Archive for February 26th, 2013

Near! Far!

It’s a classic Sesame Street bit from 1975. Grover stands close to the camera and says, “this is near.” He runs away and bellows, “this is fa-a-a-a-ar.” He gets increasingly exasperated as he has to keep explaining in this way running back and forth. If you haven’t seen the bit…how the hell haven’t you seen the bit? Seriously. You’ve at least heard of it, right?

I bring up the bit as a way of contrasting the two books this month in the Great Hugo Read. Your copy of I Am Legend? That is near. Your copy of The Forever Machine? That is far.

I’m talking about the distance that the narrators holds himself from the story in each case. I Am Legend holds the camera very securely on Robert Neville’s shoulder through the entire novel, never leaving, never deviating. It’s the most limited of third person narratives. Only by slipping into first person could it be any more inside of Neville’s head. It’s perhaps telling that the story is of such narrow third person that, between my first listening in 2007 and rereading it this month I could swear I remembered the story in first person.

IAmLegend25028This is the right place for the story to sit. A limited third person is a powerful tool for horror, as it grounds the reader in the perspective of the character. A wider look provides too much clarity, imposing a logical distance. In the case of I Am Legend, a broader or even omnipotent third person would give too many looks at what the true motivations of the vampires are, and just who Ruth is and what she represents far earlier than the book can take. The hammer blow realization of the end of the book would be destroyed by anything but the tightest of third person views. While there are many successes withing I Am Legend, this choice of voice is the underlying current that feeds the story’s urgency and makes the ending what it is.

Thus far this month I’ve avoided talking about They’d Rather Be Right aka The Forever Machine (I’m going to use the latter title because it’s on the copy I read, and I like it better). One might guess it’s because I wasn’t nearly so over-the-moon about the book as I was with The Demolished Man, and one would be exactly right. As I mentioned several times leading into this book, no other novel even enters the discussion when asking which was the weakest Hugo winner. I was worried this knowledge would prejudice my reading of the book, but as I started I wasn’t sure what I was missing. Was I too enamored with any literature in my current reading splurge that I don’t recognize bad quality? It certainly wasn’t a pinnacle of English literature, but it was better than many books that I’ve read from the time period, thanks to my fascination with Ace Doubles.

The hell of The Forever Machine is that its a book of two halves. The first half is rather interesting, creates some decent characters (though the Ãœbermensch lead was a little much) and presents a nice bit of fictional science in the form of a machine that can repair the human body, even to the point of aging it backwards. The practical upshot: immortality. Fantastic! Then it’s time for the second half. Then it’s time for the novel to reveal just why it has the reputation it does. One of the members of the Great Hugo Read group over on Goodreads summed it up nicely in two posts. First, early in the reading:

I am 40 pages out of 190 or so in, and I don’t yet see why it receives so much negative criticism. Perhaps it is still too early for me to make a judgement.

Then, after finishing:

There was something far too amateur about the writing. i didn’t recognize it until I got farther along in the story.

I’m not sure amateur is quite the right word. I’d say “distant.” Much like Grover, the story gets farther and farther away. Unlike Grover, it was me getting increasingly exasperated with this. The scope broadens to the national, then international, reaction to the news that this immortality technology exists. It asks questions of who does and doesn’t deserve immortality, who is and isn’t ready for it, a point the authors focus on, even making it the subject of the climax. We still see the small band of inventors who the book followed at the beginning, but less and less. Their conversations are frequently summarized rather than played out through dialogue. Entire speeches are told about, not shown. Oh god, I, David Thurston of all people, am getting on a story for telling instead of showing. Do you see what this book has done to me‽ It even made me use an interrobang!

Theyd_rather_be_rightThe problem isn’t even taking a wide, even international, view of a story. I’ve read novels that have employed that to great effect. War with the Newts comes to mind. It’s another novel that starts with a main character then rapidly branches out to an international scope with only occasional dips into more personal stories. And does it to good effect. The difference being that Newts creates an international conflict whereas Forever Machine only creates an international philosophical dialogue.

To put it frankly, the entire second half of the book felt like a detailed outline for what should have been the latter two thirds of the book. It’s as though the writers wanted to show off this technology, itself based as much on philosophy and magical thinking as science, then talk about their ideas of who does and doesn’t deserve the chance to live forever. Philosophy in science fiction is fine. This isn’t a screed against philosophy in sci-fi at all, the genre has a long history of providing voice to such ideas and ideals. But that can’t be the end all and be all of a story. There has to be…a story in the story.

So there it is, the flaw in The Forever Machine. I cannot say it’s the weakest novel to win the Hugo, just because I’ve now read only six Hugo winners. I can say it’s the weakest of those six. It backs off from the story, where I Am Legend stays with it. The latter could very well have explored the vampire society being set up, gone through the debates about what to do with Neville. But it didn’t. Because that’s not its story. Its story is of one man alone in a changed world. The Forever Machine never entirely works out what its story is, which is unsatisfying.

Though it is an interesting way to start the Great Hugo Read. I feel like the first two books create brackets. Will I come across books I like more than The Demolished Man? Probably. Will I come across books I dislike more than The Forever Machine? Possibly. But I feel like I’ve now got some range of expectations. Now to see where Double Star falls in that spectrum.

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