Changing the Past – Or Avenging It

Introduction

Avengers Endgame posterI set out to do an analytical essay on Three Theories of Time Travel—until I realized that Larry Niven’s astute and entertaining brief article “The Theory and Practice of Time Travel” (1971) had already covered those theories pretty well.  (You can find that article in Niven’s All the Myriad Ways, and a couple other locations.)  So I decided instead to comment on how they’re used in Avengers:  Endgame, which seems to invoke at least two and possibly three different theories.

Maybe I’d have been better off sticking with the original plan; this post has turned out to be considerably longer than I’d planned.

Endgame came out on April 26, 2019, and was released on disc August 13, so it’s still new enough at this writing that I should issue a

Spoiler Alert!

I’m not going to address the mechanics of how one might travel into the past—whether via Tipler machines, or wormholes, or simply thinking oneself into the past à la Jack Finney.  (Endgame manages it via what the movies refer to as the “Quantum Realm,” which is completely incoherent in one way but rather fascinating in another—a side issue I won’t go into here.)  I’m interested in what happens if you let causality turn back on itself.  I can think of three main ways of handling the question of changing the past.  Each has its pros and cons, from a storytelling point of view.

“Make It Didn’t Happen”

First, let’s suppose we can change the past (and, by extension, the present and future).  The idea arises because we often wish we could go back and undo something—either our own actions, or the broader course of history.  Niven observes, “When a child prays, ‘Please, God, make it didn’t happen,’ he is inventing time travel in its essence.”  He goes on to note, “The prime purpose of time travel is to change the past; and the prime danger is that the Traveler might change the past.”  These twin aspects of the idea generate plot tensions and conflicts immediately, on both a personal and a historical scale, so it’s not surprising they’re so popular.

Back to the Future posterThe most familiar example, of course, is Back to the Future (1985-1990).  In the three movies, Zemeckis played several variations on the idea of making history come out differently.  The cultural reference is so well-known that Marvel was able to riff off it for a comic moment in Endgame.  Scott Lang, the young and relatively naïve Ant-Man, says they’ll be okay if they obey the ‘rules of time travel’ (at about 0:35).  Tony Stark, the all-round genius of the Marvel movies, derides Scott for having gotten his “rules” from BTTF, and proceeds to shoot the notion down as hopelessly unscientific.

And Tony’s right, in the sense that building a theory of time travel purely on the assumptions made in fictional stories is silly.  We don’t know what would happen if it were possible to change the past; we haven’t done it.  That would make time travel really dangerous if it could be attempted in real life.  On the other hand, that same lack of knowledge leaves a wide field open for the fiction writer.  We can make whatever assumptions we like, as long as they’re consistent.  We can imagine that you can only go back in time a certain distance, at a certain geographical location, as in Julian May’s Saga of Pliocene Exile (1981-84).  We can imagine that the transition requires vast energies, as in Arthur C. Clarke’s story “Technical Error” (1950).  Or we can invoke the imaginary “Pym particles” of Ant-Man lore and time-travel at will.

This first theory of time travel generates the paradoxes we know and love.  We have the “grandfather paradox,” in which an effect removes its own cause.  (I go back in time and kill my grandfather.)  We have what Wikipedia calls the “ontological paradox,” in which an effect becomes its own cause.  (I go back but my grandfather fails to show up, so I marry my grandmother instead and name my son after my dad…)  I talked about these a bit in a 2016 post on the TV series Timeless.

One thing that’s not always obvious is that the idea of changing the past requires a second time dimension.  There’s the familiar one that’s typically represented by a “timeline,” a one-dimensional line ordering events from past to future.  But if someone changes the past, then the old line has to be replaced by a new one:  imagine a second timeline lying next to the first.  Every time a change is made, another timeline gets added.  The set of lines forms a plane, extending through a second dimension, in which each new timeline happens after (in some Pickwickian sense) the last.  Otherwise, it wouldn’t make any sense to say that we’d changed history.  Marty can’t rejoice in having “fixed” his family unless the new timeline succeeds the first, just as events along the timeline succeed each other.  Hence, a second time dimension, to accommodate the sequence of timelines.  (This may, or may not, be related to what TV Tropes calls “San Dimas Time,” a reference from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989).

As a narrative device, the chance to change the past creates suspense.  But it only works if you don’t look too closely.  The author has to stage-manage things carefully so that changes of all sorts don’t start happening in all directions, and this means that time travel must be rare.  If we imagine a period of hundreds or thousands of years, during which people invent time machines every so often and start changing the past, it would become impossible to make sense of what was happening.  Different changes, each with their rippling “butterfly effects,” would take place, one after another—or even at the same, er, time.  (I tried playing around with that idea in an as-yet-unpublished story called Getting to Gettysburg.)  So I’m skeptical about stories based on letting time travel become routine, as in “Time Patrol” scenarios or Asimov’s The End of Eternity.

