“A novel: A long piece of prose with something wrong with it.” ~Neil Gaiman
It’s part five, and we’re in the Magic Theatre, in Nevada City.
“Okay,” I return.
“You mentioned earlier you didn’t select Wonder Woman or Supergirl for your top ten.”
“He didn’t?” CJ is sitting between us, turning from Sasquatch to look at me, expression skeptical. “Why didn’t you?”
“And why are we discussing this?”
“We’re trying to figure out Mc’s heroines.”
She looks at her spouse, then turns to me. “Well?”
CJ turns to Sasquatch. “Too perfect.”
Sasquatch: “There’s a problem, then.”
CJ and I look at him, waiting.
“Your girls seem too perfect.”
I nod, and sit back. “You’re only talking the surface things.”
“Being politically incorrect, are we?” CJ teases.
“One way of looking at it. I could always say, ‘Hey, this is my story.”
“You could. That would be impolite, of course.”
“Yup. Which is why I won’t.” I change the subject. “I’ve been looking forward to seeing this flick ever since you suggested it.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Sasquatch observes.
“I am, aren’t I?”
“That’s what it looks like from where I sit.” CJ offers me popcorn.
I munch. “Would you believe I don’t really give it much thought?”
“No.” CJ replies. “I wouldn’t. Sometimes you think too much, I think. You not thinking is unthinkable, actually.”
“You think?” We both laugh. “I don’t. Think, I mean. At least, not when I’m writing, not about much. The characters – the ‘girls’ – and the guys, of course – are who they are; they couldn’t be anyone else, so thought isn’t really necessary in that regard. They tend to tell me how it will be.”
“Which is right and proper,” CJ smiles. “Bad outcomes are associated with arguing with a woman. Ask Bob.”
Sasquatch rolls his eyes and I pause, thinking about the conversation. “Okay, this all started as something much different than what is has become.”
“Yes, I’ve heard,” CJ smiles. “A five page …”
“No, not that. Well, okay, but what it became, in retrospect, is really not much of a departure.”
Her expression is patient.
“It’s rumored I like women,” I offer. “Strong, self-assured women, particularly of the kick-you-know-what variety.”
“Yes. It has been remarked.”
“So the thing started. I started. Writing the story. One guy, one gal, one wild night. Sizzle.”
“Yup.” Bob munches absently on the popcorn, staring at the empty screen. “Sizzle.”
“I wrote a second story, same characters, with several more thrown in. Thing is, there’d been stuff percolating in my imagination for years before that.”
“Yes. No. Maybe. Kinda-sorta. I knew I was going somewhere, knew what that somewhere was and what would happen – sort of. What I didn’t have was a good idea as to how. Only touch-points, scenes I saw in my imagination, snapshots of moments of significance. I just had this story – these stories – and stuff was growing, percolating. And a lot of ideas and concepts started to flow. Not all at once. Things didn’t coalesce all at once, not even vaguely. But I had all these things out there: ideas, rough drafts, several chapters of something here, a few chapters of something there.”
“Okay …” CJ lets it hang.
“Third book changed everything. Dunno what it was, exactly. Each part of this was originally supposed to happen in a 24-hour stretch … and the stories do, mostly … but the third was different. More characters, more thoughts, ideas … and things started to suggest themselves … not earlier stuff, not exactly … I started touching on myth, things I’d picked up through time, in college, stuff that’d tickled my fancy, waking creative things up … and one night, smack in the middle of the narrative I sat down and began a chapter where a character was going to tell a story … and I had no idea what that story was going to be.
“Think about it a moment. Up to this point, the focus of the stories was informed by the tension between Sam, Sienna and Melanie. They were the through-line of the action, the story was invested in their story. And then Obsidian Raine tells his story and everything changes. Only I don’t realize – at this time – there is a change – I just keep telling the story.
