Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

TT: The Debate Heats Up!

June 22, 2017

JANE: So, here we go, tangenting off our Tangent, which was discussing whether or not Robert Heinlein put himself into his books.

Had Spacesuit, Did Travel?

Before we get back to that (because you still haven’t convinced me), I promised you a story about how careful writers – and those of SF and Fantasy in particular – need to be.  Why?  Because we have some of the brightest, most inquisitive readers there are.

ALAN: Indeed we do. Did one of them happen to catch you out in some way?

JANE:  “Catch out” may be too strong a term.  Here’s what happened.

When I wrote The Buried Pyramid, I carefully wrote out the bits in hieroglyphs.  I missed an error –the equivalent of a typo – though…  And, yep, a fan wrote to tell me about it.  Happily, she was a great person and, because of my error, I made friend who now sends me beautiful, handmade cards, but I blushed about that error for weeks.

ALAN: Good for you for admitting the mistake. I don’t think Heinlein would have been able to do that. The Heinlein Individual always knows how and why things work, without the possibility of error. Here Heinlein’s own personality comes out very clearly in the stories. In his autobiography I. Asimov the eponymous Isaac records:

“Heinlein was not the easygoing fellow that other science fiction personalities I knew and loved were. He did not believe in doing his own thing and letting you do your thing. He had a definite feeling that he knew better and to lecture you into agreeing with him. Campbell did this too, but Campbell always remained serenely indifferent if you ended up disagreeing with him, whereas Heinlein would, under those circumstances, grow hostile.”

The parallels with the Heinlein Individual are marked. Both Colonel Dubois in Starship Troopers and Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land (for example) exhibit this trait. They lecture at the drop of a hat (to be fair, it is Colonel Dubois’ job to lecture since he is supposed to be a teacher) and they do not allow disagreement. They are always right by fiat.

JANE: I have been on panels with numerous people who will lecture at the drop of a hat.  And, let me assure you, so many of them are convinced they are absolutely right.  Does that make them Heinlein?

ALAN: It depends on whether or not they are willing to listen to opposing points of view. I lecture at the drop of a hat as well (too many years as a teacher!) but I would never claim that I am always right. I have often been questioned and corrected by my students, and I just take it in my stride. Being a teacher is a wonderful opportunity for learning.

JANE: Indeed it is.  However, we only have Asimov’s word here for how Heinlein reacted and, from what I’ve read, Asimov wasn’t exactly the least opinionated writer out there.  Do we have an unbiased comment, or a clash of strong personalities who had to share the same stage?

ALAN: Oh it’s not just Asimov’s opinion. Heinlein had a very public and very hostile disagreement with Arthur C. Clarke when Clarke criticised some aspects of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Heinlein was strongly in favour of it and refused to allow any dissent at all.

Interestingly, Heinlein’s insistence that his opinions were the only correct ones does not mean that he never changed his mind about how and why the world worked. Asimov also records, somewhat cattily, that:

“Furthermore, although a flaming liberal during the war, Heinlein became a rock-ribbed far-right conservative immediately afterward. This happened at just the time he changed wives from a liberal woman, Leslyn, to a rock-ribbed far-right conservative woman, Virginia.”

I often wonder how such people reconcile their later beliefs with their earlier ones. Both sets of beliefs cannot possibly be correct because they are mutually contradictory and yet they must both be correct because the person holding them is never wrong…

JANE: Uh…  This example just violated your basic premise.  If Heinlein really was supremely confident, if he needed to always be right, there is no way a mere wife could change his mind.  In fact, given how little respect the opinions of women are given in many Heinlein novels, I’d argue that if Heinlein really was the Heinlein Individual, then a wife never could change his mind.

ALAN: Asimov found it puzzling as well:

“…I cannot believe he would follow his wives’ opinions blindly. I used to brood about it in puzzlement (of course, I never would have dreamed of asking Heinlein—I’m sure he would have refused to answer, and would have done so with the utmost hostility)…”

Asimov’s observation about Heinlein’s changing opinions does go a long way towards explaining why the Heinlein Individual in some novels views the rules of the world in a different way to the Heinlein Individual in other novels. Heinlein’s own ideas had changed in the meantime.

JANE: True.  So, is there any better proof that Heinlein “was” his characters than these thin psychological arguments?  Please don’t say that he used his stories to put forward his ideas and beliefs because, to a certain extent, whether deliberately or not, every writer does this.

Here’s an example from my own stuff.

After reading Child of a Rainless Year, my good friend Yvonne called to tell me how much she’d enjoyed it.  But (chuckling even as she spoke) she said, “The ending was so Jane.  You do all these things to the humans involved, but you make sure the reader knows the horse was okay and had a good home.”

ALAN: I can answer this to a certain extent – when Heinlein was at the Annapolis Naval Academy, his sport of choice was fencing and by all accounts he was very good at it. The hero of Glory Road is a fencer and the novel contains much fencing lore.

JANE: Roger Zelazny was a fencer in college, and was very proud of the fact that he’d been on the college team.  Based on that evidence, one could as easily say that Heinlein modeled the character in Glory Road on Roger Zelazny – or any of an infinity of people who have fenced.

ALAN:  Indeed so – I agree that it’s a very weak argument. But it’s about as far as I can go without introducing the kind of speculations that you’ve ruled out of bounds. Certainly there’s nothing quite like that about Colonel Dubois and Jubal Harshaw, the two characters who are most generally assumed to be representations of Heinlein the man.

But let me leave you with this little speculation. In Stranger in a Strange Land, Jubal Harshaw is described as:  “Jubal E. Harshaw, LL.B, M.D., Sc.D., bon vivant, gourmet, sybarite, popular author extraordinary, and neo-pessimist philosopher.”  Heinlein didn’t have the formal paper qualifications that Harshaw boasted of, but he demonstrably had every single characteristic in the list that defines Harshaw’s personality.

JANE: So, we take the parts we want and leave out what we don’t?  I’m not convinced.  If the text had read: Jubal E. Harshaw, graduate of the University of Missouri and the US Naval Academy, student of physics at UCLA, then all the rest… then maybe, just maybe, I’d be convinced.  However, given how general the rest is – most of that would apply nicely to my friend Walter Jon Williams, for example – I’ll take Heinlein’s side and say, no, he never put himself in his books as a character.

ALAN: And there I think we have to leave this fascinating topic. I wonder what opinions our readers have of it?

TT: Is He In There?

June 15, 2017

JANE: Okay, Alan.  We’ve expanded our agreeing to disagree about whether readers should “see” a character as “being” the author.  I can’t say I’m persuaded to your point of view, but I will agree that sometimes authors deliberately put themselves in their books.

Did He Sell the Moon?

