Michel de Montaigne, back in the 16th century, was the first writer to call his short, informal pieces by the name ‘essai’. The French word means ‘trial’ or ‘attempt’; Montaigne’s essays represented no set body of knowledge, but his own attempts to work out his thoughts in writing. The pieces collected here are in the same rambling and experimental tradition. I sometimes use the French spelling ‘essai’, not because I am terribly pretentious, but to remind me of the original meaning of the word. Nothing posted here should be taken too seriously. —T. S.

The Memory Problem

As I mentioned the other day, during the holidays I passed some time leafing through a stash of ancient computer magazines found in my back room whilst mucking out. I still have nearly every issue of ROM Magazine (1977–78); not to be confused with ROM Magazine (1968–present), the official publication of the Royal Ontario Museum, or R.O.M. Magazine (1983–85), a Canadian zine for Atari hobbyists, nor possibly others. No, this ROM was subtitled ‘Computer Applications for Living’, and an ambitious little periodical it was. To distinguish it from the others, I am tempted to go into Monty Python mode, and call it ‘ROM which is called ROM’, but I shall cramp myself down and stick to the bare three letters. Microcomputers began to be heard of in about 1973, and the first commercially successful machine, the MITS Altair 8800, came to market about the end of 1974. By 1977, the earliest manufacturers (who mostly sold their machines in kit form) were being pushed aside by relatively large consumer electronics firms like Radio Shack and Commodore, and by an upstart called Apple, which you may have heard of. These early machines were flaky, quirky, and required rather a lot of technical knowledge to operate; and there was little in the way of commercial software, so you generally had to learn to program them yourself. In consequence, there was a voracious after-market for technical information and how-to stuff, much of it supplied, in those pre-Internet days, by magazines. There was BYTE, which covered the nuts and bolts of the new hardware for an audience mostly of engineers; and Dr. Dobb’s Journal, which covered the bits and bytes of software for an audience mostly of programmers; and Creative Computing, which covered whatever seemed most interesting at the moment (not a bad approach, that); and a raft of mostly short-lived zines dedicated to this platform or that. And then there was ROM, which was a platform for what have since been called technology evangelists. Its mission was to introduce these weird new toys to society at large, and explain how and why they were going to change the world in drastic and unforeseen ways. It failed on both counts; but not for want of trying, nor for lack of quality. For if you look at the bylines in the nine issues that were published, you will find yourself staring at a convention of first-rate geniuses. A sampling:  Bill Etra (now, alas, lately deceased) was a pioneer in computer video. Eben Ostby got involved with a man named Lasseter and a quirky little cartoon called ‘Luxo Jr.’, and became one of the founding fathers of Pixar. Lee Felsenstein is a hardware guru who has had a hand in inventing approximately everything; most particularly the VDM-1 display interface, the granddaddy of all graphics cards. Theodor H. ‘Ted’ Nelson is the inventor of hypertext; the World Wide Web is his red-headed stepchild, and he is not proud of the use it has made of his stolen DNA. Ted Nelson wrote a column for ROM, called ‘Missionary Position’: a mildly daring thing to do in 1977. In one of those columns, he addressed himself to the ‘Memory Problem’. The early microcomputer hobbyists had to work on machines with painfully tiny amounts of RAM – usually 4 or 8 kilobytes; 16K was a dream of sybaritic luxury. Of course they imagined that all their programming difficulties would be solved if only they had enough memory. Nelson, who had been working on mainframe computers for decades, rudely disabused them of this notion. As he put it, the Memory Problem is fundamentally like the Time Problem, and the Money, Sex, and Quiche Problems: there is never any such thing as enough. Memory, bandwidth, and processor speed, like time, money, bureaucracy, and labour (and possibly also sex and quiche), are subject to Parkinson’s Law. C. Northcote Parkinson originally observed, ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ In fact, work expands so as to consume all the available X, for almost any value of X. This knowledge is a vaccine against a wide range of disappointments in life; but there are always unvaccinated souls (in technical language, ‘suckers’) who are ready to be taken in. I skip forward a bit. A day or two after re-reading Ted Nelson’s polemic on the Memory Problem, I was looking at back numbers of Creative Computing from the early eighties. At that time, there was a fad for ‘text adventure’ games like Zork. The first of these, called simply Adventure, had been written for mainframe computers. It was seldom adapted for 8-bit microcomputers; the original code wouldn’t fit in their tiny memories. One digital Don Quixote, Robert A. Howell, tried to cram a full version of Adventure (in BASIC, no less) into an Atari 800 with 32K of RAM and no disk drive. He wrote a long, rather dryly