It is always dangerous to revisit fondly-remembered classics from one's youth. How many times have you reread a book from your childhood, only to find it actively and acutely terrible? There's a reason I have no plans to ever reread the Ringworld books - I loved the first two when I was younger, and even remember plowing through the third when it came out in paperback (I don't remember it being very good?) - but I'm fairly certain that the books are of a type of late-century hard sci-fi that already shows signs of having aged poorly. (I have read other books by Niven that I think hold up better - his Inferno books with Jerry Pournelle are especially fun - but I don't think the world will much begrudge the premature loss of the Man-Kzin Wars series.) Although, hell, maybe one of these days I'll actually sit down and read World of Ptavvs.
But the one series I was most interested and enthusiastic about revisiting was Isaac Asimov's Foundation books. I hadn't read them since high school and didn't really remember them very well outside of the barest outline. What I did remember, however, was reading the later additions of Foundation's Edge and Foundation and Earth and being, well, pretty much incensed. As much as I loved the first three, original Foundation novels (which I checked out of the local library, in an old omnibus edition that had this awesome cover), I hated the two later sequels, so much that after I put down Foundation and Earth I didn't pick up another Asimov book for over a decade. I've never read Prelude to or Forward the. It seemed to me at the time - at least to my high-school mind - that the sequels represented an explicit rejection of the original trilogy, a misguided attempt to better the original achievement through a not-so-subtle undermining of that series' thema.
I don't want to give anything away to anyone who hasn't read all the Foundation series - and if you haven't, you should - but in his later books Asimov experienced a variant of the same kind of compulsion that Robert Heinlein experienced in his own later career. Both Heinlein and Asimov were quite prolific (although, it goes without saying, Asimov was just a bit more prolific than even his most prolific peers), and towards the end of their lives they looked back on decades of science-fiction writing and decided to pull the strands of multiple disparate novels, stories, and series together into overarching master-narratives.
Heinlein accomplished this in somewhat haphazard fashion in a series of progressively weirder (and some would say interminable) novels - Time Enough for Love, The Number of the Beast, The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and the risible To Sail Beyond the Sunset. Heinlein was a political libertarian whose stories focused on the adventures of powerful and charismatic individuals with artificially prolonged lifespans. As much as I enjoyed Heinlein when I was younger, it's hard not to see the limitations of Heinlein's formulae in hindsight: Heinlein understood historical significance solely in terms of the individual and his stories lacked any understanding beyond the level of formal contempt for the category of "society" as anything other than a temporary agreement between ultra-rational independent actors. So when he pulled together a large part of his almost five decades' worth of sci-fi production into a larger narrative structure, the result was strangely hermetic. The sum of his thousands of years of "Future History" was colonized by a handful of truly spectacular pinnacles of human achievement who transcended the boundaries of time, space, and - it must be said - morality. There's a lot of weird crypto- and actual incest and (through cloning and time-travel) literal self-love - very much in the mold of Doc Smith's strange Lensmen novels but definitely the kind of stuff to give all but the most committed libertarian pause. (After all, what's a little incest between consenting adults? Shouldn't we all have the absolute right to commit suicide at a moment's notice?) Because Heinlein was such a firm believer in the sovereign authority of the individual and the right of the individual to reject any and all political alliance save for the most immediate level of clan, his books fail to cohere in terms of producing a coherent ideal of human history as anything more than a backdrop against which high-achieving individuals could have their adventures. "History," such as it is, doesn't really concern Heinlein, because for him and his characters all history is merely a form of biography.
(I should probably take a moment to point out that Heinlein, while certainly a libertarian, was hardly a conservative in terms of his attitudes toward race, religion, feminism, and sexual independence. He just hated taxes and distrusted socialism. He was also, it must be noted, an incredibly generous person - the best example of which is the fact that he provided a great deal of material support for the far less successful [and mentally unbalanced] Philip K. Dick.)
I would argue - perhaps not an indefensible assertion, but certainly arguable - that the interaction between Heinlein and Asimov is perhaps the most significant thematic relationship in sci-fi history. You can make cases for the prominence of Clarke, Bradbury, Bester, de Camp, but in terms of quality, consistency, and influence, Heinlein and Asimov represent the genre's dominant political dialectic - rugged quasi-libertarian individualism on the one hand, and on the other demure technocratic and vague (but only vague, considering the real-world political climate) leftism. Of course, this relatively simplistic dichotomy faded from significance with the rise to prominence of authors such as Dick, Vonnegut, and Delaney, a move that mirrored a similar expansion of real-world political focus from the confines of the Cold War. But in terms of the genre's most fruitful mid-century period, it's all about the contrast between these two gentlemen - one a crisp ex-naval officer, graduate of Annapolis, scholarly dilettante and amateur stonemason - and the other a tenured PhD (biochemistry) with wild sideburns and a rather unfortunate fondness for bolo ties.