You said you had a Famous SF Author in mind who regularly put himself into his stories.  Who would that be?

ALAN: That would be Robert Heinlein, without whom there would be no such thing as science fiction as we know it today. He put a lot of his own personality, experience and beliefs into his fiction.  I’m quite sure that time after time you can catch glimpses of Heinlein himself peering out at you from the pages of his stories.

JANE: Ah…  But is this the readers’ opinion or the author’s opinion?

ALAN: It’s certainly not the author’s opinion. Heinlein was a very private individual who refused to engage in that kind of public speculation. I think he preferred to let the story speak for itself – and I certainly can’t criticise him for that. As far as I can tell, the most he ever said about his own work was in an introduction he wrote to Revolt in 2100: “They are just stories, meant to amuse, and written to buy groceries.”

JANE: Well, if he said that, then why do you feel so strongly otherwise?

Are there obvious clues?  A name and description, like Roger Zelazny provided in The Hand of Oberon or an “in-joke” such as Kingsley Amis’s provided with One Fat Englishman?

ALAN: Yes, there are a lot of clues. In 1968 Alexei Panshin published Heinlein in Dimension, a very detailed critical analysis of all Heinlein’s stories. In it he identifies someone he calls “the Heinlein Individual” who he defines as: “…a single personality that appears in three different stages and is repeated in every Heinlein book in one form or another.”

Here is how Panshin describes the Heinlein Individual:

The earliest stage is that of the competent  but naïve youngster. The hero of almost any Heinlein juvenile will serve as an example … The second stage is the competent man in full glory, the man who knows how things work. Examples of this are Zeb Jones of If This Goes On–, the secret agent narrator of The Puppet Masters, and Sergei Greenberg of The Star Beast. The last stage is the wise old man who not only know how things work, but why they work too. Jubal Harshaw of Stranger in a Strange Land is an example, and Baslim of Citizen of the Galaxy and Colonel Dubois of Starship Troopers. However these three stages as I have given them are simply the equivalents of frames cut from a movie film to serve as illustrations – the Heinlein Individual forms a continuum covering all points between youngster and wise old man.

Panshin goes on to defend this thesis in great and convincing detail.

JANE: So?  Actually, these are pretty classic tropes.  Even boring ones, to be honest.  Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys fit the first just as easily as any Heinlein youngster.  Just about every spy thriller, Western – heck, just about any action adventure tale – has the second. And the Wise Old Man has been around since the first myth where the hero seeks guidance.

By the way, before readers think I don’t like Heinlein’s work, I do.  We’ve discussed it in detail here and here.   I’d certainly consider myself a fan, rather than otherwise.

ALAN: Leaving aside, for the moment, the question of whether or not the Heinlein Individual is actually Robert Heinlein himself, we can at least be certain that the characteristics of the Heinlein Individual are very important to Heinlein the writer. Why else would he use the character in story after story after story? It’s also worth saying that the Heinlein Individual is often the only character who is completely defined and well-rounded in the story. Other characters tend to be thinly drawn, barely (if at all) described and sometimes little more than set piece caricatures.

JANE: How his using them because these sort of standard characters do exactly what Heinlein claimed he was doing: Buy the groceries. They don’t challenge expectations.  They provide comfort reads.  Someone is In Charge and will Save the Day, no matter how complicated the problem.

I’m going to need more convincing to see these as Heinlein.  In fact, right now, what I’m seeing are readers who need to identify Heinlein with his characters as a sort of security blanket that carries the fictional “comfort food” into reality.

ALAN: If that’s all there was to it, I’d be inclined to agree with you. But let’s swim out into deeper waters…

The Heinlein Individual is always very competent. Heinlein himself was supremely competent and egotistically convinced of his own competence. When he first sold a story to John Campbell at Astounding he told Campell that he would continue to submit stories to him but that, if Campbell ever rejected one of them, that would be the end of the relationship. Clearly Heinlein was firmly convinced that he was more than capable of writing stories that Campbell would want to publish.

JANE: This sounds cocky, not competent.

ALAN: It worked though…

When Heinlein decided that he wanted a rockery and water feature for his garden, he designed and built it himself with no outside help – and he claimed that carrying rocks around was a great way to lose weight!

JANE: Uh…  I’ve done that, up to and including carrying rocks.  Does that make me Heinlein?

ALAN: No – but it shows that you share some degree of competence with him in at least one area.

In his novel Space Cadet, the hero is given a problem in orbital mechanics to solve. One day, just for fun, I decided to tackle that problem. It turned out to be a lot harder than I’d anticipated (if I’d known how hard it would be, I probably wouldn’t have started it in the first place) but I got there in the end and discovered to my delight that the solution Heinlein presented in the book was correct. Clearly he had done the same calculation himself.

There’s no question about it – Heinlein was very competent in a lot of fields.

JANE: Or he had a friend who was…  You’d be amazed at the number of hard SF writers who use outside resources.  There’s no shame in that.  In fact, it’s good science – and great science fiction.  Honestly, any writer who doesn’t make sure something like that orbital mechanics problem is correct would be an idiot.

ALAN: It honestly hadn’t occurred to me that he might use a friend. Maybe that makes me naïve, but I just assumed that Heinlein did everything himself because his self-reliance seemed such a fundamental part of his personality.

JANE: I actually have personal experience of having an error in one of my published works – but let’s talk about that next time…

TT: Is That the Author?

June 1, 2017

ALAN: When we were talking about Cordwainer Smith, I remarked in passing that one of his characters was possibly a representation of Smith himself. That seemed to strike a chord with you and you disagreed strongly. So how about we take a closer look at the idea of writers appearing in their own stories? And perhaps as we examine the idea, we might pin down the reasons why you believe that it is less common than some people think.

Kel Untangles the Issue

JANE: I’m all for that.  However, I’d like to clarify what it is that makes me uncomfortable:  That’s when readers assume that a character is “really” the author.  Certainly some authors deliberately fictionalize themselves, but even the specifics of how that is handled are worthy of discussion.

Do you have any examples to start us off?

ALAN: As it happens, I do. Kingsley Amis is a writer I admire enormously. Amis was, shall we say, rather plump and he was also well known to enjoy extramarital affairs. Lots of them. Once when he and his wife were on holiday Amis fell asleep on the beach. His wife took her lipstick and wrote “One Fat Englishman – I fuck anything” on his back. Then she took a photo of what she’d done and sent it to everybody she knew. Amis was apparently much amused (and a little appalled).

His next novel was called One Fat Englishman and the viewpoint character was a serial fornicator. I find it really hard to avoid seeing the author as the protagonist of that novel!

JANE: Since I haven’t read One Fat Englishman, I’m a little crippled in my ability to respond.  However, I have read (and really loved) Amis’s Lucky Jim, so I’m with you on admiring his writing.