amusing article about this attempt, which took him an entire summer; and Creative published it in their August 1981 issue. To do him credit, Howell almost succeeded. He had to shorten a lot of the descriptions, and leave out the ‘maze of twisty little passages, all alike’ that occupies considerable room in the original. But by a series of wildly ingenious tricks to save a few bytes here and a few bytes there, he constructed a working version of Adventure that would just squeeze into that 32K with about 50 bytes to spare. If you ran it more than once, it tended to crash the machine, because Atari BASIC did not always reclaim all the memory that it allocated for a program. If that happened, you had to wipe the memory and reload the program from cassette tape. Such hazards were part of daily life with 8-bit computers. For the hobbyists of 1977, 32K of memory represented wealth beyond the dreams of avarice; but Ted Nelson was right, it did not solve the Memory Problem. That same August, IBM introduced its original PC, blowing the lid off the 8-bit memory limit. The new 16-bit architecture could support a whopping 640K of RAM. That didn’t solve the Memory Problem either. Spreadsheet software was the new ‘killer app’ of the time, and thousands of people bought IBM PCs specifically so they could build bigger spreadsheets. Nowadays, nobody bats an eye at spreadsheets that take up tens or hundreds of megabytes; and those are small files, compared to some of the databases and media files that we work with today. Onward nevertheless— My first computer, back in 1980, had 16K of RAM, and at least one salesman (for a competing product which I did not buy) airily told me that was more memory than I would ever need. My current production machine has 16 gigabytes. And yet the Memory Problem persists. For while I was reading that ancient article of Howell’s, I was haunted by a more recent memory. It took me a little while to put my finger on it. But if you go to Amazon’s support pages for Kindle Direct Publishing, and still more if you Google for advice on publishing to KDP, you will find the Memory Problem snarling at you in all its fanged glory. The great advantage of KDP, from a writer’s point of view, is that it allows you to collect (and keep) 70 percent of the retail price of an ebook sold on Amazon: far more than the pittance that any traditional publisher will give you. (The tradeoff is that you may sell fewer books. But since most books are rejected by traditional publishers and sell no copies at all, even this disadvantage is largely illusory.) However, there is a catch. Once you select the 70 percent royalty option, Amazon deducts a tax from your share of the money – a downloading fee of a few cents per megabyte for each copy sold. Now, it does not cost Amazon a few cents to download a megabyte of data to a customer; or even a gigabyte. What the tax does is to discourage authors from wasting server space and bandwidth (and space on people’s Kindles) with unnecessarily large ebook files. A 100,000-word novel, saved as straight text with no fancy formatting and a single colour JPEG file for the cover art, occupies about 1 megabyte. If you add interior artwork, or embed your own choice of fonts, the size goes up. Some people have actually been such fools as to publish photographs of every page in a printed book, and call that an ebook. Not only does this spoil all the special advantages of the ebook format (try searching for text in a photograph!), it bloats the file to an indecent size – tens, possibly even hundreds of megabytes. This is one reason why art books are conspicuously absent from the KDP library. However, sometimes you do have to include interior illustrations – maps, diagrams, line drawings, what have you. And sometimes you have to do tricks with typography that the Kindle engine does not support; and there again you must resort to graphics. The megabytes quickly pile up, and your share of the retail price just as quickly goes down. So, in the interest of authors, readers, and Amazon’s own pocketbook, Amazon kindly supplies you with web pages telling how to compress those graphics, minimize the amount of detail required, and generally skimp on transmission costs. One byte of memory in 1981 cost rather more than a million bytes today; but I should say that authors and designers nowadays take more effort to save a megabyte than even Robert A. Howell took to save a byte in the old days. It makes sense. Howell was only saving memory on his own computer; we are saving bandwidth and storage space for all our readers, who may number in the thousands. Decades from now, someone may chance upon this little screed, and marvel that human beings would waste effort on something so trivial as saving a megabyte of download capacity for an ebook file. And he will turn back to his own work on holographic VR environments, or whatever is en vogue at that time, and try to figure out how to cram a quintillion bytes of data down a pokey little fibre-optic line with a bandwidth of a few measly quadrillions; and he may reflect that he, too, is still saddled with the Memory Problem, and heave a mournful sigh before he goes on. And if he pauses for a moment of silence, he may hear a strange dim sound in the distance – the sound of Ted Nelson, cackling with laughter in his grave.