(Am I shortchanging Arthur C. Clarke? He's usually placed equal to Heinlein and Asimov in terms of stature and influence, but I don't think his own stories hold up quite as well. Clarke wrote a lot about aliens, in particularly the idea of first contact and the consequences for the human race, something about which neither Heinlein or Asimov cared much. Asimov is famous for almost never writing about aliens - only a couple examples of alien stories in his entire corpus - and while Heinlein wrote more often about extraterrestrials, he did so less frequently as his career progressed and he became much more interested in detailing the lives of his human characters than making up space monsters.)
I think, in hindsight, that Asimov was a better writer than Heinlein. This isn't a knock against Heinlein so much except to say that both men were very good writers who stood out against almost all of their peers from the "Golden Age" of sci-fi, but as their careers progressed Heinlein became less and less able to guard against his own worst impulses as a writer. After the 1960s when Heinlein's career was secure and he could write fat, sprawling novels that bore the logos of respectable publishing firms, he got lazy. In many ways he became very complacent as a writer, and his characters became more and more smug and self-satisfied. Reading a later Heinlein novel is like spending a long car trip with your uncle the libertarian autodidact, still whip-smart and extremely charming, but condescending to an unbearable degree.
In contrast to Heinlein's rather expansive sense of self, Asimov was an uncommonly generous writer whose own worse impulses - such as they were - were far less damaging than Heinlein's. Asimov is an extremely talkative writer who almost never writes action sequences. The Foundation series is composed of stories that revolve not around characters but ideas, and which are constructed in such a way that the absolute unimportance of characters is highlighted as an explicit feature. Whereas Heinlein's Future History is really the story of a handful of individuals over the course of many thousands of years, Asimov's Foundation is the story of a set of hypotheses which are attacked and defended over the course of hundreds of years of far-future political and economic machinations. In any given Foundation story there many be only a handful of "events," in terms of something happening - but every actual event is followed by pages of exposition and investigation, in which events are exhumed and analyzed, and his extremely intelligent characters are given the opportunity to reason their ways through often opaque circumstances. They owe a lot, structurally, to mystery stories - so much of the action in Asimov's fiction is purely reactive, composed of reconstruction and supposition, followed by the empirical testing of theories and inevitable course correction.
But despite criticisms over his often bloodless prose style and stilted characters, his fiction writing nevertheless manages to convey a deep understanding of human nature. He didn't often write about sex and - like every other classic sci-fi writer - he grappled early in his career with the portrayal of women in his stories. But in his Foundation stories he was preoccupied with history, as well as the limitations of science and rationalism. With no small irony, he was a sci-fi writer with a day job as a scientist who wrote quite a bit about the limitations of rationalism and the ability of destructive human behavior to undercut even the most noble designs. Rereading the original trilogy as well as Foundation's Edge, I found that, contrary to my gritted-teeth expectations - the later sequels are definitely of a piece with the original stories. Rather than walking away disappointed that Asimov had seemingly undercut the premise of his earlier classic, I am now firmly convinced that his later sequels are worthy sequels, stories that accept the challenges set forth thirty-odd years previous and proceed onward with an understanding of the imperfectability of human behavior and the conditionality of even the based-laid plans.
If that seems vague, it is because I now realize that this topic demands more than a single day's reflection. More to come.
What is the single most useless yet hypnotic activity conceivable? If you said, "filling out a ballot for Pitchfork's best albums of 1996-2011 poll," you win a prize. Why is list-making such a compulsive, addictive activity? I swear, you go in thinking it'll kill 20 minutes and two hours later for no reason whatsoever you're sweating blood over whether or nor the Avalanches is better than Discovery. Oh well.
This week's Comics of the Weak is up over at the Comics Journal site, wherein Tucker talks about some comics, Abhay gives the business to the moronic complacency of the comics "press," and I spew some shit about Doonesbury. And honestly? I am kind of amazed that anyone popped up in the comments to defend Doonesbury. I figured going after Trudeau would be the definition of an "easy target," and probably a lazy choice on my part. But reading this week's sequence, with its mixture of bilious self-regard and characteristically lazy art, brought some jokes to mind, and that's really all there is to it in terms of my deciding whether or not to contribute something to Tucker's column on any given week. But the first response in the comments feed is already coming knives-out about TCJ having a poor record with gender politics or whatever . . . kind of giving me a shivering bit of deja vu regarding why I stopped writing for the magazine in the first place.
