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.

Advertisements

From Martian to Moonling: Artemis

Andy Weir took the world by storm with The Martian, both the book and the movie adaptation.  Naturally, there was a great deal of interest in Weir’s second novel, Artemis (2017).  Here’s my take.

Here Be Spoilers!

Artemis, book coverThe book’s been out long enough that the spoilers below won’t occasion a great deal of surprise, but if you haven’t read the story yet, you may want to save these gems of wisdom until you’ve done so.

A New Departure

First, Artemis is not a sequel to The Martian.  As far as I can see, the two stories have nothing to do with each other.  That’s good.  It’s easy to get stuck in a single storyline, especially if it’s a howling success.

Moreover, Weir gets credit for trying out an entirely different kind of story.  The Martian was a classic survival/rescue tale, populated by clean-cut NASA types.  Artemis is more of a caper story, with a cast of crooks, con artists, and wheeler-dealers.  They’re both set in space environments, but aside from that, the books are poles apart.  That was intentional.  As an interview in The Verge (11/14/17) reported, “Weir told me that following The Martian was scary, and that he shifted his expectations with writing it.”

A Motley Cast of Characters

Moving from a single exploratory mission to a thriving city on the Moon allows Weir to deploy a more varied array of characters.  For example, our first-person narrator, Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, is a small-time smuggler in Artemis, the first city on the moon.  She’s a feisty, cynical young woman semi-estranged from her Muslim engineer father.  Jazz’s ambitions are nothing so noble as exploring new worlds:  she simply wants to make a lot of money so she can improve her hand-to-mouth life.  She’s an engaging main character, if you like a scamp.

Artemis, posterOn the other hand, Jazz is not the charming sort of scamp you might envision—a female Han Solo or Aladdin.  She’s tough, no-nonsense, and rather abrasive.  Weir noted in a Newsweek interview (11/14/17) that readers don’t much like her.  I found that an issue too.  There are a lot of unfortunate character traits to deal with.  Jazz is practically a genius (in ch. 3, she admits nonchalantly that she taught herself electronics from an online tutorial in an afternoon)—but she doesn’t live up to her potential.  She’s promiscuous, she’s materialistic, she sees almost all transactions in terms of money.

Jazz’s main virtue is that she’s an ethical thief:  when she makes a shady deal, she sticks to it.  Actually, this rude sense of justice isn’t a bad place to start respecting a character.  Like the proverbial honest politician (“one who stays bought”), she has some principles.  She’s also daring (if reckless), clever (if hardly infallible), brave, and determined.  Although she wasn’t my most-loved character of all time, I enjoyed hanging out with her enough that I didn’t lose interest in the story.

Other characters are pretty varied:  Martin Svoboda, the geeky engineer lacking social skills; Trond, the slick magnate, and his engaging daughter Lene; Ammar Bashara, Jazz’s considerably more strait-laced but competent and loyal father; law-abiding Rudy DuBois, the city’s entire police force; Fidelis Ngugi, the visionary founder of Artemis; and so on.

There’s no romance in the story, although there’s a faint suggestion at the end that Jazz will eventually get together with Martin—not a combination I would have thought of.

A Land of Liberty and License

Weir pictures the first lunar city as a lightly-governed free-for-all.  It’s been established by Kenya, which in this scenario takes the advantage of its equatorial location for space launches.  Under Ngugi’s leadership, Kenya sets up an attractive, largely unregulated base for businesses on the Moon—mainly businesses connected with tourism.  It’s a logical financial basis for the first moon colony.  The situation reflects Weir’s fascination with economics, an aspect that didn’t have much play in The Martian.

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress coverIn the interview with The Verge, Weir uses the term “libertarian”—and in that connection cites the Robert A. Heinlein novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (1966), which does leap to mind as a predecessor.  Heinlein’s story, perhaps his best single novel, imagines the Moon as a multinational penal colony, just as Australia was for Britain in the eighteenth century.  Since the colony’s administration doesn’t much care what happens to the inhabitants, they’re left to manage their own internal affairs, according to customs and practices that evolve out of the peculiar conditions of lunar life.  The result is a colorful, freewheeling polyglot society that allows Heinlein to make a lot of pithy observations about conventional Earthly manners and mores.

Heinlein’s “Loonies” live in a harsh but in some ways utopian culture.  Weir’s Artemis is not presented in quite so favorable a light.  We do enjoy the chiaroscuro combination of resort-town luxury and shady underbelly in which Jazz operates.  But it’s clearly a hardscrabble life for a considerable part of the population—the service people and human ‘infrastructure’ that make the tourists’ luxury possible.  It’s what Weir, in the interview, calls a “gold rush” setting.

On the other hand, this libertarian polity is seen as a stage in a long progression, not a utopian end in itself.  Toward the end of the story (ch. 17, p. 300), Fidelis Ngugi, the visionary founder, says:  “It’s all part of the life-cycle of an economy.  First it’s lawless capitalism until that starts to impede growth.  Next comes regulation, law enforcement, and taxes.  After that:  public benefits and entitlements.  Then, finally, over-expenditure and collapse.”

Because Artemis is so colorful and well-drawn, the city is almost a character in itself, like Dickens’ London or Nero Wolfe’s New York City.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in Artemis as it develops.

Science Capers

One thing the book does have in common with The Martian:  science.  Weir frequently drops into detailed explanations of How Things Work, and the conditions of the lunar environment play key roles in the plot, as the Martian landscape did in the prior book.  I find this fascinating.  I’m not sure whether every reader will—but the success of The Martian (in both its incarnations) suggests there’s a sizable audience that does.  More on that point in a later post.