The exotic and the familiar (Part 4)

Continued from Part 3. Before we examine the merits that made our three breakthrough fantasies break through, I hope you will permit me a Historical Digression: As luck or providence would have it, the other night I saw, for the first time, Tim Burton’s magnificently lurid production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. That tale has been around, in various forms, for nearly two hundred years; it is one of the hardy perennials of horror fiction – far older than Dracula, almost as old as Frankenstein, almost exactly contemporary with the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe. Mr. Todd first appeared in 1846, in a story called The String of Pearls, by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Priest – who, for that achievement alone, deserve to be ranked in the first class of Victorian novelists, but never are. For, alas, The String of Pearls was a penny dreadful. That is a term, or insult, that may need a bit of explanation for the benefit of the modern reader. Every so often, the business of literature is turned topsy-turvy by some new technological development, and the previously unchallenged assumptions of the Grand Old Men of the business are blown to atoms and scattered widely over the waste regions of the cosmos. At present, the electronic book, and the ingenious online retailing machine perfected by Mr. Bezos, are blowing up the assumption that books are physical objects and (as such) governed by the particular economic laws that obtain in conditions of limited supply. Electronic books are not in limited supply; electrons are far more abundant than readers, and even electronic computers are cheap and plentiful enough to stay ahead of any conceivable demand for books. The wise old publishers who built their business on controlling and restricting the limited supply of paper books, and the limited shelf space in the bookshops, are falling now like new hay before the scythe. Their whole training and temperament, which made them such able buccaneers under the old system, completely unfits them to survive in the new. They still have not seen what hit them; they are only just beginning to realize that they have been hit. Up to the middle of the nineteenth century, while printing was relatively cheap, paper was an expensive commodity. It was made mostly from waste linen, and consequently, the quantity of paper manufactured could never exceed the quantity of linen that was thrown away. (You could make paper directly from flax fibres; but it was much cheaper to let the linen industry use the flax first, and buy up the worn-out linen afterwards.) Men and women made a decent, if undignified, living as rag-pickers – the recyclers of their time. Ragpickers scavenged all kinds of useful stuff from the rubbish-heaps of the world, but their chief stock in trade was linen rags for the paper trade: hence the name of their profession. So long as the supply of paper was limited in this way, books remained a luxury; literacy for the masses, a pipe-dream. In the 1840s, separately but almost simultaneously, two men invented machines for turning wood into a fibrous pulp. One was a German, F. G. Keller; the other a Canadian, Charles Fenerty. This wood pulp, it turned out, could be used to make paper almost as good as linen-rag paper, and much cheaper. For a few years before this, a few small firms in London had been turning out cheap pamphlets containing lurid adventure stories for a mostly working-class audience. The new pulp paper allowed the pamphlets to be printed by the millions, and ‘pulp fiction’ was born. When The String of Pearls appeared, the usual thing was to release a novel in weekly instalments, and charge (in England) a penny for each issue. The stories were not chosen for highfalutin literary quality; they were written to please a large and not very sophisticated audience. The English upper classes ignored the new medium. The middle classes, who feared anything that might diminish their advantages over the working class, hated it and sneered at it, dismissing all stories so told as ‘dreadful’. This was a calumny. As Theodore Sturgeon would certainly have said, nine-tenths of the penny serials were crap; but then, nine-tenths of the expensive books favoured by the middle classes were crap. The real sin of the penny dreadfuls was not that they were bad stories, but that they brought printed books within the reach of the Lower Orders. Half a century later, a great moral crusade swept Britain like a new broom. The crusaders were filled with a high and holy desire to cleanse the culture of the (alleged) low morals and (admitted) sensationalism of the penny dreadfuls. The dreadfuls were blamed for every social evil from beer-drinking to Jack the Ripper. In much the same way, in the following century, heavy metal lyrics were blamed for juvenile delinquency and teen suicide. If this high and holy desire was mixed up with an even stronger desire to make a quick buck – well, that was a point that the crusaders liked people to overlook. In the 1890s, Alfred Harmsworth led the crusade to victory. He began by putting out clean, moral, sermonizing stories for a halfpenny; and when the public ignored these, he put out lurid and sensational stories for the same halfpenny, and made a fortune. As A. A. Milne put it, ‘Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.’ One of G. K. Chesterton’s early essays was ‘A Defence of Penny Dreadfuls’, in which he declared firmly: ‘Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.’ He went on to say, with a scorn worthy of Jonathan Swift:
But instead of basing all discussion of the problem upon the common-sense recognition of this fact – that the youth of the lower orders always has had and always must have formless and endless romantic reading of some kind, and then going on to make provision for its wholesomeness – we begin, generally speaking, by fantastic abuse of this reading as a whole and indignant surprise that the errand-boys under discussion do not read The Egoist and The Master Builder.