I mean, seriously, I wanted to crack some jokes about how lame Doonesbury was and suddenly its an attack on Iraq War veterans and women's rights. Sigh. I hate comics.
I've been thinking a lot about motivation lately. Motivation works funny in superhero comics. Whereas motivation in fiction and drama is encouraged to be as complex and intricate as possible, superhero fiction is one genre where protagonists actually work better in direct proportion to the simplicity of their motivation.
This is a basic observation that really shouldn't come as any surprise to anyone who has been reading superhero comics for longer than five minutes. The most successful and long-lived superhero characters are those with simple, portable motivations that allow them to plug into any number of modular situations:
Batman hates crime.
Superman needs to help people.
Spider-Man wants to prevent people from being hurt.
Captain America wants to inspire people.
Notice I didn't say "because." Every superhero - every character - has a "because," and while for most of us the "because" is, or should be, very important, with superheroes the "because" should never be emphasized. The reason for this is that as soon as you add a second clause to these motivations, you introduce conditions, and as soon as you make a superhero's motivation conditional, you risk jeopardizing the purity - and the portability - of their original motivation.
"Batman hates crime" is perhaps the simplest, most accessible, least complicated motivation in all fiction. He hates crime in all its incarnation, in all its many sizes and shapes - he hates murderers and drug dealers and extortionists and rapists and thieves and white-collar criminals and international terrorists. If it falls under the umbrella of "crime," Batman hates it. If you wanted to be more precise, however, you could add a second clause, turn the motivation into something like:
Batman hates crime because his parents were killed in a mugging when he was a child.
That is as "correct" a statement as the first version, but it also introduces possible complications. The second clause posits the condition under which his previously-stated motivation occurs. Once this condition is introduced the possibility exists that, if the condition is complicated, the motivation can be as well. If Batman hates crime only because his parents were murdered, what happens when he catches the murderer?
Now, of course, we know the answer to that question because we've all read Batman #47 and we know who Joe Chill is and what exactly Batman does once he discovers the person who killed his parents. We know he doesn't declare justice served, hang up his cowl, get married and live happily ever after. But the revelation of Joe Chill is a secondary attribute - or even tertiary, depending on which iteration of the character you're referencing, and whether or not Joe Chill is even in canon this week. I don't think there are very many good stories that can be told from poking at this particularly element of Batman's origin because messing with the characters motivation - adding a second clause to such a brilliantly simple and infinitely flexible motivation - risks obscuring and complicating an otherwise delightfully streamlined genesis. The first Tim Burton Batman film got this disastrously wrong by positing that the Joker killed Batman's parents: by making the murderer of Thomas and Martha Wayne into such an important character, and by killing him definitively at the end of the film, it made Batman's motivation contingent on something that no longer existed. What if the movie Batman had hung up his cowl after the Joker died? We know that doesn't happen because Batman doesn't quit, but just inviting the audience to pose that question muddies the waters to an unnecessary degree.
Similarly, the idea that "Superman needs to help people" is perfect in its open-ended simplicity. You can always add something to the effect that:
Superman needs to help people because he was raised by salt-of-the-Earth Kansas farmers who raised him to honor and cherish all life.
That is also a "correct" statement, but as with the second version of Batman's motivation, it also introduces a number of complicating factors. Every element of this motivation is true, but poking at it means potentially complicating the character - certainly, there have been many good and valid Superman stories that have done exactly that, but in the long run the simplest version is and should be the version that carries forward. Every subsequent development should be constructed with an eye towards not obscuring these most basic and simple principles.
One of the things that got me thinking about the way motivation works in superhero comics was The Amazing Spider-Man. Not a bad film but certainly not a very good film. (I'm on record as not being the biggest fan of the Sam Raimi films but after recently rewatching the earlier Spider-Man films for the first time since seeing them in the theater I found to my great surprise that they held up a lot better than I expected. I can still quibble in regards to a few liberties they took with the character and his presentation, but they were legitimately good movies. It is odd how memory works in this regard - I remembered disliking the Green Goblin in the first film, but DeFoe's Goblin was actually a much better villain than I remember [once you get past the plastic mask], and acted pretty much exactly the way the Goblin acts in the comics. They screwed up Doctor Octopus pretty badly, but the action in the second film was still better than the first.) In any event, one of the serious problems with the presentation of the character in The Amazing Spider-Man was just how badly they mutilated the details of Spider-Man's origin.