Avengers Disassemble

Does Endgame, after all Tony’s disclaimers, involve changing the past?  Maybe not; but it’s hard to see how the story can avoid it.

Thanos with Infinity GauntletThe screenwriters chose to set themselves an interesting dilemma that makes the simple time-travel solution (go back and kill Thanos) unusable.  When the time-travel possibility arises, five years have passed since the Snap, in which Thanos killed off half the people in the universe.  Life has gone on.  Tony and Pepper, for example, have an adorable little girl.  But eliminating the Snap would also eliminate Tony’s little daughter Morgan, along with everything else that’s happened since.  That’s unacceptable (at least to Tony).  So the Avengers are not trying to avert the Snap; instead, they want to bring back, in the present time, all those who disintegrated.

The reason they have to go into the past is to retrieve the six Infinity Stones, which Thanos destroyed after the Snap.  The Avengers will need to use the Stones for a Snap of their own to bring back all the people Thanos destroyed.  But in order to avoid changing the past, they will have to put the Stones back in their earlier times after they’ve been used.  This is a clever idea, but it’s going to be really tricky to execute in practice, as we’ll discuss below.

It’s Already Happened

Meanwhile, the business of a second time dimension may make us start to wonder about the whole idea of changing the past.  Maybe we’ve forgotten to take into account the integrity of the original time dimension.  After all, if something happened in the past, it has already happened.  The effects of past events should be baked into the present that follows from them.  If I go back to 1800 and leave a hidden time capsule, let’s say, I should be able to dig it up in 2019.  You might say that the change I wish to make has already taken place.

Kate and Leopold posterBut it follows that if I can find the evidence in the present, then I know the event occurred in the past.  (That’s what “evidence” means.)  If I find the time capsule, I know that it was buried.  This may allow me to predict or “retrodict” my future changes to the past on the basis of what’s known now. If I find the time capsule, I know I’m going to bury it—or someone else will.  A key scene in Kate and Leopold (2001) relies on just such a discovery about a future event that changes the past.  (Have we mixed up the tenses enough yet?)  Bill and Ted makes even more comically inventive use of this aspect.

But on this theory, the event in the past isn’t really a change.  It was always that way.  The time capsule persisted through all the intervening time.  You can’t change the past, because your change is already included in the past we know and thus embedded in the present.  As Niven puts it, “any attempt on the part of a time traveler to change the past has already been made, and is a part of the past.”

This approach deprives us of the fun of changing history, but I rather like it.  It ensures the timeline remains consistent with itself.  In fact, one version of this postulate is referred to as the “Novikov self-consistency principle,” named for Russian physicist Igor Dmitriyevich Novikov.  We avoid grandfather paradoxes:  we already know I didn’t succeed in traveling into the past and killing my grandfather, because here I am.  If I try, something will go wrong.  On the other hand, ontological paradoxes are still allowed, as in Heinlein’s classic novella By His Bootstraps (1941).  In fact, I tend to think of this as ‘Heinlein’s theory of time travel,’ because he used it extensively—not only in Bootstraps and the even more baffling  “—All You Zombies—” (1959), but also in the delightful The Door Into Summer (1957).  Of course, Heinlein’s by no means the only writer using a Novikov-type theory.

One reason I like this type of time travel story is that everything fits neatly together, like a puzzle.  The fun of the story is in seeing how they’ll fit.  In that sense, the enjoyment of you-already-changed-the-past stories resembles that of the Greek tragedies, in which an oracular pronouncement tells what’s going to happen, and the story shows how it happens.  No matter how Oedipus tries to avoid the awful future foretold, he can’t.  The efforts to avoid the predicted outcome may themselves produce it.

In such a tragedy, where time travel isn’t involved (except to the extent the oracle itself is future information acting on the past), the Greek tragedy tends to suggest that the outcome is determined by some kind of Fate, whether we like it or not.  (Niven puts this view under the heading of “determinism.”)  But the Novikov-type theory can also be seen as compatible with free will.  Even actions freely taken, once they are complete, become part of the fabric of history, not subject to further change afterwards—except to the extent that backward causation via time travel is possible, which alters the whole meaning of “afterwards.”

The Door Into Summer, coverA subclass of these stories assumes that the time continuum somehow defends itself against change.  It may automatically “self-heal” to swallow up minor changes, or all changes:  Edison doesn’t invent the light bulb, but someone else does.  Or the time stream may simply be designed so that with “fail-safes” that prevent catastrophic causality failures.  At the end of The Door Into Summer, the engineer hero seems to be speculating in this direction:  if time travel could be used commercially, he thinks,

it will be because the Builder designed the universe that way.  He gave us eyes, two hands, a brain; anything we do with them can’t be a paradox.  He doesn’t need busybodies to “enforce” His laws; they enforce themselves.  (p. 158)

To Say Nothing of the Dog coverIn a modern context, God seems to take over the role of Fate—not by predetermining everything, but by designing the system (i.e., the universe) so nothing can go fatally wrong with causality.  Something similar, I think, lies behind the way the time travel “net” portal functions in Connie Willis’s time travel stories.  If allowing something through the net would create a paradox, the net simply won’t open—which leads to some tortuous reasoning by the characters as to what is keeping the net from openingaat  a particular moment.  Something like Providence seems to be at work.  The only causal loops allowed are what we might call ‘virtuous loops’—those that work out right.