What working-class readers, especially young boys, wanted was vicarious adventure. They liked a good ripping yarn well told; but if they had to choose between a ripping yarn badly told and a dull, insipid story well told, they would take the ripping yarn every time. Young girls were more likely to go in for vicarious love-affairs. In Victorian times, both kinds of cheap fiction, the adventure stories and the love stories, were called ‘Romantic’; but by an accident of linguistic drift, the label of ‘romance’ is now applied to the second kind only. The penny dreadfuls were replaced as the dominant form of working-class fiction by the ‘halfpenny dreadfullers’. It was Harmsworth’s company, the Amalgamated Press, that published The Gem and The Magnet, in which most of Charles Hamilton’s school stories appeared. The paper shortage of the Second World War killed those papers, along with most of the dime pulp magazines that were their American counterparts. They in turn were replaced partly by paperback books, and partly by television; and the mass-market paperback, these last few years, has been largely replaced by electronic books. Each of these forms, in turn, has been subjected to the same withering scorn, accompanied by the same hysterical predictions of the Downfall of Western Civilization. The ‘cultured’ middle classes, it would appear, want a monopoly of culture; the thought that the poor might have a culture, and that it might be a different culture from that of the bourgeoisie, fills them with horror and alarm. At any rate, it produces horror and alarm among the media moguls and bohemian artists who mass-produce the stuff that is sold as bourgeois culture. The actual bourgeoisie, from what I know of them, do not much care, and take their fun wherever they please. They do not take very much of their fun by reading the stuff that the moguls and bohemians call ‘literary’. Literary Fiction is not literature; it is a publishing category, less profitable than most, but marketed with greater cynicism. The average publisher’s attitude towards Westerns or space operas or ‘nursy novels’ is roughly, ‘It’s trash, but it sells, and who am I to question that?’ But the same publisher’s attitude towards Literary Fiction is an interesting combination of fetish-worship and humbug. Until the latter part of the nineteenth century (it is hard to imagine it now) it was impossible to get a degree in English from any university in an English-speaking country. The proper job of a university was to teach the old-fashioned liberal arts, solidly rooted in the Classics – in Greek and Latin literature. The general opinion among academics was that the English language and English literature were not difficult enough to be taught at the university level. To give a degree in English to a native English-speaker was a foolish notion; you did not get a B.A. for learning things you were supposed to know already. Linguistics and philology, on the other hand, were considered highly suitable subjects for university study. Both those fields were fresh and fascinating then. It was only in 1786 that the philologist William Jones founded Indo-European linguistics with this shrewd observation:
The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family.
