially at Christmastime—so today seemed like a good time to bring up the subject.

Good Comfort Reading

What kind of stories one likes for “cocooning” will vary, culturally and individually—as the Wikipedia article cited above makes clear for comfort food.  In TV Tropes terms, “your mileage may vary.”  By way of example, here’s some of what I find myself looking for.

When I relax, I want something relatively light, not a matter of life and death.  A fan of adventure fiction spends a lot of time embroiled in saving the world, or the galaxy—or at least the imperiled main characters.  And a lot of science fiction deals with world-changing issues and problems.  That’s pretty strenuous.  It’s nice to be able follow a narrative where the stakes are not quite so high.

At the same time, there has to be enough substance to engage our interest.  A story in which nothing is at stake won’t hold our attention.  So pure farce or silliness doesn’t always fill the bill.

And for me, at least, it helps if the story is fairly “warm-hearted.”  Happy endings, sympathetic characters, a certain degree of kindness and encouragement in the air.  A cynic might have a quite different preference here:  a happy ending may not be congenial to his world-view.  But we sentimentalists want some of the milk of human kindness in our chicken soup.  (Well, maybe not literally.)

For this reason, romances make good hunting grounds for comfort reading.  Not necessarily genre romances; I’m put in mind of Chesterton’s Tales of the Long Bow, which is almost uncategorizable (social comedy? political commentary? science fiction?) but incorporates no fewer than seven separate romances in a scant 217 pages, possibly a world’s record.

In a good love story, something that matters very much is at issue—but generally only for the main characters.  This is why P.G. Wodehouse’s comedies are almost always romantic comedies.  His amiable main characters are never in very great danger, but rooting for their love affairs keeps us focused through the plot’s succession of hilarious absurdities.

Melendy children with Christmas greensPersonally, I also like children’s stories to relax with.  There’s a category of what I call “family adventures,” where preadolescent children get into a series of scrapes or difficulties that are interesting but never too serious.  Elizabeth Enright’s Melendy Quartet (starting with The Saturdays, 1941) is my paradigm example.  Some of E. Nesbit’s books, such as Five Children and It, have a similar air, but with a fantasy component.  (I’d cite Eleanor Estes and Edward Eager as well, but that would raise the mysterious question of why so many writers in this category have the initials E.E.  Same reason Superman’s girlfriends all have the initials L.L., I suppose.)

Christmastide Reading

Of all the times of the year, the Christmas season may be when one most wants to be reading something engaging but pleasant.  There are probably people who want to stage a “Game of Thrones” marathon on Christmas Day, but I’m not one of them.

There are of course the traditional comforting stories that are specifically about Christmas.  A Christmas Carol is one obvious choice (though the actual book is a bit spookier and more tough-minded than some of the adaptations)

Interim Errantry coverLess obvious favorites of mine include “A good-humoured Christmas chapter” from Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers (ch. 28); “How Lovely Are Thy Branches” from Diane Duane’s Interim Errantry; chapter 5 of The Wind in the Willows (“Dulce Domum”); Madeleine L’Engle’s Dance in the Desert and The Twenty-Four Days Before Christmas; Elizabeth Scarborough’s Carol for Another Christmas; chapters 12-13 of Kate Seredy’s The Good Master; and Manly Wade Wellman’s “On the Hills and Everywhere,” in the collection John the Balladeer.  The only trouble is that some of these are quite short; they’ll barely last you through lunch.

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverBut even at Yuletide, we may not want to marinate in Christmas quite to that extent.  So I also cultivate a selection of books that strike (or encourage) the right mood, but don’t have anything specific to do with Christmas.  I’ve mentioned Wodehouse; Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances have a similar combination of light-heartedness and warm-heartedness (I’ve often thought of her as Wodehouse crossed with Jane Austen).  Other kindly and entertaining tales not specifically about the season include Lois McMaster Bujold’s A Civil Campaign—one of my all-time favorites for all seasons—Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Diane Duane’s Omnitopia Dawn.

Have any favorites of your own for Christmastime, or comfort reading generally?