Monday, April 19, 2004

Travels With Larry Part VII

Astronauts In Trouble Part I

I have a very strong suspicion that Larry Young spent many of his formative years reading the works of Robert Heinlein. It’s a bit more than a mere “hunch,” and I think the textual evidence is quite revealing. And I’m not the only one who thinks so, either - just ask Kurt Busiek.

Heinlein is one of those writers who can really fuck you up if you happen to come upon him at just the right moment in your development. Much like J.R.R. Tolkein or C.S. Lewis or Frank Herbert, there’s something vertiginous about his confident mastery of fictional universes. If you get caught in the whirlpool at just the right age, it’s easy to get pulled in and stuck for a good long time. Some people spend the rest of their lives wondering around Middle Earth or Narnia or Arrakis – or, at the least, trying to find their ways back to these fabulous places - but there are also many who find themselves trapped in the Future History of Earth. Perhaps these folks are the scariest of all.

He wasn’t the best stylist, and his insight into the human condition was, at best, stilted (and at worst borderline fascistic). But there’s still something there, something so ruthlessly endearing and effortlessly optimistic that it can twist you for life. It’s the belief that someone somewhere always knows what he’s doing, and that the right thing and the pragmatic thing are usually one and the same – or at least they are if you have any sense in your head. Heinlein's is a harsh and hubristic world, filled with supermen and women who manage to do everything right and feel no pity for those unable to do the same. T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L. - there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. Was there ever a better distillation of Libertarian philosophy?

Perhaps it sounds like I’m being harsh on the old man, and I guess I am. I fell in love with Heinlein overnight but I fell out of love just as quickly. Sure, there were one or two turbulent years in between – no denying that. But everyone has to learn sooner or later that its OK to disagree with a book - and I learned at the feet of the master. There’s a passage at the beginning of Solzhenitsyn’s “August, 1914” that reads especially true to this dilemma:

“He was confused by the multiplicity of truths, and exhausted by the struggle to find one more convincing than another. He had considered himself a Tolstoyan since the seventh form at school, and until he began handling so many books he had felt secure and comfortable in his belief. But he was given Lavrov and Mikhailovsky to read and what they said all seemed so true and so right! He was given Plekhanov – and that too was true, so so smoothly written, so cogent. Kropotkin’s ideas he also found to his liking – and true! Then he opened Vekhi and realized with a shock that here was something completely contrary to what he had read before, yet true! The truth of it pierced him to the quick!

“Books no longer inspired reverent joy but dread – dread that he would never be able to hold his own with an author, that every new book he read would seduce and enslave him.” (P. 18)

I suspect that Larry Young shares a great deal of my antagonistic feelings toward Heinlein. On the one hand, there's the great wealth of imagination and the visionary dedication to a single-minded conception of the universe and fiction's place within the larger skein of metaphysical existence. On the other, you have his frankly absurd conception of human psychology, with the painful emphases on competence and exigency as the heroic ideal. Ultimately, you have to take the good with the bad. But if you’re a writer you get the enviable task of cherry picking the good from the bad, and presenting your thoughts as more than merely the sum of what you have previously ingested.

So “Astronauts in Trouble” is Heinlein without the heaping side order of Ayn Rand. Maybe I’m off here – it’s perfectly conceivable that Larry Young has never even read Heinlein, but I sincerely doubt it. I know that Warren Ellis dislikes Heinlein – he’s said so more than once – but I honestly don’t see how anyone can write science fiction without some sort of affection for the Grandmaster. I just don’t see how that particularly infectious bug can really infect anyone who hasn’t received a fatal dosage of Future History at one point in their lives. It’s possible, I suppose – Ellis seems to make a good living writing non-Heinleinian sci-fi – but I don’t think it’s particular recommended, any more than it's particularly recommended to make a living in the fantasy genre without at least a passing acquaintance with Tolkein.

For better or for worse, the bedrock of sci-fi is also Heinlein's most basic message: the universe is a rational place, and there is no reason why mankind can't ultimately comprehend the way it works. There's no recourse to faith, there's no magic, and there's no real dialectic between arbitrary moral dogmas. The universe is unforgiving and mysterious, but it's also essentially fair, because you have as much chance of making your way as I do.

The biggest surprise for me on reading “Astronauts in Trouble” is the fact that the book really isn’t about astronauts at all. The stories in “AiT” are primarily about journalists and not the typically idealistic Woodward & Bernstein caricatures you usually encounter when fiction tackles the Fourth Estate, either. The Journalists in “AiT” are most importantly working journalists, who may give lip service to the idealized underpinnings of journalistic responsibility but for whom journalism is less a calling than a job. It’s a job they do well, but it’s still a job.

Oddly enough for a genre that prizes narrative formalism, Young’s characterization is rigorously naturalistic. (This is something I could probably have predicted, however, from reading the books he publishes.) At the end of the day, despite the large scale of their stories, the characters in “AiT” refuse to let it effect them. A humanist to the end, Young finds as much to celebrate in the inane but revealing small talk that sprouts between close friends and coworkers as the inky mysteries of deep space. I think that’s probably Larry Young’s single best improvement on Heinlien: he may not have quite the imagination, but he seems to understand people a lot better than Robert A. ever did.

In place of Heinlein's dogged adherence to the notion of supermen-and-women as the absolute authority in a subjective universe, Young substitutes the authority of the media. As I said, he doesn't subscribe to simplistic notions of the media's inherent responsibility - the media can just as easily be corrupted as any other human institution. The reporters and cameramen who stand as protagonists of "AiT" believe in doing their jobs, for better or for worse. And that's the difference: whereas Heinlein's heroes were insufferable in their self-congratulation, "AiT" working men are humbly confident in the banality and the circumscribed limitations of their responsibilities.

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