If it was proper to study Latin and Greek at university, why, it must also be proper to study Sanskrit, Gothic, and other ancient languages – Old and Middle English among them. There was a surge of interest in the history of languages; in how one language changed by degrees into another, or gave birth to many daughter languages, as Latin gave birth to the Romance tongues. And what better way to study those ancient languages than to read and interpret their literature, if any survived? So the degree program in English language was born. At Oxford, the most prestigious English-language university, that meant studying English and its literature up to the time of Chaucer – roughly the tail end of Middle English. But it was clear that the language and literature of later times were still of scholarly interest, and difficult enough (though this point was long disputed) to justify the award of an Oxford B.A. So the degree in English literature came into being: a sort of poor cousin at first, quickly growing into a bumptious nouveau riche. For the ‘English Lit’ curriculum proved hugely popular among students – partly because it was interesting to them, and partly, alas, because it was easier than fussing about with dusty old books like Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. The professors of the Classics department (and ‘English Lang’ as well) shook their old grey heads in disapproval; but the thing had been done and they could not well go back. But the professors of the new discipline keenly felt their lack of scholarly stature. If you could study Shakespeare at Oxford, why, you might study any kind of low trash – even penny dreadfuls! The new professors urgently needed some material to give their field cachet – to make it look as difficult, and therefore as important, as Latin, Greek, or Anglo-Saxon. This brings us down to about 1900: a time when the arts generally were in wild ferment. Painters were taking up Impressionism and Cubism; composers were flirting with atonality; the recent toy of photography, and the brand-new toy of the cinema, were claiming places as arts in their own right. Literature was no exception. East of the Atlantic, Henrik Ibsen broke with centuries of tradition by writing plays in prose, in at least an approximation of everyday language. To the west, William Dean Howells was spending fantastic sums of money to publish and promote stories about everyday life, from which every trace of wonder and adventure had carefully been expunged. These new literary movements ran together and acquired the name of Modernism. And Modernism, it turned out, was exactly what the English Lit professors wanted. The central message of Modernist fiction is that life is empty and the best thing a man can do is go and hang himself. This is an exaggeration, of course; but it fairly describes some of the most praised Modernist stories, and it exactly explains why most of the reading public found such literature revolting and rebelled against it. This, too, was to the professors’ liking. Modernism evidently was an acquired taste, shared only by the intellectual élite; and who better to help people acquire that taste than an English Lit professor? So with almost unseemly haste, the likes of Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf were recruited into the curriculum. Before this change, ‘Literature’ (with a capital L) meant the Great Books out of the past, the books that had endured and helped to form the permanent bedrock of Western culture. But James, Wharton, and Woolf had not endured yet; they had not been subjected to the test of time. So the professors had to change the meaning of the word. This they did by a subterfuge. Most ordinary people had neither the time nor the inclination to read the Classics. Most ordinary people positively loathed the ‘highbrow’ Modernist fiction. To include them both, the professors (and their untenured allies, the literary critics) redefined ‘Literature’ to mean ‘books that uneducated people don’t like’. Greek tragedy was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to learn Greek. Chaucer was an acquired taste, because it was difficult to understand Chaucer’s English. Woolf was an acquired taste, because – well, never mind why. Most people found her work pretentious, ponderous, and dull. The English Lit students found her delightful; or rather, they found it delightful that they could gain entree to the intellectual élite merely by skimming her books and dropping her name at the right sort of parties. A few years later, James Joyce wrote a book tailor-made for this new audience. Ulysses was deliberately written in an English as difficult as anything in Chaucer. The events of the story were deliberately made as dull and trivial as anything in Woolf. The classical allusions were as recondite as any Professor of Classics could wish for; and this, too, was deliberate. Moreover, the book was obscene in a rather joyless way, like Rabelais on downers; so it had to be published in France at first, and one had to have money and connections to get a copy into England or the U.S.A. To name-drop Ulysses (but not necessarily to have read it) became the infallible touchstone of membership in the cognoscenti. This set a pattern for the century-long swindle of Literary Fiction. If you write about dull characters doing dull things in dull ways, if you labour over your language until every sentence glitters like pyrite and pinchbeck, why, your work is not rubbish; it is merely too good for the plebeians who don’t understand it. If, in addition, you go to the Right Schools, know the Right Sort of People, and have (this is very important) the Right Opinions about politics