“And maybe it really wasn’t a ‘change’, not when I first conceived it. It’s only later I start getting how Obsidian’s story has opened a door – the door, actually. It set the beginnings of the story’s underlying mythology. Suddenly all the earlier sketches and writings – all sort of began to orbit and gravitate to a universe where this weird construct that came to be known as The Worldship existed – started to shape themselves, work themselves into the ‘story’, building a history, a mythology.” I look at her. “Before Sam and Sienna and Melanie were ever written, I realized, I’d done a first draft of the first few chapters of the final age … and they became part of the final series because I made a conscious decision all these little sketches and drafts were events in a history I was looking for that would make this all much more than a romantic triangle.”
I pause, catch my breath. I note the woman sitting to my right is eyeing me suspiciously. “It’s a weird process,” I offer, smiling at her. Her return smile is tentative.
I think a moment.
“Maybe it’s what I imagined writing to be, basing what I thought to be its process on reading comics during the Silver Age, where you detected a seat-of-the-pants quality to the continuity of the growing universe of characters and their common history. You’d read a story and sense the writer and artist got together, trying to McGiver or McGuffin their way out of a jam they created for themselves and start incorporating references to other stories and fictional events, making them relevant and urgent to the story being told, changing elements of context. ‘We already have this great idea, so let’s add it to …’ Or someone really stinks up the joint, taking a book in a direction that is at odds with the continuity of what follows and you watch these guys develop story arcs that would correct the discrepancy, smooth out the wrinkles. Next thing you know, the world building becomes more complex, more sophisticated. Pretty soon it seems to be a self-perpetuating process.
“That’s sort of what happened with me, I think. I was filling in the blanks, fitting pieces into a jigsaw puzzle and seeing the big picture slowly revealed itself. Is still revealing itself, but now I’m at a place where I am very confident what the finished image looks like, and I am assembling the pieces with greater and greater surety.”
Next: The Adventure Continues
Sasquatch Bob holds my iPhone.
“It’s all here?”
“All my music – except classical and Christmas.”
“I can load them in. Same thing with TV shows and stuff.”
He contemplates, rolling the thing in his fingers, absently examining.
“Pretty soon everything you have, all your stuff …” He looks at me, holding up the small device that resembles nothing so much as the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. “… right here.”
“Pretty soon,” I agree.
“Then you go for a long drive and somewhere on the journey you take it and toss it out the window.”
“All you fuckers are going to die anyway, so you might as well write the truth.” *
So Sasquatch Bob and I were returning from an early morning constitutional in the Sierra foothills. We were discussing our favorite subject: Women …
“Heinlein’s fault, of course, exposing us to all those incredibly smart and self-sufficient women who were more intelligent and talented than the males they chose to attach themselves to. He ruined us.” His expression became thoughtful.
“In Stranger in a Strange Land, the section of the book after Gillian kidnaps Mike and takes him to Jubal Harshaw is probably the best part of the book for me, and perhaps his best sequence of writing in any of his books. This is where we get the real sense of Mike’s alien-ness, and where it lives in him, and how that alien perspective reacts to the new reality of his existence … and to the women who inhabit that reality, four incredible females of varying talent and abilities, smart, competent and opinionated.”
(And, yes, before we go any further, we are discussing characters using their first names, as one would speak of old friends, because in many ways, that’s just what they are: old friends.)
“Look at the juveniles,” Sasquatch continues. Heinlein wrote a number of what were termed ‘juvenile’ sci-fi novels in the 50s. “All were populated with strong females. There are three that particularly stand out: Tunnel in the Sky, Starman Jones, and Time for the Stars. Tunnel in the Sky featured memorable female characters. Two in particular, Caroline and Jacqueline, are as competent – often moreso – than their male counterparts.” He looks at me. “Caroline is definitely cut from the same cloth as a couple of your girls.” Sasquatch has read my drafts. “A real warrior, fierce and loyal. And Jacqueline has her own brand of kick-ass, just softer, a little more of a … thoughtful … brawler.”