What makes this confusing is that we’re used to analyzing causality by looking at the conditions preceding the effect.  Here, we don’t see the ‘virtuous loop’ conditions being set at any particular point in time.  The conditions have to apply to the continuum as a whole—from outside it, in effect.

You Can’t Avenge the Future

When Tony initially declares Scott’s proposed “time heist” impossible, the remaining Avengers bring in Bruce Banner as a substitute scientific resource.  Banner (who now combines his own brain with the Hulk’s body) does make a nod to the fact that his scientific expertise is primarily in biology, not physics, but the story remains basically true to the comic-book idea that a scientific genius is a genius in every science.  At about 0:59, Banner says something that sounds rather like the Novikov principle we’ve been discussing:  if you kill someone in the past, that doesn’t erase their later selves.  Apparently causality doesn’t propagate down the world lines of already-existing characters to wipe them out when their original causes go away.  On this theory, Marty wouldn’t have had to worry about disappearing even if he couldn’t get his parents back together.

On the other hand, Bruce doesn’t seem to be saying you can’t kill the person in the past; he seems to be saying that if you did kill them, it wouldn’t make any difference.  This may have more to do with what TV Tropes calls “ontological inertia” (see here, but also here).  Bruce’s approach seems to allow for wild inconsistency in the timeline, because I can be alive in 2019 even after being killed in 1971.

The simplest answer may be to conclude that Bruce wasn’t a very good physicist; maybe Tony silently corrected Bruce’s theory when Tony finally did agree to join the party.

Branching Timelines

At some point in SF history, people realized that the whole paradox thing could be avoided by introducing a third theory, the notion of multiple branching timelines.  Niven’s phrase is “multiple time tracks.”  If you change the past, the original future going forward from that point remains unchanged, but a new future comes into existence, branching off to take into account the change.  (The character making the change always seem to end up in the new branch, not the old.)  We can have our cake and eat it too:  one version of me devours the cake, but another, equally real, version of me prudently saves the cake for later.

The multiple-timeline approach gains some headway from the general popularity of alternate-history stories, and some plausibility from the fact that physicists take seriously the suggested “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics.  It appears to solve the problem of time paradoxes.  However, it runs very close to an assumption that would make it impossible to tell a good story at all.

Stories are about action and choice.  A mere recounting of a series of experiences that happen to someone wouldn’t be much of a story (which is one reason the ending of 2001:  A Space Odyssey is so weak).  James Michener’s introduction to the novel Hawaii (1959), which describes the geological formation of the islands, is only part of a story because it lays the groundwork for what the characters later say and do.

All the Myriad Ways coverIf every possible alternative branched off a new timeline whenever there were options, there would be no point in making a choice, because whichever choice I made, another version of me would make the opposite choice.  Niven captures the problem exactly:

. . . did you ever sweat over a decision?  Think about one that really gave you trouble, because you knew that what you did would affect you for the rest of your life.  Now imagine that for every way you could have jumped, one of you in one universe did jump that way.

Now don’t you feel silly?  Sweating over something so trivial, when you were going to take all the choices anyway.  And if you think that’s silly, consider that one of you still can’t decide . . .  (p. 117)

The title story in All the Myriad Ways explores exactly that issue—what would happen if people really started to believe that all alternatives were equally real.

But suppose we assume that every choice doesn’t spawn alternate universes—just the changes caused by time travel, by backward causality.  That doesn’t destroy all narrative in the way just described.  It just ruins the story you’re trying to tell.  The main characters move heaven and earth to get into the past and make the necessary change.  They succeed!  Whew.  Victory.  —Except that in another universe, the original one, they didn’t succeed.  Somewhere, the sad failures who are Marty McFly’s parents still languish by the TV.  That’s not a really satisfying conclusion.

Alternating Avengers

The multiple-timeline approach certainly comes up in Endgame.  What I can’t make out is whether it prevails in the end, or is averted.

Ancient One and Banner with timeline simulationAt about 1:24 in the movie, Bruce Banner is having a tense conversation with the Ancient One (Dr. Strange’s mentor) about the plan to return the stones to their original places in time.  The idea is that if he takes the Time Stone from the Ancient One at (let’s say) 1:03:12 p.m. on January 31, 2010, and eventually Steve Rogers returns it to her at 1:03:13 p.m. on January 31, 2010, there won’t be a need for a branch to form.  History continues on as it had always been.  (Steve describes his mission concisely at 2:43 in the movie:  “I know.  Clip all the branches.”)  Thus, the timeline of the movie, in which Thanos Snapped half the universe away, and five years later the assembled Avengers brought them back and did away with Thanos, remains the one-and-only timeline.  There’s a helpful description of this procedure in an article from July 2019 (which is also full of spoilers, by the way).