and art, then you may be anointed as a Great Author; your publishers will brag about your greatness, and about their own astounding acumen in ‘discovering’ you, even before your first book is published. Your book will be labelled a ‘prestige book’, which means that your publisher has no intention of making a profit from it; it is an elaborate public relations exercise designed to give that money-grubbing worthy a shining reputation as a Patron of the Arts and a Bastion of Literary Culture. And the people who care about these things will always think about them with the Capital Letters in the Right Places. Modernism, meanwhile, went in another direction, not of the professors’ choosing. The next generation of Modernists, led by the gigantic figure of Hemingway, got out of the drawing-rooms and into the streets and the suburbs, cornfields and battlefields, boxing matches and bullfights: that is, they got as close to adventure as they could without breaking the rules of Modernism by actually making things up. They tossed aside the obscurely pretty language and worked in an elaborate pastiche of everyday speech. For a time, they achieved enormous commercial success; their tricks and techniques are still used in films and television and ‘mainstream’ fiction. Raymond Chandler became famous by writing detective stories that sounded like Hemingway instead of Agatha Christie. Robert A. Heinlein became famous by writing science fiction that sounded like Hemingway instead of H. G. Wells. Modernism conquered so completely that it ceased to be exclusive – and the professors moved on to other fashions. Chandler and Heinlein had to be sneered at: they were popular. You could not prove your intellectual superiority by teaching people to acquire tastes that they had already acquired for themselves. In time, the professors moved in on popular culture as they had moved in on popular literature, and largely in the same way. The avant-garde cinema of Bergman and Antonioni rejected story in favour of cinematography, bored the general public to tears, and so became the fashionable acquired taste of the 1960s, as Joyce had been in the 1920s. The ‘New Hollywood’ was in part an unsuccessful attempt to impose avant-garde tastes on the public. The ‘Death by Newbery’ school tried to do the same with children’s books. In each case, they merely succeeded in driving away a large part of their audience, which stayed away until a Lucas or a Rowling brought them home by giving them what they had actually wanted all along. By the 1980s, it was becoming extremely difficult to pretend that Literary Fiction and its cousin Art Film had any technical superiority over their hated commercial counterparts. In both fields, first-rate talent followed the money. The professors could rail against this and call it the prostitution of Art; but they could not stop it from happening. The shibboleths were beginning to break down; the humbug was wearing thin. There remained one avenue of escape. If you could not prove your superiority over the despised masses by a morbid obsession with technique, you could still prove it by a morbid obsession with morbidity itself. So Bret Easton Ellis, one of the anointed darlings of the ‘Literary’ crowd, wrote a critically acclaimed (and popularly ignored) novel about an ‘American Psycho’ who liked to do things like cut off women’s breasts and eat them. So Thomas Harris wrote about Hannibal Lecter, a brilliant and cultured intellectual who made gourmet meals out of human flesh. The chase had come full circle: the self-styled literati had retreated into the ground of the old penny dreadfuls, which their own ancestors had killed stone dead a hundred years before. Only this time the monsters themselves were the heroes. The great sin was not to kill people and eat them, but to judge those enlightened and liberated souls who had outgrown the primitive tribal taboos against murder and cannibalism. This movement, too, was quickly carried into the mainstream of the entertainment business by enthusiastic proselytizers. Some of them, I am afraid, genuinely believed that a man like Lecter was superior to a person with a functioning conscience or at least a sense of disgust. Most of them saw one more opportunity to make easy money off the old game (grown so much more difficult now) of shocking the old ladies in Brighton so that their grandchildren would spend money to see what the fuss was about. They had made it their life’s work to explore the cesspool, and now they were determined to drag popular culture into the muck with them. The moralizing crusaders of the Harmsworth type were gone – their place taken by a generation of immoralizing crusaders, just as convinced of their own utter rightness. Critics of this ghoulish persuasion were pleased to see Tim Burton make a big-budget film of Sweeney Todd. But in fact Mr. Todd and his partner in crime, though they commit the same sins as Hannibal Lecter, are not at all like him. For they are not portrayed as heroes, or even as misunderstood. For The String of Pearls, like the bulk of the penny dreadfuls, for all its ostentatious gore, was at bottom a moral tale; even a moralizing one. You can write moralizing stories in three different ways. There is the road of melodrama, in which the Hero triumphs over the Villain. There is the road of comedy, in which the Hero achieves a happy ending by his own good qualities, though there may be no Villain at all. And there is the road of tragedy, in which the Villain is punished for his sins – though he may appear, at first, to be a heroic figure, and it is generally better art if he does. Sweeney Todd is a tragic protagonist, like Oedipus or Macbeth; his