But let’s look at your contention that “the author” is the protagonist.  I’d be inclined to say that Amis used his own experiences and even tried to turn his wife’s indignation to his own advantage, but that’s as far as I’d go.

Why?  Because there’s a big difference between autobiography – which itself is fraught with issues as I’ve noted in one of my Wanderings – and fiction.  In fiction, the author is free to change events to fit the fictional model.  Therefore, before I’d say a character “is” the author, I’d want to read something (essay, comment in interview) saying “Yep.  That’s me.”

ALAN: You are correct when you say that “…Amis used his own experiences and even tried to turn his wife’s indignation to his own advantage” and in the absence of any further evidence that’s probably as far as anyone can legitimately go.

But I have information that you don’t have. I’ve read Amis’ delightfully gossipy autobiography Memoirs and I’ve read several reminiscences of him by other writers – notably Colin Wilson’s The Angry Years – and while I don’t think Amis ever specifically said that he was the protagonist of One Fat Englishman, the character and the man himself are so alike in thought, word and deed that trying to tell them apart becomes something of a futile exercise.

JANE: Ah… But then autobiography itself can be an exercise in fictionalizing the self.  That’s why reading an autobiography is not always preferable to a well-researched biography if you want to learn about someone.  However, I do find it interesting that the person recalled in other people’s reminiscences and Amis’s portrayal of himself seem to be in sync.

ALAN: I won’t ask you to take what I say completely on trust, so let me give you another opinion.

Ever since the Great Library Purge of 2014 I’ve slowly been re-buying old favourites as ebooks. My recently purchased ebook of One Fat Englishman has an introduction by David Lodge, himself a respected novelist and academic. If I may quote:

[The protagonist] is rude, arrogant, snobbish, lecherous, treacherous, greedy and totally selfish… His thoughts, and often his speech, are crammed with offensive observations about Jews, Negroes, women, homosexuals and Americans in general. He eats like a pig and drinks like a fish. He is quite conscious of these traits and habits, and perversely proud of them…

In 1963, knowing little about Kingsley Amis except through his writings, I was puzzled to know why he had taken such pains to create this vividly unpleasant character. In my memory, many other fans of his work were equally baffled and disappointed. But in the light of Amis’s subsequent literary development, and all the biographical information that has emerged since his death, One Fat Englishman seems a much more comprehensible and interesting novel – also funnier, in its black way – than I remembered. It now seems obvious that [the protagonist] was, in many respects, a devastating and prophetic self-portrait.

JANE: Ouch!  Talk about using one’s own writing as catharsis.  That’s amazing, and really very sad.

ALAN: There’s a very delicate, and hard to pin down, line in the sand here. I think we need to distinguish carefully between characters who are presented as experiencing aspects of the author’s life (because those aspects are important to the novel) and characters who are so close to the author that separating the two turns into rather pointless hairsplitting.

JANE: Elegantly put!  Last week, you commented that you felt that Lord Jestacost was, to some extent, Cordwainer Smith putting himself into his own book.  Maybe you could examine that contention within the parameters you’ve established in the statement above.

ALAN: I’ll try – Jestacost appears in several of Smith’s stories. As I recall he is generally benevolent (something that is not typical of the Lords of the Instrumentality). Jestacost is politically aware, not afraid to take sides, and very adept at maneuvering his political opponents. Paul Linebarger (aka Smith) was himself all of these things. He was a political and military advisor in China, Malaya and Korea and he (literally!) wrote the book on brainwashing: Psychological Warfare. Jestacost’s role in the Rediscovery of Man has many correspondences with Linebarger’s real life preoccupations.

I’m not completely sure on which side of the line that I drew in the sand Jestacost/Linebarger stands. Perhaps he straddles it. Smith didn’t write enough fiction for us to have any degree of certainty about the question. But there are parallels…

JANE: I see why you would want to say Jestacost “is” Linebarger.  I would place the line in the sand by saying that Linebarger used his own experiences to make Jestacost a believable and complex character.

“Write what you know,” after all, is something that would-be writers are often told.

One thing just came to me…  In a sense, Paul Linebarger always wrote at one remove from himself.  I believe all his work was published under pseudonyms.   So, even Cordwainer Smith can be considered a character…

ALAN: Good point! I hadn’t thought of that. Meanwhile it occurs to me that you are a writer and you know many other writers, so I have an obvious question to ask you. Perhaps we can investigate that next time?

TT: Downtrodden, Not Uplifted

May 25, 2017

JANE: So, last time we decided we were going to talk about Cordwainer Smith’s underpeople.  Why don’t you explain what these are?

Underpeople Tales

Alan: Ah! The underpeople! They are hugely important in Smith’s stories. As the name implies, they are second class citizens, not quite people. They are descended (or perhaps “manufactured” would be a better word) in some mysterious, and never explained, way from animal precursors.

JANE: “Manufactured” is definitely the correct term.  Precisely how the underpeople are created is one of the many ways that Cordwainer Smith breaks the rules.  Most SF writers would at least make hand-waving motions indicating science-in-action when talking about how these animal-human creatures were created.  Terms like “gene-splicing” or “activation of dormant genetic potentials” would be used, and we would meet scientists who create underpeople.

Instead, Smith just gives them to us, and isn’t even consistent in how they are described.  Some are more like animals, some nearly indistinguishable from humans.  What is important is that something in their animal nature makes them ideal for certain tasks.

ALAN: Quite so.  A very good example of this is B’dikkat, the underperson who is so important to the prisoners on the planet named Shayol.

Just as an aside, the names of the underpeople are all prefixed with a single letter that indicates their ancestry. The B’ in B’dikkat tells us that he is descended from bovine stock.

JANE: B’dikkat’s bovine qualities make him perfect for his rather horrible job.  I can’t say what that job is without providing too much of a spoiler for the story, but B’dikkat’s bovine instinct for the preservation of the herd plays a large role, as does his lack of an inclination to kill.  One of the major elements of the story’s climax could not occur if B’dikkat was not a cattle-derived underperson.  That Cordwainer Smith can make the reader believe in B’dikkat’s nature is part of his genius.

ALAN: The underpeople always maintain many of their animal characteristics, and it’s those attributes that make them so useful to the Lords of the Instrumentality in maintaining a society in which the majority of humans do very little useful.

Perhaps the most important underperson is the cat person C’mell.  She appears in several stories. C’mell is named after Linebarger’s favourite cat, Melanie. Like you and me, Cordwainer Smith was a cat person.

JANE: Indeed he was, “real” cats are crucial in an earlier story in his future history’s timeline: “The Game of Rat and Dragon.”