If we leave aside how hard it would have been to put things back exactly as they were, given the butterfly effect—not all the Stone retrievals were as simple as Bruce’s—does this work?  Did the screenwriters (Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) come up with a way to manage the dizzying time loops and still save the story?

I’m still not quite sure.  One glaring plot hole, as various people have pointed out, is that we have to account for Thanos himself.  In order to give us a great battle at the end (and what a battle it is!), the movie has Thanos in pre-Snap 2014 discover what’s going to happen and time-travel forward to 2019, where he’s ultimately disintegrated by the Avengers.  He never returns to 2014.  That seems to mean that the disappearance of Thanos did create a branch, since if he vanished from 2014 and never came back, the Snap would never have occurred.

At least that reduces us to two timelines, the one we see in the movie and another where Thanos does not continue to exist after 2014.  And, interestingly enough, the Avengers’ actions saved both of those timelines from the Snap.  The people who lived through the movie timeline experienced the Snap, but the lost people were eventually returned.  Meanwhile, in the new alternate timeline, Thanos never came back, he never got the Infinity Stones, and the Snap never occurred.  That’s not such a bad (dual) ending.

I don’t know.  All these causal loops produce a kind of shell game in which I’m not quite sure how things came out.  Nonetheless, it’s a great movie, if you like the Marvel characters at all.  If you haven’t seen it, you shouldn’t have been reading this (but maybe the circuitous account above will be helpful).  If you have—see it again!  Just don’t try to go back to April to catch the premiere a second time; who knows what that would do to the space-time continuum.

Becky Chambers and Domestic Science Fiction

Hugo Material

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

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

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

High Stakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wayfarers Books

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

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

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

Record of a Spaceborn Few

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

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

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

Family Life Out There

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

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

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

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

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

On the Big Screen

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Meet Cute and Meet Hard

Two Ways to Meet

In The Holiday, Kate Winslet’s character Iris comes upon an old man who’s hobbling about his own neighborhood, having forgotten where his house is.  (He’s a once-famous movie screenwriter, but she doesn’t know that yet.)  When she takes him home, he remarks, “Well, this was some meet-cute.”  And, having lampshaded the trope by name, he introduces Iris to one of the classic conventions of romantic comedy:  the main characters’ first meeting is awkward, confusing, adorable, or just plain cute.

On the other hand, the romantic couple in adventure stories is often thrown together by the adventure itself.  The meeting is not so much cute as conflict-driven:  let’s call it a “meet-hard.”  The two types of encounters are both unusual—not your average first date—and, though they are opposites in some sense, they have some features in common.

Bumping Into Each Other

The simplest case for the meet-cute, as TV Tropes notes, is for the characters literally to crash into each other by accident—coming around a corner, for instance.  This gives us physical contact, the resulting embarrassment, and a way to get the characters interacting at once.

Notting Hill movie posterIn Notting Hill (1999), Hugh Grant’s bookstore owner chats briefly with Julia Roberts’ movie star when she browses around his bookshop.  But he kicks off the relationship when he later collides with her outside and (naturally) spills his drink on her, necessitating a costume change.  In the Good Old Summertime, the musical version of the “Shop Around the Corner” story (1949), also has the main characters meet in a collision, causing them to take an instant dislike to each other (a sure sign of impending romance in a rom-com).  The embarrassment factor is amplified by the fact that he then accidentally shreds her skirt.

But of course a couple can also “bump into” each other less literally.  For my money, the most adorable meet ever may be in the Hollies’ 1966 song “Bus Stop” (hear it here).  The singer offers to share his umbrella with a cute girl at the bus stop.  They then continue using the umbrella throughout the summer, rain or shine, as a kind of running joke, not to mention a pretext for standing close together.  I’d love to see this played out onscreen.  P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It To Psmith (1923) has another umbrella scene, but even sillier:  Psmith sees an attractive girl stranded by the rain and, in classic insouciant Psmith manner, steals someone else’s umbrella to offer her gallantly.

Serendipity posterThe recent Netflix rom-com Set It Up (2018) has the main characters deliberately arranging a meet-cute in an elevator as part of a plot to get their bosses to fall for each other.  (It fails spectacularly.)  In Serendipity (2001), one of my holiday-season favorites, the pair meet fighting over the last pair of black cashmere gloves at a department store.

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime (And Back Again)

Resisting the temptation to highlight innumerable other favorite examples, I’ll point out some more exotic cases.  The earnest trash-compactor robot in WALL-E (2008) meets the girl robot of his dreams, EVE, when she is dropped nearby to scout the long-defunct Earth for plant growth.  He spends the next several sequences frantically dodging the suspicious droid’s laser blasts, before they get more comfortable with each other.  Once EVE finds a sample and goes inert, we even see WALL-E gallantly shielding her from the rain with an ancient bumbershoot.  There’s just something about umbrellas; most likely it’s that they represent a very mild way of depicting a damsel in distress.