story tells how he was tempted, fell into evil, and finally got what he deserved. This is true in the original, and in all the important adaptations of the story. It remains true in the Stephen Sondheim musical which Tim Burton used as the basis for his film. Burton’s Sweeney Todd is more elaborate than The String of Pearls, and as I believe, the added elements make it a more satisfying story. Todd is a barber who was sentenced to transportation for a crime he did not commit, because the magistrate, Judge Turpin, lusted after Todd’s wife Lucy. We see him returning to England under his assumed name, bitter at the world and hungry for revenge; with him is a young sailor, Anthony, neither bitter nor vengeful, but moved to pity by the story of Todd’s betrayal. The villains will follow one path, and the innocent people (not heroes as such) will follow another, so that the deeds of the latter form a counterpoint to the crimes of the former, and a moral commentary which stands at the heart of the tale. The villains: Todd returns to his old shop in London, upstairs from the shop where Mrs. Lovett sells ‘the worst pies in London’. Mrs. Lovett informs him that his beloved Lucy is dead by suicide, having been raped by Judge Turpin, and his daughter has been brought up as Turpin’s ward. Todd plots his revenge: he will go back into business, establish a reputation as the best barber in London, win Turpin as a customer – and cut his throat. The scheme miscarries; Turpin escapes. It is at this point that Todd becomes a definite villain. He decides to take his vengeance on the whole human race, slitting the throat of every man that he can lure into his barber’s chair. Downstairs, Mrs. Lovett will dispose of the bodies by making them into meat pies; and so they will make their fortune. In the climax, Todd murders Turpin, but finds out that Lucy survived – that she is the beggar woman whom he has just killed to protect his secrets. Mrs. Lovett was lying to him and using him all along. He flings Mrs. Lovett into the bakehouse furnace and kneels to cradle his dead wife in his arms. The innocents: Anthony sees Todd’s daughter, Johanna, looking out of her window at Turpin’s house and pining for freedom. He falls in love with her, but Turpin forbids him to see her. Anthony takes Todd into his confidence, and after various stratagems and schemes, he sets Johanna free. In the end, they both pass through the horrors of Todd and Turpin’s feud without becoming involved in either man’s crimes. We are left to assume that they marry and live happily ever after; but this is not actually shown. There is a third strain, of sins atoned and wickedness redeemed. Young Toby Ragg is a juvenile delinquent straight out of Oliver Twist, the shill for a mountebank who calls himself Adolfo Pirelli and sells a miracle hair tonic. Pirelli is actually Todd’s old apprentice, who knows too much about his past and tries to blackmail him – only to become fresh meat for Mrs. Lovett’s pies. Toby goes to work at the pie shop, never suspecting what horrors are going on in the bakehouse. When he does find out, Mrs. Lovett tries to kill him; he escapes by hiding in the sewers. At the end, it is Toby who plays the role of Nemesis, slitting Todd’s throat with his own razor as Todd holds dead Lucy in his arms; and we come out feeling that this killing, at least, is both just and merciful. At no time are we meant to approve of Todd’s vengefulness, though we never feel as if Turpin’s death would be any loss. When Todd begins to kill strangers, we see at once that he has crossed what is sometimes called the moral event horizon: he is now a villain pure and simple. The battle lines are drawn, and the rest of the story merely brings that battle to its necessary conclusion. Virtue is not exactly rewarded, but Anthony and Johanna at least escape; vice is amply punished. The only people who don’t get exactly what they deserve are the customers at Todd’s barbershop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop; and it is precisely for their crimes against them that Todd and Lovett must die.   While Sweeney Todd is a moral story, it is far from being a great story; perhaps not even a very good one. It relies too heavily on cheap sensationalism and obvious gross-outs. The evil is too theatrical to ring true. One would imagine that a barbershop where scores of customers walk in, and nobody ever comes out again, would draw unfavourable attention to itself even in Fleet Street. And a woman who makes ‘the worst pies in London’ out of ordinary butcher’s meat is not, I should think, the best candidate to make a profitable gourmet dish out of human flesh. In Sondheim’s musical and Burton’s film, these faults are cheerfully handwaved away; we come along for the grisly ride, as with any good B-grade horror movie, and leave our brains at the door (where they will doubtless be served up to the audience at the next show). It is a celebration of the mere dreadfulness of the penny dreadful. Still, Rymer and Priest’s tale survived and was retold for over a century before Sondheim wrote his musical; and that alone confers a distinction upon it that thousands of serious and skilful novels missed. Before I launched upon this digression, I asked what elements made the three breakthrough fantasies so much more popular, so much better attuned to the tastes and needs of the big public, than any of their rivals. I believe that the enduring success of Sweeney Todd, in spite of its obvious flaws, can give us the key to that riddle. Let us now see if the key fits; let us try and open the lock. Concluded in Part 5, which appears in Superversive: Recovering the Tao of Fantasy. Oh, the humanity!