As to C’mell, “important” is a deceptive word.  She is definitely a key figure in several stories, including “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” “The Ballad of Lost C’mell,” and the novel Norstilia, but she would not consider herself important.  Importance belongs to D’Joan, whose tragic story is told in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” and to the mysterious and powerful E’telekeli, one of the central figures in Norstrilia.

ALAN: Nevertheless, C’mell has a pivotal role to play. She is a “girlygirl” at Earthport where she takes care of off-world visitors. I remember her as a high class call girl, but when I re-read the novel to prepare for this tangent I discovered that my memory had embroidered her role a bit – really she has more in common with a geisha.

C’mell has little choice in her role. None of the underpeople do, and they resent being cast as second class citizens. Here Smith is drawing clear parallels with the American civil rights movement. He sees such unrest leading to open revolt and so does Lord Jestacost of the Instrumentality.

Jestacost also appears in many of Smith’s stories.  (I am firmly of the opinion that Jestacost is actually Smith himself.) He seems an untypical Lord in that he is more open-minded than most, more aware of what is happening around him. He is not blind to the implications and consequences of the actions of the Instrumentality, and he works actively to manipulate events.

JANE: Ooh…  It’s always dangerous to equate a character and the author.  Moreover, it diminishes the story by making a vital character into nothing more than a mouthpiece for the author’s opinions.

Jestacost has a reason for being the way he is.  His birth is a direct reaction to the events in “The Dead Lady of Clown Town.”  His mother, Lady Goroke – herself a member of the  Instrumentality – says near the end of the story:

“I’m going to have a child, and I’m going back to Manhome to have it.  And I’m going to do the genetic coding myself.  I’m going to call him Jestocost.  That’s one of the Ancient Tongues, the Parsoskii one, for ‘cruelty,’ to remind him where he comes from and why.  And he, or his son, or his will bring justice back into the world and solve the puzzle of the underpeople.”

ALAN: I agree that it’s rather simplistic to equate a character with the author. Jestacost is much more than that, and your analysis of his personality is spot on. But I can’t help feeling that Smith is an aspect of Jestacost in the same way that Robert Heinlein is an aspect of Jubal Harshaw in Stranger in a Strange Land. There’s no one-to-one correspondence, but each is an influence on the other.

JANE: All characters – even the worst — are aspects of the author who creates them.  Both my writer-self and my Lit professor-self rebel against equating.  But I shall leave it there.

Go on…

ALAN: Is this one of those “agree to differ” moments? I think it is… Never mind. Onward!

Jestacost finds C’mell to be a useful go-between, linking the groundswell of revolution among the underpeople to the interests of the Instrumentality, hopefully to the advantage of both.

This is the Rediscovery of Man – after centuries of being lotus-eaters, humanity is reawakening to a life of uncertainty and possible peril. It is the beginning of the end of their sterile utopia.

JANE: To say more would be to provide a major spoiler for the end of Norstilia, so instead I think the time has come to leave the peculiar yet oddly coherent universe of Cordwainer Smith behind and sail for other stars.

TT: Shoemaker to the Stars

May 11, 2017

JANE: The other day I was trying to explain to a friend why I really loved Cordwainer Smith’s work.  I used words like “different,” “weird,” “off-beat,” “provocative,” but those are all sort of empty.  I’m frustrated because I’d like to be able to explain why periodically I go and re-read his stuff; why I was disproportionately flattered when I took an on-line quiz and the author I was compared to was Cordwainer Smith.  I know you like his work as well, and I was hoping that maybe you could help me.

Cordwainer Smith’s Short Stories

ALAN: I’ll try – but it’s not easy. When I lived in Wellington I belonged to a book discussion group where we recommended books to each other. One of the books I introduced to the group was Cordwainer Smith’s novel Norstrilia and rather to my surprise I found myself reduced to inarticulacy when I tried to describe it. Like you, I could only use empty words, concluding with “…the strangest story I’ve ever read.”

JANE: I was first introduced to Cordwainer Smith’s work by Roger Zelazny.  He used to mail me books – sometimes by the box load – by authors whose work he admired.  One of these was a collection of Corwainer Smith’s short stories.  He mentioned that “The Game of Rat and Dragon” was one of his favorite SF stories of all time, so I read that first, turned back to the first story “Scanners Live in Vain,” and was hooked for all time.

These days, especially with you having written a book review column for many years, it’s hard to imagine you rendered inarticulate by any author.  How old were you at that book group discussion?

ALAN: Quite old – it was only a couple of years ago! But I first came across Smith’s stories when I was in my teens. In some collection or other (probably one of Judith Merril’s Best SF of the Year anthologies – I was hunting them down obsessively at  the time) I found the short story “A Planet Named Shayol” and it made a huge impression on me, so much so that I returned to it time and time again.

JANE: Oh…  That’s a creepy story.  Let’s issue an official Spoiler Alert and talk about it!

ALAN: Mercer has been sentenced to the punishment planet Shayol for some unnamed crime. All that anyone knows about the planet is that the screams of the prisoners are broadcast across the Empire on the Emperor’s birthday. So he knows he is in for a terrible punishment…

Mercer is met on the planet’s surface by B’dikkat, an underperson whose ancestors were cows.

JANE: Let me interrupt you to clarify a point…  In Cordwainer Smith’s universe, “Underperson” means a person whose ancestors were genetically modified animals.  The details of how this was done is never gone into that I remember, but the underpeople and their relationship with normal humans is an important element in much of Cordwainer Smith’s work.

Okay… Go on.

ALAN: B’dikkat always wears armour to shield himself from the attentions of the dromozoa, minute insect-like beings that burrow agonizingly into flesh and cause extra organs to grow on the body.  But Mercer and the other prisoners have no such protection. Mercer comes across people with extra limbs, noses, eyes and even whole torsos attached to them. B’dikkat harvests these organs and they are shipped off planet to be used in transplant surgery.  In order to keep the prisoners relatively sane and healthy, B’dikkat injects them with super-condamine, the ultimate drug that makes the depredations of the dromozoa almost bearable.

Decades, even centuries pass slowly and nothing changes for the prisoners until one day the planet comes to the attention of the Lords of the Instrumentality. Then finally things change, but not necessarily for the better. Though that perhaps depends on your point of view…

JANE: Ah, the Lords of the Instrumentality.  That’s definitely something we need to come back to since this mysterious group is another of the key underpinnings that connect Cordwainer Smith’s stories.

ALAN: Yes indeed. When I came across them in this story I considered them to be a benevolent power for good. But after reading other stories in which they played a part, I changed my mind about their role.

There’s what I now think of as an obvious pun in the title of this story though when I first read it I was far too young to make the correspondence between “Sheol” and “Shayol”. Indeed I don’t think I’d even come across the word “Sheol” then. So some of the cleverness of Smith’s vision escaped me. But that didn’t matter – there was always so much else going on in the story. Who cared if you missed a layer or two?