In the best of Heinlein’s juveniles, Have Spacesuit—Will Travel (1958), high-schooler Clifford Russell is trying out a working spacesuit he’s won in a contest when he gets a distress call from someone who’s escaped from hostile aliens in their flying saucer.  When he’s captured himself, he meets the caller, Peewee, a genius-level eleven-year-old.  Given the characters’ respective ages, there is no actual romance in the usual sense, though they become fast friends—and there’s no question but that they’ll fall for each other when they get old enough.  I’d classify this as a meet-cute on an intergalactic scale.

Arabella, coverVehicular breakdown is almost as good a way as umbrellas to create unexpected pairings.  In Georgete Heyer’s Arabella (1949), the eponymous Arabella’s carriage breaks down near the country “hunting box” of the (formerly) jaded Robert Beaumaris.  A recent romance in Wild Rose Press’s Deerbourne Inn series, Amber Daulton’s Lyrical Embrace (2019), has Erica Timberly’s car break down, in the rain, no less, occasioning her rescue by her rock-group idol, Dylan Haynes.  (Unaccountably, he doesn’t offer an umbrella.)  Angela Quarles’ steampunk romance Steam Me Up, Rawley (2015) drops the hero into the heroine’s lap in a malfunctioning balloon, this being steampunk.

The Meeting of Adventure

By the time we get to carriage or automobile mishaps (not to mention flying saucers), we’re edging into the territory of the adventure romance.  (Which may where I should have classified Have Spacesuit, except that the incident, the setting, and the characters are just so darn cute.)  The “meet-hard” in an adventure story puts romantic interests together in exigent circumstances, defining their initial relationship in a different way.

There’s an entire subgenre of adventure romance stories.  Goodreads lists (at this writing) 1,344 entries in the category “Popular Adventure Romance Books.”  And that’s just the popular ones, apparently.  However, that’s not precisely what I’m referring to here.  In some cases—The Hunger Games is near the top of Goodreads’ list—the eventual lovers already know each other before the adventure begins.  Here, I’m classifying an “adventure romance” as a romance in which the characters meet on or because of the adventure.

Speed movie posterI think of the movie Speed (1994) as a classic example.  Most of the action takes place on a bus equipped with a bomb that’ll go off if the bus’s speedometer drops below 50 miles per hour.  Keanu Reeves’ character Jack Traven gets on the bus because he’s a police officer.  His opposite number, Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), is merely a passenger who ends up driving the bus.  They bond over the course of the incident and are ready for a real date by the finale.

The adventure romance may shade over into a rescue romance, in which one character saves the other from some unfortunate fate, minor or major.  But this doesn’t have to be the case; it’s just as likely the protagonists will end up cooperating in achieving their goal, becoming what TV Tropes calls a “Battle Couple.”

A Precarious Bond

Speed neatly illustrates (and lampshades) the great strength of the adventure romance:  the stress and camaraderie of the adventure brings the couple together as “Fire-Forged Friends.”  I’m especially fond of this trope (see The World Around the Corner and Rescue Redux).  At the end of Speed, Jack tells Annie he’s heard that relationships “based on intense experiences” don’t work out, although they go ahead anyway.  Interestingly, the sequel bears that out; Annie has a new boyfriend—though that seems to have been a function of actor issues (Reeves declined to appear).

National Treasure trailer sceneA similar issue about the stability of adventure romances comes up in the sequel to National Treasure (2004), in which characters played by Nicholas Cage and Diane Kruger came together over a plot to steal the original Declaration of Independence.  Their relationship has fallen apart by the time National Treasure 2 (1007) rolls around, but a new adventure gives them an opportunity to rekindle the spark.

Extraordinary Adventures

Since F&SF specializes in adventure, we see the meet-hard frequently in science fiction or fantasy works.  In the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom books, A Princess of Mars (1912), John Carter meets Dejah Thoris when she is captured by the green Martians among whom Carter is living, and he becomes her defender.

The principal couple in E.E. Smith’s The Skylark of Space (first published 1928, revised book ed. 1946), Dick Seaton and Dorothy Vaneman, are already engaged when the story starts.  However, when Dorothy is kidnapped and Dick sets out in pursuit accompanied by his fast friend, Martin Crane, it turns out that Dorothy has a lovely fellow captive, Margaret Spencer.  Peggy and Martin form their own bond in the course of their epic space trip, and under these stressful conditions, it develops quickly enough that we get to see a double wedding on the planet Osnome.

The boy Shasta in The Horse and His Boy (1954), one of C.S. Lewis’s Narnian chronicles, meets an aristocratic Calormene girl, Aravis, on the road (ch. 2), and they share the adventures from then on.  These characters are also too young for an actual romance, but Lewis dryly tells us at the end that “years later, when they were grown up they were so used to quarrelling and making it up again that they got married so as to go on doing it more conveniently.”