The problem is that after Uncle Ben's murder, Spider-Man doesn't immediately catch the thief who kills him. Think about this for a minute: the original Spider-Man origin story in Amazing Fantasy #15 has Spider-Man catching the thief right after the murder, and so does Raimi's film. You can't have the burglar escape because the circumstances of the burglar's capture are completely immaterial to establishing Spider-Man's motivation - but the idea that Spider-Man doesn't catch the burglar is terrible and changes the character is unforeseen ways. The new movie's assertion that Spider-Man's earliest exploits were him searching specifically for the thief who shot Ben Parker is a terrible idea, because it makes Spider-Man's earliest heroic motivation revenge. Sure, the movie shows him moving past that idea and embracing the more selfless ideal of heroism that we recognizing as being characteristically Spider-Man. But that's a needless complication. Spider-Man becomes selfless - pathologically, determinedly selfless - the moment he catches the burglar and realizes his own selfishness resulted in his uncle's death. He doesn't become selfless through trial-and-error in the process of working out his anger issues on the underworld. And having Ben's murderer remain unresolved introduces a note of unnecessary suspense into Spider-Man's origin that risk's complicating what should otherwise be a perfectly streamlined motivation. It simply isn't important to Spider-Man who killed his uncle: it was some nameless skell who represents the negative consequence of not living up to your potential for good. Similarly, it just doesn't matter who killed Batman's parents, whether it was Joe Chill or another murderer who was never caught. For the young Bruce Wayne, the person who killed his parents was simply Crime with a capital-C.
Now, obviously, most characters - even superhero characters - have more complicated motivations than this. You could even argue that only the most iconic characters can afford to have such simple and iconic motivations. There are lots of great, popular, and enduring characters with complicated and changeable motivations who persist in the public eye (Iron Man is a great example of this). There are also lots of characters with muddy and inconsistent motivations who also manage to remain popular despite a lack of coherent motivation - perhaps the best example is Wolverine, whose actual motivation is so buried in years of complex and contradictory continuity that it's best just to state plainly "he's a good guy with issues" and leave it at that. But it's usually a good idea to keep superhero motivations as simple as possible, because the unpleasant alternative is that complicated motivations can eventually mutate to become convoluted and even counter-productive. What happens when your heroes' motivations have changed so radically that they barely even resemble heroes?
The advantages of giving a character as open-ended a motivation as possible is that the more open-ended the motivation, the more flexible the character can be. Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man are flexible enough that each character can be ported into an almost infinite variety of stories: sure, you can make an argument that each character might work "better" in certain circumstances than others, but there are plenty of good examples of Batman fighting crime in space and Superman fighting mobsters in the inner city (for instance). Characters with less open-ended motivations are less portable and, as a result of this, less flexible.
At the far end of the spectrum from those three characters you would probably have to put Spawn. Now, Spawn has been a terrible comic almost from the moment of its inception, but at its core on paper there is nothing intrinsically bad about Spawn as a character. Faust is a perfectly fine model for a superhero origin story (it works fine for the Silver Surfer), and the idea of a man who sells his soul to the devil but doesn't get what he bargains for is as old as the hills. But in practice Spawn is always terrible. There is one major reason for this: Spawn never actually receives a motivation to do anything. Spawn has been in continual publication for twenty years (!!!) and in all that time, to the best of my knowledge (and I haven't read every issue of Spawn, but I've read many) he still hasn't moved past trying to get the bastards that screwed him over and killed him. The problem was so pronounced that Al Simmons recently killed himself because he openly acknowledged his story was going nowhere, leaving the Spawn powers and costume to another person. Imagine a Batman who spent twenty years trying to get Joe Chill and dealing almost exclusively with the consequences of a massive conspiracy created by Joe Chill with the express purpose of destroying the Wayne family - sure, you could tell that story if you wanted, but you wouldn't have anywhere near as interesting or flexible a character as the Batman we know today. You'd have a character who had one story with a definite beginning as well as an ending - less the Bruce Wayne Batman and more the Paul Kirk Manhunter.
Some characters are sufficiently open-ended that they can continue more or less in perpetuity, whereas some characters - because of their origins and motivations - do have built in endings. The problem with a character like Spawn is that, as written, his story has a definite ending. But because Spawn is an ongoing series that end will never arrive, and as a result the character and his stories are left to become more and more attenuated and useless. This is one of the problems - to return to The Amazing Spider-Man - with making Peter's parents a part of the experiments that result in him getting his powers. (This is also a problem with Ultimate Spider-Man.) Leaving those kinds of threads dangling from a character's origin ultimately (pun intended) limits the kinds of stories you can tell with that character. Spider-Man's story worked because it was clean and uncluttered - even the part about Peter's parents being secret agents who fought the Red Skull was, if superfluous, of little consequence, because even after Peter learned that fact it had little impact on his day-to-day life as Spider-Man. But having Peter's dad be the scientist who designed the process that gave him spider-powers just introduces an unnecessary complication that risks permanent damage to what is otherwise a graceful and clean origin sequence.