I think it was that richness in the material that kept me coming back to it. There were always subtleties to explore and ambiguities that failed to resolve themselves. It was perfectly clear to me that this was just one small corner of a picture painted on a much larger canvas. The protagonists in the story (and presumably Smith himself) knew a lot more than they let on to the reader about what was going on in the universe at large. Things that they themselves took for granted obviously did not need explaining and so there were always unanswered questions, and that sneaking feeling in the back of my mind that maybe just one more reading would help clear it up…

JANE: I’ve had the same reaction!

ALAN: And then there was the style of the telling of the tale. I’d never met sentences like that before, or stories told in that way. I learned later that Paul Linebarger (Cordwainer Smith’s real name) had been an orientalist of renown and that his stories were often styled and structured in a manner derived from Chinese literature. Though later I discovered that “A Planet Named Shayol” had a comparatively straightforward narrative when compared to some of his other stories. But whatever the truth of it, this story grabbed hold of me and refused to let go. To this day, I absolutely love Smith’s work to bits.

JANE: Me, too.  I’d really enjoy chattering on more about it.  How about next week?

TT: Ominous and Amazing

May 4, 2017

JANE: Last week you made a very ominous statement about the weather in New Zealand.

ALAN: Yes indeed. We’ve discussed the weather in our respective countries before here and here and here, but lately we’ve had a few peculiarities here that make me want to revisit the topic…

A Sheepish Cloud

JANE: Please do.  You’ve been luring me to New Zealand with promises of chocolate.  Before I book a ticket, I’d better hear this.

ALAN: It all started with a period of unusually hot and dry weather. Even for the height of summer, this was noticeably hotter than normal. I’m not sure what the temperature was (I don’t have a thermometer), but it felt like it was in the mid-to high-thirties. I do have a temperature sensor in the roof as part of the air circulation system for the house, and that was reading 53 degrees at its hottest – but you expect that in a roof of course…

JANE: 53?  That sounds rather cool.  Wait.  You do Centigrade, don’t you?  Let me consult a converter.  That would make for 127.4.  Wow!  That’s really hot, even for New Mexico.  Of course, roofs tend to hold heat, but even so…  I bet this had a major impact on your yard.

ALAN: It did. All my grass died, so I didn’t have to mow it, which I thought was great! And the council imposed water restrictions so we couldn’t water the lawn or the garden, which I thought was even more wonderful! Robin complained about her shrivelled plants of course and she threatened to do clandestine sprinkling, but nothing came of that plan.

JANE: We have water restrictions here pretty routinely.  I get around them at least somewhat by collecting my kitchen grey water and using it for my perennials, reserving my “okay to water” days for my garden.

How long did this go on?

ALAN: It lasted for about a month and a half. Then we got a brief sprinkle of rain. The temperatures went back to a civilised 25 degrees or so and my grass grew crazily before my very eyes. When I mowed it, I collected a dozen catchers full of clippings (normally I only have four). That tells you how fast and how thick the grass grew!

JANE: Indeed.  Does Robin compost?  Grass clippings make for excellent compost.  We don’t have a lawn, but one of our neighbors has a small one, and he usually gives us his clippings.  We then give him produce.

ALAN: Yes, she does. We have two huge compost bins in the garden. I filled one of them to the brim with grass clippings and still had some left over. Robin was thrilled and assured me that they would compost down nicely and soon free up space in the bin for more.

But she never got the chance to collect more. The really, really hot, sunny days set in again. The temperature in the roof reached 58 degrees and I suspect the outside temperature was at least 40 degrees, but I’m going to pretend it was 42 degrees because that’s a much more significant number. It was also disgustingly humid, about 90%. Puddles of sweat dripped from my armpits and splashed on the ground. I squelched when I walked – not that I did much walking. I was far too busy perspiring.

JANE: Ah for the days of 90% humidity!  That was pretty typical when I was growing up in D.C.   Our house didn’t have air conditioning.  Do you and Robin?

ALAN: No, we don’t have air conditioning. We do have an air circulation system, but that’s all and it doesn’t help in weather like this. Indeed, sometimes I think it was hotter inside the house than it was outside! Mind you, we did get a pretty dramatic demonstration of just how hot it really was outside…

My dog Jake had a couple of old bones out in the back yard and the weather was so hot that it melted the marrow in them, and it trickled out of the end like manna from heaven. When Jake discovered that, he was ecstatic and he spent ages licking up the liquid marrow with a great big grin all over his hairy face.

JANE: Yuck!  Maybe I’m glad I don’t have a dog.  But hot weather in what is – for you – early autumn doesn’t sound that strange.  I have a feeling there must be more for you to issue a warning to potential tourists.

ALAN: Indeed there is. The very next day we got the tail end of cyclone Debbie which had been causing massive floods in Australia. The temperature plummeted again and the rain came down in torrents. Flooding, power cuts and landslips were reported from all over the country. Wellington, the capital city, got a months’ worth of rain in a single night and the airport was closed because of flooding. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.

JANE: Land slips?  Oh, you must mean “landslides.”  I guess yours must be more gentle than ours, since they only slip.

ALAN: They aren’t all that gentle – they tend to fall off the sides of cliffs and mountains and they block roads, knock down power poles and, on occasion, they undermine houses.

All in all, it was an amazing collection of contrasting weather in such a very short space of time.

JANE: Well, I’m glad you say “amazing,” because that means this wasn’t normal.  Maybe I can still consider coming to your side of the world one of these days!

TT: Food of the Gods

April 27, 2017

ALAN: In your novel Thirteen Orphans, we are introduced to Your Chocolatier, Albert Yu’s Chocolate Emporium. It is described so sensuously that the smell and the taste waft off the page. How much of that is wish fulfillment and how much of it is personal experience?

Chocolate Flower and Thirteen Orphans

JANE: If dreams are wish fulfillment, then that’s where Albert Yu’s shop has its origin.  One night I had a particularly vivid dream in which an elegant older lady was making her way through a very high-end shopping mall.  Her destination proved to be an exclusive chocolate store.  The dream was so vivid I could smell the aroma of cocoa, even taste the small square of chocolate – maybe one inch to a side – that the old lady ate.

That’s how I met Albert Yu and Pearl Bright – and developed a desire for a chocolate that exists only in dreams.  I’m glad I was at least able to translate the sensation into words!

ALAN: Wow! That’s a powerful dream. I wonder if Kage Baker ever dreamed like that? Her novels of The Company are a positive paean of praise for chocolate. She analyses its charms in great detail and it was in her novels that I first came across the word “theobromine” which, it turns out, is the active ingredient mainly responsible for the effect of chocolate on the human mind and body.