Eilonwy and TaranAnother independent heroine, Eilonwy, has grown up living with a formidable witch, which is where Taran the young hero meets her in Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three (1964).  She engineers Taran’s escape, which in only the start of five novels’ worth of achievements and escapades, with a marriage at the end (once they’ve grown up).  Don’t even look at the Disney movie version of the story, but I do highly recommend Dawn Davidson’s graphic-novel adaptation, only partway through but very promising.

And, for an example that’s had a wider audience, in the Marvel movie Thor (2011) Jane Foster discovers the hero in the desert, where he’s just been dropped by an Einstein-Rosen wormhole.  Their adventures continue through two movies, although by the third episode, lamentably, they seem to have broken up.

Only Slightly Extraordinary Adventures

Not all stories of adventure need to have fantastic elements—although by definition an adventure takes us out of ordinary, mundane life.  The dangers and thrills of the real world are quite enough.

Romancing the Stone posterOne of my favorite comedy-romance-adventures is the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone, in which romance novelist Joan Wilder ventures out of her quiet writer’s world to come to the aid of her sister, captured by smugglers in South America.  The bus she’s riding in Colombia crashes into a jeep driven by an exotic-bird smuggler, Jack T. Colton.  (I will leave to the reader the task of deciding whether this should count as a bump-into-each-other encounter, or a vehicular failure.)  Jack and Joan end up as unlikely partners in a progressively (sorry, I can’t avoid it) wilder series of escapades that end in a romance—although this couple, too, will have to wait for a sequel to fully seal the deal.

As noted above, there are lots of romance novels in this category as well.  Many of them start with the mundane and develop complications as they go; for example, Jennifer Crusie & Bob Mayer’s Don’t Look Down (2006), which starts out filming a movie and ends up with (as Goodreads puts it) “trying to find out who’s taking ‘shooting a movie’ much too literally.”

There is a sort of degenerate form of the adventure romance (in the mathematical, not the moral, sense) in which characters that are thrown together in a thriller automatically pair up, whether there’s a reason for it or not.  A writer can lean on the “forged in fire” trope without doing the work of showing how the characters are actually drawn together by the excitement.  For example, I have on my shelf Gardner F. Fox’s The Hunter Out of Time (1965), which made an impression on me as a kid but which, in retrospect, I have to think of as a potboiler.  When the time agent from the future who meets “adventurer” Kevin Cord turns out to be a beautiful girl, one is hardly surprised they end up falling for each other, basically because they’re there.

The Wedding Planner posterSome of these examples illustrate the gray area between the meet-cute and the meet-hard.  Whether cuteness or crisis predominates depends on the context of the story.  For example, the leads in The Wedding Planner (2001) meet when Mary (Jennifer Lopez) gets her high-heeled shoe stuck in a manhole cover and “Eddie” Edison pulls her out of the way of a speeding dumpster.  It’s a genuine danger, but it doesn’t lead to a series of adventures; the overall setting is comic (as is the danger).  On the other hand, the leads in Ready Player One (2011) meet in a gaming context, but their developing relationship is action-driven.

Where the Meets Meet

The meet-cute and the meet-hard share some features with respect to how they function in a story.

Ready Player One posterThe style of the meeting can help set the tone for the story:  comic, adventurous, or something else.  This is true even in the mixed cases.  Mary’s predicament in The Wedding Planner is slightly silly:  she’s pinned down by getting her heel stuck, and the onrushing menace is not a Mack truck but a mundane dumpster.  Similarly, Wade and Samantha in Ready Player One meet via action games; that tone is maintained when the action spills over into real life and real danger.

Both meet-cute and meet-hard have the effect of accelerating a relationship.  They put the characters in contact with each other in a distinctive and memorable way.  The quirkiness of the encounter, something the characters have in common, cuts short the process of “getting to know you” with which ordinary relationships begin.  This is especially useful in movies, or short stories, where a limited time is available for a “slow burn” relationship to form.  In that respect, these devices are similar to the love-at-first-sight convention (the “stroke of lightning”).

Finally, these non-ordinary meetings reveal something about the characters:  how they deal with unusual situations.  Are they self-conscious or self-confident?  Do they come up with quick solutions to problems (whether or not involving umbrellas)?  Do they know how to take action in a crisis?  And, not least, do they have a sense of humor?  The exceptional nature of the first meeting shows us more about the participants than we’d see if they simply met at work, say, or introduced themselves in a bar.

Either the meet-cute or the meet-hard, then, can kick off a romance with style—though very different types of romance may develop.

The Animal Sidekick

Introduction

Zorro on Tornado, against the moonThe hero of a story is frequently attended by a loyal beast of some sort.  Pirate captains have their parrots.  Roy Rogers had his sturdy steed Trigger, and Zorro relies on his horse Tornado—a mount he went to some pains to acquire, for example, in The Mask of Zorro (1998).  Ron Stoppable, sidekick to teenage hero Kim Possible, had his own companion in a naked mole-rat, Rufus.  The Stark siblings in Game of Thrones (I finally got around to watching the first episode last week) each have a direwolf.  For those who remember the 1950s TV series, we might also instance Timmy and Lassie (though in that case arguably Lassie was the lead and Timmy the accessory; she did get top billing).