I nod. This is not a point of contention, but a statement of fact: Heinlein permanently marked both of us in the sense he nurtured the perception that females are the stronger, dominant gender. Kidding aside, (if you actually think I’m kidding) there was this subversive and pervasive view of gender roles woven into the stories he told, one where women are rendered as equals, capable of rising to the occasion with a competence and ferocity that rivaled and surpassed their male peers.
No one individual was necessarily dominant amongst his characters. All had strengths and flaws. When he wrote in the first person, as in the case of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the narrator, technically the ‘hero’, reluctantly so, operates more as a participating witness to events than as an initiator of action. Everyone could – and would – be wrong, mistaken, surprised. Everyone contributed; male, female, young, old, everyone acted as part of a team.
Seriously, this was a powerful message, with the added benefit of being threaded into a well-told adventure. Powerful Juju for a young adolescent male.
Slight aside: The hero’s reluctance was another element that peppered Heinlein’s plotting, the desire of the protagonist(s) to stay out of trouble and mind one’s own business, guided by a general philosophy that often the worst outcomes result from the best of intentions – and have a way of getting your ass shot off in the process. Put another way, he understood the principle that ‘Good deeds do not go unpunished’.
“Greatest female characters?” I ask.
He looks at me, then swerves to avoid slower moving traffic. Bigfeet (Bigfoots?) have depth perception issues. At least, that’s what Stu says. No profit in arguing with one imaginary critter about another.
“Wyoming Knott at the top.”
“Yeah, no question.” Lots of strong fems in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, like Hazel Meade, the girl-child who would grow to be the matriarch of the Stone Clan. (See The Rolling Stones)(Not the group; the book.)
But Wyoming is head and shoulders above the rest, probably top three all-time, if not number one. Smart, driven, a valiant woman of honor.
“Now you’re talking his ‘crazy period’.”
I drop back a book. “Maureen Smith?” He nods, but doesn’t say anything. Maureen is difficult, as is Time Enough For Love, the book where she appears. While there are varying arguments about when Heinlein decided to make his females as sexually self-assured as his earlier fems were in all other aspects of competency, it is fairly obvious Time Enough For Love takes this self-assuredness to a new level in a variety of characters and situations. It doesn’t help that Maureen ends up opting for a roll in the hay with an immortal time-traveler from 2000 years in the future who also happens to be her son. And that is not the only neo-incestual relationship in the book
We pull up to the house. The conversation ends and we go inside to prepare for the day.
An hour later I send a message to Sasquatch at his Real Estate office.
“We forgot about Star.”
“Some of them.”
Glory Road is a light-hearted, sexy swashbuckler of a Sci-Fi Fantasy if ever there was one. A satire laced with irony. As a character, Star is tough, weak, beautiful, sensual, sophisticated, a genius, a clotheshorse, sexpot and spoiled brat who could – and would – brawl alongside the boys … and who also happened to be the Empress of Twenty Universes. HELL of a character and, like all Heinlein women, in control even when she didn’t appear to be, always one step ahead of her leading man.
There is one particular irony that really stands out at the end of Glory Road – the Hero gets the girl and discovers … she has a career! And while she loves him and cares deeply for him, two things are very clear: career comes first, and he isn’t necessary to her success … at least, not any more – his job was completed once he insured Star could retain her title. As written, she’s not being a bitch, and she’s not ‘miming’ male behavior. She’s a creature of choice and duty, not a stereotype informed by some myth of hormones and traditional gender roles acting against her best interests (riding off into the sunset with the Hero), but instead someone – someone female – acting as an individual with priorities that don’t necessarily include the Love Of Her Life.
Eventually the Hero gets a clue, accepts what can’t be changed, lets go and gets on with his life.
Neat role reversal.
As I said: powerful juju … heap big medicine. Maybe not from the perspective of 2011, but in a 1963 world, this was a pretty out there concept, even for science fiction that wasn’t trying to be heavy or epic, but fun.
* = Overheard at a writers’ conference.
Next: Urgent Supers.