JANE:  Ah, see, that proves you’re not a chocoholic…  I’ve known that forever.  Here in Albuquerque, there’s even an expensive chocolate shop called Theobroma.

Do you know that “theobromine” means “food of the gods”?

ALAN: I’d not actually noticed that, but once you told me, my (very small) classical education kicked in and it made sense.

JANE: See?  Classical educations can be useful!

As names go, Theobromine is certainly an improvement over “xantheose,” the original name for this particular alkaloid.  I tried to look xantheose up on-line to see what it means, but the search engine kept redirecting me to theobromine.

Eventually, I went and checked several of my elderly print dictionaries, including the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s New Third International Dictionary.  I struck out there, too, except to learn that “xanth” is a common prefix in the names of derivatives and compounds.

(Gee, I wonder if Piers Anthony knew this?)

Anyhow, you’re a retired scientist.  Can you tell me what xantheose means – if it means anything?

ALAN: Yes I can, sort of. The -ose suffix indicates that the chemical is a sugar. You’ve probably heard of sucrose, glucose, fructose and the like, but it’s a large family of chemicals and many other sugars exist.

Xanth, as far as I can tell, comes from the Greek Xanthos meaning yellow, so xantheose is, presumably, a yellow sugar. I suspect the name might have been changed to theobromine because actually the chemical is an alkaloid rather than a sugar, though the distinction is blurred. Many alkaloids contain sugar groups in their structure…

Alkaloid names tend to have an -ine suffix attached to the plant name that the alkaloid is extracted from (strychnine, for example, is an alkaloid found in the nut of the tree Strychnos nux-vomica). Theobromine follows this naming convention (theobroma is the genus of the cacao plant) but is itself a very misleading name because the chemical does not actually contain any bromine at all – even though the element bromine is approximately the colour of chocolate.

All in all, the nomenclature of this compound is really rather a mess, whichever name you choose…

JANE: Rather like chocolate itself…  Seems appropriate somehow.

Y’know, in those same “hols,” you mentioned that you had just read Piers Anthony’s second autobiographical work How Precious Was That While.  From your comments about it, I gathered that you had read his other autobiographical work, Bio of an Ogre.  Does he ever say where he got the name “Xanth” for his Fantasy world?

Did it have anything to do with chemistry or the color yellow?

ALAN: There’s nothing about the derivation in How Precious Was That While. I can’t really comment about Bio of an Ogre because it’s been many years since I read it, and I no longer possess a copy – it was a casualty of the Great Library Purge of 2014…

But getting back to chocolate for a moment – about a 20-minute drive from where I live is Silky Oak Chocolate. They have a cafe and shop where you can buy handmade chocolates and they also have a Chocolate Museum which tells the story of 3000 years of chocolate history. They have a huge collection of chocolate paraphernalia, including a 2,500 year old Mayan Chocolate pot.

From the descriptions on their website, I suspect that their stock corresponds rather closely to Albert Yu’s stock. If you ever come here for a holiday, I promise to take you there.

JANE: (suspiciously) Just take me there or buy me a piece of chocolate?  The latter would be delightful, the other would be torture.  Wait!  Except that I’m a grown-up and can buy my own chocolate.  Really, there are wonderful advantages to being an adult.

Count me in…  Now to figure out how to manage a holiday in New Zealand.

ALAN: You’ll love it as long as the weather is on your side…

JANE: That sounds ominous.  What do you mean?

ALAN: I’ll tell you next time.

TT: Chocoholics Anonymous!

April 20, 2017

JANE: So, Alan, when I read your most recent “wot I red on my hols,” I noticed that you have recently had a birthday.

Breakfast?

ALAN: Yes – having birthdays is a bad habit I seem to have stumbled into. I get older every year, damnit!

JANE: No matter!  I’m going to wish you Happy Birthday anyhow, so there!

We once did a Tangent on birthday celebrations,

so I am sophisticated regarding the customs of your alien land.  Today I’d like to discuss something much more serious: chocolate.

In your “hols,” you stated that your birthday banquet concluded with an enormous chocolate cake.  You seem to have enjoyed it with great enthusiasm.  However, many times you have stated that you do not care for chocolate.

What I want to know is how anyone can say he is indifferent to chocolate.

ALAN: Habit, more than anything else, I think. When I was a child chocolate (and sweets in general) were still rationed – a hangover from the war. Even when they finally came off the ration, they were still comparatively expensive. So chocolate in particular was a rare luxury which I seldom, if ever, saw.

JANE: That’s actually fascinating.  Do you remember when rationing began to loosen up?

ALAN: I’m not sure when rationing finished – sometime in the early 1950s. I don’t really remember it, I was far too young. It was just one of those grown up things that I didn’t understand. But I do remember having my mum’s ration book as a toy to play with. Presumably that was after rationing was over…

I also remember eating what was probably my first ever piece of chocolate. It was made to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, so I would have eaten it in 1953 or so. I seem to recall quite enjoying it. Indeed, even today if I happen to eat a piece of chocolate I do enjoy it. But I have no great urge to seek it out and I can, quite literally, go for years without having any chocolate at all.

Indeed, I ate only one small slice of the birthday chocolate cake. Other people consumed the rest of it.

JANE: I tremble…  Although we didn’t have rationing, my parents were much more likely to supply us with fresh fruit rather than candy.  And, believe me, that wasn’t suffering.  I still remember summer-warm peaches, plums, and grapes, fresh from local farms.

Maybe because of that, even though I can – and usually do – eat chocolate on a daily basis, it still seems very special.

Other than Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I don’t really know much about English chocolate.  Tell me about something uniquely British.

ALAN: A common chocolate bar of my youth was Frys Five Boys. The bar was divided into five pieces, each of which had the face of a boy moulded into the chocolate. Each boy had a different expression on his face. A little bit of googling tells me that the five faces were Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation, and Realisation – these presumably being the steps along the way to obtaining and eating the chocolate.

JANE: That’s rather weird – especially Pacification – I really can’t see how that fits in at all.

We didn’t have candy bars with faces on them, at least that I remember.  My favorites as a child usually involved nuts or coconut, and these remain combinations I really like.  For a while, I tried Three Musketeers bars, because they were thicker than your average Hershey bar – even a Hershey with almonds – but they really were too sweet.

To this day, when Jim and I are given a box of mixed chocolates, I get the coconut pieces, he gets the creams and cordials, and we share the rest, although, in fairness, I get somewhat more of the nuts, because he’s usually still working his way through creams.

Do you prefer milk or dark chocolate?

ALAN: I’m not sure I really have a preference, since I eat it so rarely. But I think probably dark chocolate because I don’t have a very sweet tooth.