In fantasy and science fiction, however, such accompanying creatures often get a significant upgrade.  A F&SF character’s animal assistant may be enough of an independent character to be a genuine companion, rather than merely a pet—occasionally rising almost to the level of the more familiar human sidekick.

Quasi-Intelligent Companions

Science fiction and fantasy elements allow for semi-sentient or semi-intelligent versions of what would otherwise be considered pets.  They’re not equal to their human masters—at least not as a rule (see below)—but they’re not just brute animals either.

Defiant Agents coverAndre Norton’s SF novel The Defiant Agents (1962) provides a good example.  When a group of Native American colonists is sent to found a habitation on a far-off planet, with them is a pair of enhanced coyotes.  Norton gives the backstory this way:

. . . The coyote had not only adapted to the country of the white sands; he had evolved into something which could not be dismissed as an animal, clever and cunning, but limited to beast range.  Six cubs had been brought back on the first expedition, coyote in body, their developing minds different.  The grandchildren of those cubs were now in the ship’s cages, their mutated senses alert . . . Sent to Topaz as eyes and ears for less keenly endowed humans, they were not completely under the domination of man.  (ch. 2, p. 19)

Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern give us perhaps the classic case.  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.  Moreover, the dragons can teleport from place to place by “going between.”  (Despite the fantasy tropes, the Pern stories are actually science fiction.)  Dragons and their human riders bond for life at the dragons’ birth and communicate telepathically; the bond is so complete that if one partner dies, the other is likely to die as well.

Dragonflight coverA crucial fact is that McCaffrey’s dragons talk.  Speech is a key sign of intelligence.  We might imagine getting an answer back when we speak to a beloved horse or dog; we might wish for such a relationship—but in F&SF that wish can be realized.

Nonetheless, even though it’s the dragons who do most of the work against Thread, they are the subordinate members of the pairings.  They are immature compared to their humans—halfway to the unspeaking beast, as it were.  One of the main characters reflects that “[d]ragon instinct was limited to here-and-now, with no ability to control or anticipate.  Mankind existed in partnership with them to supply wisdom and order . . .”  (Dragonflight (1968), part II, p. 133)

Nonetheless, speech isn’t always necessary to show that a creature is more than an animal.  In particular, if we’re dealing with alien creatures whose thought processes are different from ours, it may be hard to tell how their degree of intelligence compares.

In Alan E. Nourse’s Star Surgeon (1959), the main character is Dal Timgar, an alien Garvian who has just graduated from medical school on Earth.  Like all Garvians, Dal has a symbiotic partner, a fuzzy ball of mutable protoplasm referred to simply as “Fuzzy,” normally found sitting on Dal’s shoulder.  The Garvians and their Fuzzies (not to be confused with H. Beam Piper’s Fuzzies) have the same kind of interdependence as McCaffrey’s dragonriders:  they can’t live without each other.  While Dal’s Fuzzy certainly seems to be a person of sorts, he doesn’t talk.  His telepathic bond with Dal does not express itself in words.  But that bond is a central part of the story.

The Tropes

The animal sidekick gives rise to a number of classifications on TV Tropes.  The broadest is perhaps Loyal Animal Companion, which spans the range from mere pets to non-human peers.  In this last group, where the two are essentially equals—the Non-Human Sidekick—the “Film–Animation” subgroup includes a list of the animal helpers found in most of the Disney fairy-tale films, such as the talking mice in Cinderella (1950).  (Note, though, that in the more realistic 2015 live-action version, the mice don’t talk and are more like pets.)

Daenerys Targaryen, mounted on dragonThe symbiotic relationships described above are captured under the title Bond Creatures, with a separate page devoted to dragon-riders generally—including Daenerys Targaryen of Game of Thrones.  Witches’ or wizards’ familiars, like Svartalf in Poul Anderson’s Operation Chaos, appear under The Familiar.

There’s also a page for Mons, of which the famous Pokémon are probably the most widely-known.  A human master may have many Pokémon, but Pikachu, for instance, does seem to be a boon companion and not just a fighting pet—although in the animated series his speech (like Groot’s) is limited to variations on his own name.  Note that the upcoming movie version is quite different:  in this movie Pikachu talks and is a complete person—even, apparently, the lead.

The Sidekick’s Contribution

The Beast Master, coverAnimal sidekicks can aid their principals in many ways.  Some you can ride, like McCaffrey’s dragons or Gandalf’s steed Shadowfax; there’s yet another Tropes page for the Sapient Steed (including the robotic horse Fess in Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock of Gramarye series).  Some act primarily as scouts, as noted for the Norton coyotes above; so also the Falcon’s avian companion Redwing in Marvel comics (sadly reduced to a robotic drone in the movies).  The enhanced or mutated otters in James Schmitz’s The Demon Breed (1968) do some scouting, and can also carry bombs and perform other basic actions; they talk back to main character Nile Etland, though in a simplified way.  Norton’s The Beast Master (1959) features a whole team of animals who assist main character Hosteen Storm, a Native American like The Defiant Agent’s Travis Fox.