But the science here is at the service of a very different plot.  With the prospect of a vast payoff, Jazz evolves a complex plan to undermine one business so that another can take over.  She then has to devise an even more involved scheme to keep gangsters from effectively taking over the city.  Readers of The Martian can find a common form of enjoyment here, in watching these plans play out, even though the characters’ purposes and contexts are rather different.

Mission Impossible - Barbara Bain and Martin LandauThere’s actually a good deal of precedent for this “science caper” type of story.  The old “Mission Impossible” TV series typically displayed an elaborate scheme deployed by the mission team to outwit and bamboozle the bad guys.  (Not so much the more recent movies, which tend to be more general-purpose thrillers.)  The 1985–1992 series “MacGyver” also turned on the technical wizardry of the lead character, a consummate engineering improviser.

In fact, there’s a whole category of techno-thrillers about using complex plans and technology to break into something or make off with something.  Sometimes the emphasis is on the trickery, as in The Thomas Crown Affair (I saw the 1999 version).  Sometimes it’s more on the techniques, as in Entrapment or the early part of National Treasure.  Many of the James Bond films invoke this trope.

Much of The Martian consisted of scientific problem-solving, though on a more low-key, continuing basis.  (Mark Watney remarks that he’s going to have to “science the s— out of this” to survive, though given the way he fertilizes his crop, maybe he should have said “science the s— into this.”)  Only at the end does the techno-wizardry move into crisis mode.

In Weir’s Verge interview, he says, “My approach was pretty similar to The Martian. There was a lot of problem-solving . . .”  The difference is that Jazz’s science schemes in Artemis face hostile human opposition, not just a dangerous universe.  The suspense is more focused and urgent.

The Next Movie

Artemis seems even more cinematically apt than The Martian.  It’s no surprise that the movie rights have already been sold and directors chosen.  We can monitor developments here at IMDB.

I don’t know whether Artemis will be as successful as The Martian at the theaters.  The abrasive heroine might turn out to be less of a crowd-pleaser than the amiable Watney.  But that’s just the kind of nuance that a movie could easily adjust.  It’ll be interesting to see them try.

The Role of Science Fiction

Science fiction started out as a niche interest for a few eccentrics.  So did Tolkienesque high fantasy, though with a different group of devotees.  Fans had their conventions, their own slang, almost their own culture.  They had that bracing sense of loving something that most people—English teachers, for example—didn’t understand.

No more.  Today, fantasy and science fiction (let’s call them F&SF) have gone mainstream.  Half the movies and books these days have fantastic elements.  These stories may not “feel like” F&SF, but the trans-normal elements have crept slowly into popular culture.  Amy Wallace recently remarked in Wired:  “And now that movies are dominated by space and superheroes, television by dragons and zombies, books by plagues and ghosts, science fiction isn’t a backwater anymore.  It’s mainstream.”  (Nov. 2015 issue, p. 97)

To the dedicated SF fan of years gone by, it’s a little disconcerting.  We wanted to get other people interested in what we loved, of course.  But we didn’t expect this much success.

 

As to which variants are woven into mainstream books and movies, science fiction or fantasy, it isn’t always easy to say.  Harry Potter is fantasy, obviously; it’s got wizards.  The Martian is SF, and “hard science fiction” at that.  It has space travel, and the science rates very high on what TV Tropes calls the “Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness.”

But what do we make of Groundhog Day?  The fantastic premise that sets the story going has no explanation, whether science-fictional (like the particle accelerator in the similar TV movie 12:01), or fantasy-like (as with the Chinese fortune cookie in Freaky Friday).  It’s just there.  The one thing we can say for sure is that Groundhog Day has something going for it that we don’t find in slice-of-life mainstream literature.

Even geeky main characters are in fashion, from Chuck to The Big Bang TheoryThat’s something we 20th-century geeks never expected .

 

What happens, then, when F&SF are added to the mix?  What do these literatures of the fantastic have to offer, over and above the plot and character and background elements we already love in a purely mundane Brooklyn or Titanic?  There’s a lot we can (and will) say about this, but a few things leap out.

Science fiction trains us in recognizing that the future will be different.  It doesn’t predict:  old-time SF oriduced some strikingly accurate foretellings, but just as many complete misses.  But the very variety of imagined futures shows the wide range of possibilities before us.

A science fiction reader naturally thinks in terms of change:  in society, in technology, in markets, in manners.  A people that’s used to both Star Trek and The Hunger Games will be a little more prepared for a future that’s unlike today, whether or not it looks like either of those two worlds.

 

This ought to be a reason for hope.  The future can be better than today.  Of course it can also be worse.  Yet the realization that things can be otherwise should galvanize us, wean us away from fatalism and resignation.

But very often, that’s not what we’re getting.  Today’s visions of what’s to come seem more like excuses for despair than exercises in hope.  Downbeat futures are rampant.  Teen dystopias saturate the market.  And the grown-ups aren’t doing so well either – ask any character in Game of Thrones.

Even universes that used to be more optimistic get overhauled with less liveliness and more gloom.  Compare the J.J. Abrams version of Star Trek with the Roddenberry original.  Writers seem compelled to succumb to that scourge of our times, the “gritty reboot.”

 

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We do see tales that evoke a more balanced picture of the world.  We can avoid the grimdark pit without falling off the other side into a blind Pollyanna optimism.  And we can have fun doing it.

Imaginative stories help us explore the whole range of possibilities – good, bad, and indifferent.  The open-endedness of science fiction and fantasy may be their greatest charm.

So let’s kick around some of the cool things about stories and storytelling, especially in the fantastic mode; some favorite (or unfavorite) books and movies and music; even some of the deeper roots out of which these stories grow.  It’ll be an adventure!