JANE: I definitely prefer dark chocolate, although I won’t turn down milk chocolate, if it’s of good quality.  Sadly, many of the standards of my childhood – like the basic Hershey’s kiss or Reeses peanut butter cup – are now made with such poor quality chocolate that you can feel the sugar grate against your teeth.  I usually avoid these.  If I’m going to have the calories, I’d like to enjoy them.

ALAN: Since you are so fond of chocolate, I’m sure you must have a store of chocolate anecdotes…

JANE: Many, but there’s one that seems especially appropriate here.  Some years ago, when I was invited to be Guest of Honor at a convention in Wisconsin, the Guest Liaison asked me if there was anything special I’d like put in my room.  She seemed disappointed when I told her my drinks of choice were water and coffee, and asked if there wasn’t a special treat I’d like.

I told her that I usually started my day with a bit of chocolate.  To my astonishment, when we arrived, she presented us with a very large tin filled with homemade chocolate truffles: her own handiwork.  They were very delicious.  I still have the tin and whenever I use it, I think with great warmth of Heidi Oliversen and her talent and kindness.

ALAN: Tins are wonderful things. Robin has an old chocolate tin sitting in the back of the pantry waiting for just the right thing to be put into it.

I think I must have a slightly naïve view of chocolate. To me, it’s always been something solid that I chew and I remember being very puzzled to read about people drinking it. Drinking chocolate? What’s that? Is it just a molten chocolate bar? Eventually I did actually come across proper drinking chocolate, but I don’t like it very much. It’s very bitter, unless you overload it with so much sugar and milk that the chocolate seems almost to be an afterthought; which rather destroys the point of it, I think.

JANE: Ah, yes…  Drinking bitter chocolate is an indigenous American tradition.  It is often mixed with spices like chile which gives it an added kick.  There was great excitement in the archeological community a few years ago when some vessels from Chaco Canyon were analyzed and chocolate residue was found.  There was much speculation as to whether it was in common use or reserved for special occasions.

The few times I’ve had drinking chocolate, I’ve found the caffeine boost almost too much.  For someone who routinely begins her day with a cup of black coffee and four chocolate covered almonds, that’s definitely saying something.

ALAN: I have a chocolate related question for you, but I suspect the answer might be complicated. How about I ask you next time?

TT: From Bokononism to Pastafarianism

April 13, 2017

JANE: We’ve been talking about religion in SF for several weeks now, tangenting off now and then into other topics as the mood takes us.

Cats Cradled

I will admit that until we had this discussion, I hadn’t realized just how much science fiction attempted to reconcile in one way or another religious or spiritual concepts and a future dominated by science.

ALAN: Yes – it’s been a bit of an eye-opener for me as well.

JANE: Courtesy of this discussion, some weeks ago I finally read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut.  This novel  may be one of the most ambitious attempts to address questions of religion in a science fictional setting, given that in the novel Vonnegut creates an entire religion, complete with founding prophet, texts, and rituals.

ALAN: And he does it all in a very thin book! Other writers could take lessons from him…

The religion is Bokononism. The foundation of the faith is that everything about it is a lie. However the lies that define the faith (known as foma) are themselves harmless untruths that, if believed in and adhered to, will give peace of mind and lead to the living of a good life.

Central to the novel is the idea of a karass – a group of people who are cosmically linked. I strongly suspect that you and I belong to the same karass.

JANE: I like that idea.  It would certainly explain a friendship that thrives despite our having met only once and living on opposite sides of the globe.

Let me check.  Yes!  The key element of a karass is that the people within it are organized into teams that “do God’s will without ever discovering what they are doing.”  In Cat’s Cradle the narrator believes that the instrument of his karass (its kan-kan) is the book he is writing.  I guess in our case the kan-kan is the Thursday Tangents.

ALAN:  Quite right. Without the Tangents, we couldn’t-couldn’t.

JANE: Ouch!  Please, go on while I recover from that horrible pun!

ALAN: Any karass will always have at least one theme that defines it. This theme is a wampeter. Sometimes what appears to be a karass will prove to have no wampeter. The links between the people are superficial. Such a false karass is a granfalloon. Members of a granfalloon soon split up and go their own separate ways. Vonnegut uses Hoosiers as an example of a granfalloon. Apparently Hoosiers are people who were born in Indiana. Have you any idea where the word Hoosier comes from?

JANE: Absolutely not!   However, I will go look it up.  Before I do though, I think it’s important to stress that Vonnegut implies that granfalloons, rather than wampeters, are what most people use to define themselves.  These may be political parties, racial identities, or the like – but no matter how important these groupings may seem to be, without a wampeter, they are empty of divine purpose.

Ah, now…  To define “Hoosier.”  Hmm… This is interesting.  According to Wikipedia, even Hooisers don’t know what a Hoosier is.  I shall quote:

“Hoosier is the official demonym for a resident of the U.S. state of Indiana. The origin of the term remains a matter of debate within the state, but “Hoosier” was in general use by the 1840s, having been popularized by Richmond resident John Finley’s 1833 poem ‘The Hoosier’s Nest’”

ALAN: Well, I’ll go to the foot of our stairs! (That’s Yorkshire for: Gosh, that’s surprisingly interesting). Vonnegut himself was born in Indiana and so I suppose that he is therefore perfectly qualified to assert that Hooisers are a granfalloon…

JANE: Absolutely!  As you already mentioned, one of the most interesting things about Bokononism is that, unlike most religions, which claim to provide Truth, Bokononism freely admits that all its tenants are lies.

ALAN: That’s right, in Bokononism, foma are the lies that the religious structure is built upon.

We actually have our own real life foma here in New Zealand. It is the “Federation of Maori Authorities” (FOMA) which is a network of Maori business organisations dedicated to the pursuit of indigenous economic development. Which leads me to believe that this FOMA does in fact constitute a karass whose wampeter is economic growth. But if it is a lie, as all foma are lies, is it harmless? I suspect not, because the goals are real… The whole thing makes for a nice, circular irony something which Vonnegut, that most ironic of writers, would certainly have enjoyed.

JANE: But surely such a group would be a granfalloon, since clearly the goal is not to do God’s Will but mans’!

ALAN: You’re right! Gosh, I never realised that theology was such a slippery subject. Could this be a schism? Is it a heresy?

Vonnegut was so attached to the ideas of Bokononism that he later published a collection of essays which he called Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons.

JANE: We could keep going on the subject of religion and SF.  For example, I realized that I hadn’t mentioned how religion – most particularly the theme of God the Tester – grows to be an important element in some of David Weber’s Honor Harrington novels.  At one convention, I even met a self-ordained minster of that church, who held a service on the Sunday morning.

I bet you have other examples as well.