The animal companion may also be able to fight alongside you, in ways a human could not match.  We’ve already looked at the dragons of Pern; we should also mention the treecats of David Weber’s Honor Harrington series, who have averted at least one assassination by being unexpectedly formidable in an emergency.  Owen Grady’s team of raptors in Jurassic World is equally capable.

Ascension of the Sidekick

Frequently, animal sidekicks tend to be a little childlike and essentially innocent.  They’re depicted as simpler than their human sponsors.  The nonhuman creature may be quite bloodthirsty or deadly, but it’s in an innocent way.  We don’t hold animals responsible for being savage; that’s just the way they are.  The more animal sidekicks lack the full intelligence and moral agency of a person, the more they get the benefit of animal innocence.

But sometimes it turns out that the seeming animal is more than it appears.  It may develop that the “sidekick” is really the equal of the human partner—in intelligence, in culture, in overall personhood.  At that point, we pass from subordinate to peer, and the relationship may shift to something more like that of a buddy movie.

Treecat with Stephanie HarringtonThis is true of Weber’s treecats:  as the series progressed, they were revealed to be about as intelligent as humans, though without advanced science.  The Pernese dragons have also shifted gradually in that direction; in particular, Ruth, the eponymous character of The White Dragon (1978), is depicted as a “sport,” human-like in personality and mental capabilities.

Sticking with the dragonrider model, we see a similar progression in the How to Train Your Dragon movies.  These dragons have always been pretty smart; but the third episode, released in the U.S. in February 2019, gives them a culture and even a governmental structure of their own.

Heinlein was fond of this twist.  He used it in Red Planet (1949), where Willis the “Martian roundhead,” originally the main character’s pet, turns out to be an immature form of the regular civilized Martians and a particularly important individual.  Similarly, in The Star Beast (1954), the main character’s monstrous “pet” Lummox turns out to be a very young royal child of the sophisticated and formidable Hroshii species.

James Schmitz’s first story about Telzey Amberdon, “Novice” (1962, appearing in The Universe Against Her and volume one of the Eric Flint Hub compilation), presents Telzey with a telepathic “pet” named Tick-Tock who is revealed to be one of the indigenous “crest cats”—predators so dangerous that, while humans have been hunting them, the crest cats view themselves as hunting the humans on an equal basis.  (Since Telzey is a formidable character herself, even at age fifteen, the team-up really is a union of equals.)

Role in the Story

Telzey Amberdon with Tick-TockThe animal sidekick’s unique abilities or powers, noted above, afford one explanation for its appearance in a story.  Such a companion can allow characters to do things they couldn’t do on their own, whether it’s adding to their fighting strength, reading other characters’ minds, or teleporting to other places and times.  The sidekick is a helper and an ally.

An animal companion provides such assistance in a different way than a human companion would.  In creating a new separate species, a writer can establish limitations in intelligence or otherwise that place the sidekick firmly in a secondary role.  We are rightly uncomfortable putting other humans in such a permanent sidekick position; it creates a fundamental tension with the fact of basic human equality.  (It would take us too far afield here to go into the variations of human ancillary characters—the superhero’s assistant; the military servant or “batman,” as with Honor Harrington or James Christian Falkenberg or Jack Aubrey; Jeeves the “gentleman’s personal gentleman.”)

An animal ancillary character can provide companionship—empathy, psychological support—for the main character without invoking the kinds of interactions that are inevitable when other human beings are involved.  Instead, the relationship between the principal and the sidekick can explore other kinds of interactions, more analogous to those of parent and child, or teacher and student, than those of peers.

In compiling this survey, I’ve noticed that a lot of the stories are older, often dating from the mid-twentieth century.  It may be that this isn’t an accident.  Contemporary thinking leans strongly toward an assumption of equality among all kinds of beings, reaching out to postulate humanlike rights for (e.g.) whales or chimpanzees.  The whole notion of a permanently subordinate or secondary being may be particularly repugnant to many of today’s readers.

On the other hand, coming from the animal side rather than the human-surrogate side, there may be something to the simple wish to communicate on more of a mutual basis with the other creatures that share the world with us.  Wouldn’t we all like to be able to talk to our horse, dog, cat?

Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories, coverIn his essay On Fairy-Stories (1939), Tolkien points out that fantasy satisfies “the desire to converse with other living things.  On this desire, as ancient as the Fall, is largely founded the talking of beasts and creatures in fairy-tales . . .”  If we can’t talk with our actual dogs and cats, we can imagine similarly situated beings with whom we can.  And if they include flying dragons and wily coyotes, so much the better.

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.