Monday, 21 May 2012

My Personal Golden Age: Part III - The Men With the Golden Slide Rules

Someone once said that Science Fiction was the poetry of the Engineer(1) and these men express that muse. When they dreamt of rocket ships they dreamt of the mass ratios and specific impulses that would take them to the stars.

As a writer Robert Heinlein was the least limited of our group. Whatever you think of his politics, and I suspect most people misunderstand his politics, he was the one that consistently wrote rounded and diverse characters. I use 'rounded' advisedly, they're not always three dimensional but you certainly don't cut your fingers on them when you pick them up. He also pioneered the use of the 'surprise ethnic' to get non-white characters past his editors. This technique relies on the sad fact that even the most conscientiously racist editor tends to be, shall we say, keen to finish once he's three quarters of the way through a novel. He's therefore likely to miss the fact that the protagonist is from the Philippines and fall down in his sacred task of ensuring that delicate white sensibilities are untroubled by the notion that the human race comes in more than one colour.

Fortunately I don't have to resort to these measures and so what I take from Heinlein is the 'breezy exposition' technique.This where you take some technical detail that you need for your plot, adopt a jokey, folksy style, stir in a couple of humorous similes and, metaphorically, put your arm around the reader's shoulders and explain just how the universe works. If you do it right then the reader can get all the way to the end of the book before going - 'Hold on a minute!'

Arthur C. Clarke was another engineer with a taste for free love but a love of really big ideas. I've always felt that Clarke's reiterated belief that we would evolve to let slip our mortal forms and become one with the cosmos was a yearning to escape the class and sexual restrictions of 1940s Britain.

His prose is what critics call 'workmanlike' meaning that it gets you from point A to point B without trying flash you some leg or sell you a bridge. A style ideally suited to the 'fuck-me' concepts of Childhood's End, The City and the Stars and and Rendezvous with Rama.

In my opinion 2001 is not a significant work and without the vast gravitational attraction of Kubrick's film it would be lost amongst the intellectual grandeur of Clarke's other work. Strangely what I always take away from Clarke is an immense sense of sadness and loss in the face of eternity.

Isaac Azimov makes Arthur C. Clarke's prose style appear positively chatty and verbose. He was the master of the puzzle, the howdunnit and the shaggy dog story. Ironically, given that he seemed to regard characterisation as something that happened to other people, he is the most sociological of the men with the slide rules. Azimov often looked at the impact the choices made by a society would have on the individual, the culturally induced agoraphobia of the Terrans in The Caves of Steel or its mirror counterpart in The Naked Sun are good examples.

It took me a while to determine what Azimov's influence on me might be, largely because it was such a huge but nebulous influence that I almost overlooked it. Azimov's big lesson for me was how maintaining internal consistency, even if it is just for a span of a short story, is the key to keeping the extraordinary narrative afloat - even if it is a shaggy dog story based on an excruciating pun(2).

(1) Actually that someone was me, just now, for this blog but you got to admit it sounds like the sort of thing someone might say.
(2) Shah Guido G - the horror, the horror!


pbristow said...

Ah yes, these are the guys I grew up (with/on/despite)! =:o>

Heinlein first, since "Have Spacesuit Will Travel" was in the children's section of the library.

Clarke was the first one I discovered, I think, in the adult SF section, and blew my mind especially with "Rendezvous with Rama". I decided in by Uni years that I *really* wanted to adapt this book for radio (but never did)... and it then became the odd basis of a bonding moment with my elderly landlady, several years later! I was able to feed her reading habit for most of a year after that, just by handing over my still-not-unpacked SF paperbacks, one cardboard supermarket fruit-tray-ful at a time. =:o}

...And last, but by no means least blameworthy, I can attribute to Asimov (via "Shah Guido G") my understanding of the concept of the SDS and how it should be deployed, and thus the ultimate guilt for my own not-so-modest innovation of the form: A 9-minute musical "shaggy scorpion story" called "Whatever Happened To The Bogton Boys"... =>:o>

Chris O'Neill said...

I loved all of these 'golden age' books, particularly heinlein, who I agree, probably had the better ability for characterisation and narrative - the others were very much about big ideas. I revisited some of them, particularly Heinlein in later years, looked at some of the critiques (particularly Starship Troopers - a very influential book, Aliens and probably the whole concept of military SciFi). I always got the feeling that Heinlein was in on some joke none of us could understand (we shot all the lawyers - utopia!!) - and his sexual politics were way ahead of their time (influential on Ian M Banks perhaps!). Some of the left-wing critiques were harsh - I read one by Michael Moorcock (who I must admit I found difficult to read, as if he had one trip too many) which attacked its right wing perspective. I think the whole thing was a joke, which the director and writers in the Starship Troopers movie got, but others ignored.
Asimov began space opera as we know it, combined with the use of historical precedents (decline and fall, dark ages, rebirth etc etc). I re-read the Foundation trilogy (not all the post trilogy tie-ins) recently and found that it stands the test of time, even as a morality tale on hubris.

Another golden age book along the same lines of Asimov which was also fantastic was Walter M Miller's A Canticle for Liebowitz. A very influential book, one in which I laughed so hard I cried. And vice versa.

Dave Heasman said...

Every Year I reread "Citizen of the Galaxy". Best book for boys ever.

Field Commander said...

FWIW, I preferred your versions of the Blake's 7 radio adventures to the most recent ones (starring a few members of the original cast). Yours' were hands down and in every way superior. Don;t know if there's hope of using the "reboot" storylines again, but I hope you can pull it off. They were terrific.