ALAN: Indeed I do. In real life (TM) Pastafarianism, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, promotes a light-hearted, satirical view of religion. Satire, of course, requires a firm basis of truth to be effective. And as with many of the literary examples that we’ve looked at, there really are serious concerns lying behind the jokes. The doctrine has distinct parallels with Bokononism.

Several countries have officially recognised the church. Ministers (Ministeroni) have been ordained and wedding celebrants appointed. The first legally recognised Pastafarian wedding in the world took place in Akaroa, New Zealand in April 2016.

JANE: Wow!  I know you and Robin have been married longer than that, otherwise I might wonder…

Now, even with our various jaunts off topic, we’ve been very serious for several weeks now.  We’re going to need to find something completely frivolous for our next Tangent.

TT: Surreal, Absurd, Still Seriously Spiritual

April 6, 2017

ALAN: When I take my dog for a walk I tend to listen to audiobooks. Recently I’ve been listening to Robert Sheckley’s Dimension of Miracles (1968). It’s a surreal and absurdist comedy which tells of the adventures of Tom Carmody, a man from Earth who wins a prize in a galactic sweepstakes.  By a nice piece of serendipity, I found that there’s one section in the novel which fits quite neatly into our discussion.

Teatime of the Sole

Carmody’s prize takes him on a journey hither and yon throughout the galaxy. Among the many people that Carmody meets in his odyssey is a being described by the prize as “…the autochthonous Melichrone who is sui generis (in spades).” The prize goes on to remark that as a race Melichrone is ubiquitous, and as an autochthone he is inimitable.

When I got back from my walk I spent some time with a dictionary and came to the conclusion that Melichrone is both omniscient and omnipresent – for all practical purposes he is a god.

JANE: I’m glad you reached for the dictionary first.  Lapsed English Professor I may be, but I would have needed a dictionary for that phrase, too!  So, what happens when Carmody meets Melichrone?

ALAN: Carmody and Melichrone have a long, complex and very funny debate on the nature of godhood during which Melichrone admits to having transformed himself into entire races that he then encouraged to make war upon each other. He introduced both sex and art to them and divided himself into male and female components so that he could procreate, indulge in perversions and burn himself at the stake. It was a lot of fun.

But Melichrone made the mistake of listening to his priests debate his nature and became filled with doubt…

JANE: Ah, even divinity can’t deal with theology.  That’s true enough.

ALAN: Sheckley seems largely forgotten these days, but without Robert Sheckley I doubt if we’d ever have had Douglas Adams. Their writing style and their obsessions are very similar, though interestingly Adams claimed not to have read any Sheckley.

JANE: And, as a writer, I can believe Douglas Adams.  As I said a while back when we were discussing the Alien Invasion trope, at the time I wrote my Smoke and Mirrors, I had not read either Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters or Finney’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Writers do evolve ideas all on their own, no matter how much this may disappoint Literature professors, most of whom would like to trace all creativity back to a single source.

Maybe they think they’ll find God there…  Hmm…  I’m being influenced by all the theology we’ve been discussing.  Pray, go ahead and talk about Douglas Adams and religion.

ALAN: Adams described himself as a “radical atheist”.  So much so, in fact, that Richard Dawkins actually dedicated The God Delusion to Adams. But despite his own beliefs, religion continually fascinated Adams because of the way it influenced so much human behaviour. He found that supremely irrational and continually tried very hard to understand the contradiction. He pecked away at the idea in most of his books, but it is a central theme in the second of his Dirk Gently novels (The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul).

JANE: Oh!  At your recommendation, I read this.  Actually, I listened to it.  My library didn’t have a print copy, but it did have an audio version of a six episode radio drama, which I think was the original version of the story.

ALAN: No – the book dates from 1988. The radio drama didn’t happen until 2008.  There was also a rather disappointing TV series in 2010 and 2012.

JANE: Ah, my error.  My understanding, based on a Neil Gaiman introduction to one of Douglas Adams’ other books, is that Adams himself preferred writing for radio and other dramatic forms.  I believe (I don’t have the intro in front of me) that Gaiman refers to Adams as an “unhappy novelist.”

ALAN: I suspect that’s true. His first major success, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was originally a radio series. Eventually, over the course of several years, it was adapted for every other medium (it became a stage play, a novel, a TV series and a movie – not bad going, eh?). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Adams felt most comfortable when working in radio.

JANE: I just looked at Wikipedia and found a comment that seems to support the idea that Adams, while wildly creative, was not happy writing.  It’s so great, I must quote it here:

“Adams was never a prolific writer and usually had to be forced by others to do any writing. This included being locked in a hotel suite with his editor for three weeks to ensure that So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish was completed.”

But there I go, Tangenting off again.  Would you like to talk about the book?

ALAN: The book has a mad plot, not easily summarised. But it begins when the check-in desk at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal Two shoots up through the roof engulfed in a ball of orange flame. Clearly the old Norse gods are to blame. Who else would be waiting there killing time until the 15:37 flight to Oslo started to board?

JANE: Interesting.  The radio drama has a slightly different opening, beginning with Dirk Gently and his secretary.  She quits, because she’s not being paid and ends up working at the very airline desk where the fireball goes up.  Her fate becomes a key element in the story.

ALAN: The radio drama took a lot of liberties with the structure of the book. It straightened out the rather convoluted sequence of events and it introduced gadgets like mobile phones which barely existed when the book was written…

JANE: I actually wondered about the mobile phones…

ALAN: Anyway, whether it be in the book or in the radio drama, Adams comes to the conclusion that gods are created by people’s desire for them. Once a god has been worshipped by someone, that god will remain “alive” forever. It’s not a very original thought – I’ve come across it many times in many books and I’m sure that Adams had as well. But he brings his trademark wit to the idea and makes it both convincing and memorable.

JANE: I agree that Adams’ idea was not unique.  What was, however, was his idea of a holistic detective, which in itself can be looked upon as a religious or spiritual concept.  Dirk Gently runs his detective agency on the idea that, if one can find the holistic connection between various events, then one can solve any problem.  At first, it seems as if he’s merely running a scam but, by the novel’s end, it seems he may be on to something.

ALAN: And yet again, presumably by sheer coincidence, you can draw parallels between the practice of holistic detection and the Theory of Searches in Mindswap, another Robert Sheckley novel that Adams didn’t read.

JANE: Oh, boy.  Dirk Gently would definitely find this a holistic link.

Since we’re talking about influence, I wonder if Adams was influenced in his idea of a holistic detective by a very famous SF novel that includes a similar – although very differently employed – concept.  Because of my earlier tangent taking up so much space, we can’t discuss it now, but let me whisper the title in your ear.

What do you think?

ALAN: Sounds good to me! Let’s do it.