The exotic and the familiar (Part 3)

Continued from Part 2. In the first half of the twentieth century, the ‘school story’ was one of the most popular genres of British pulp fiction. The giant of the field was Charles Hamilton, better known as ‘Frank Richards’ and ‘Martin Clifford’. Under these two names, he was the lead writer for The Gem and The Magnet, the two leading boys’ weekly magazines in Britain between the World Wars. (He also wrote for other markets under other names, including his own.) For more than thirty years, Hamilton published a 20,000-word story in each magazine every week without fail – more than two million words of fiction per year – until they were killed by the paper shortage of the Second World War. After the war he continued to write, with paperback books taking the place of the vanished pulps. By the time he died in 1961, he had written and published about 100 million words. Many other writers had a go at school stories. Thomas Hughes founded the genre with Tom Brown’s School Days in 1857, and attracted scores of imitators. Kipling was one of the first; P. G. Wodehouse made a name for himself in the genre before switching to light comedy; and there were, of course, many lesser lights. But the genre died with Hamilton, as it seemed, beyond resurrection. For these were always stories about English public schools: that is, fictional versions of Eton, Harrow, or Winchester, where the sons of the aristocracy were educated, and the sons of the mere plutocracy were sent to learn aristocratic manners. The stories were mostly read by middle- and even working-class boys, who went to state schools or relatively cheap private schools – boys for whom a public school was a fantasy of wealth and status and unlimited poshness. George Orwell lambasted the stories, calling them, among other things, ‘a perfectly deliberate incitement to wealth-fantasy’. In the atmosphere of postwar Britain, wealth-fantasy was out of style; poshness consisted largely in pretending not to be posh. The younger generation of the ruling class tended to be good Labourites and work themselves into paroxysms of sympathy for the ‘proles’. It was obvious to everyone that the public schools were an anomaly and an anachronism, destined to be swept away by the twin tides of Reform and Progress. Those tides have since ebbed, and the public schools still remain; but that is a story for another time. When Rowling cast back to the school stories of Hamilton and Wodehouse, or for that matter, Kipling’s Stalky & Co., she was reopening a mine that still contained vast riches; that had only been closed because those riches were temporarily out of fashion. For her British audience, the school story (however much neglected in recent years) was a familiar thing, and life in a boarding school was a familiar part of reality. Add the exotic element – this is a boarding school for wizards – and you have a recipe for a billion-dollar explosion. In America, things were different. Americans have never believed in the virtues of sending one’s young away for months at a time to get their education. The very term public school, in their dialect, means a state school; but in the heyday of the state schools, people from every walk of life and nearly every stratum of society sent their children there. To this day, when Americans tell stories about life at school, they most often write about that uniquely American institution, the Big Suburban High School. The closest U.S. equivalent to the ‘Frank Richards’ stories was found (and still is) in the pages of the Archie Comics. For the American audience, it was the boarding school that was exotic. The training of wizards, by the mid-1990s, was a perfectly familiar idea in the popular culture. It reached perhaps its fullest expression in the Young Wizards series by Diane Duane. The first book in that series, So You Want to Be a Wizard, came out in 1983: that is, only a few years after the boom of 1977 established fantasy as a profitable commercial category. It would not be quite right to say that Duane had many imitators, for the idea goes back at least to The Sword in the Stone. It is true that young Wart is not taught to become a wizard himself – he is being prepared to become Arthur Pendragon, High King of Britain – but he is trained by a wizard, using thoroughly wizardly techniques, so the flavour of the story is much the same. Those who wrote ‘young wizard’ stories did not copy Duane’s work so much as they drew upon the same sources she did. On both sides of the Atlantic, then, the same two elements made the story work, though the ‘familiar’ and the ‘exotic’ switched places en route. But there was, as I believe, a third element that helped to clear the space in which Harry Potter would have his explosive career.
The dog always dies. Go to the library and pick out a book with an award sticker and a dog on the cover. Trust me, that dog is going down.

— Gordon Korman, No More Dead Dogs

Two prestigious medals are given annually for the best children’s literature: the Newbery in the U.S.A., the Carnegie in the U.K. If you ask ‘Best according to whom?’, with the sinking suspicion that the word children will not appear anywhere in the answer, your suspicions are correct. It is not children who choose the award-winners, but librarians; and librarians, as a tribe, are not interested in entertaining children so much as Raising Their Consciousness and Forming Young Minds. Newbery and Carnegie winners tend on the whole to be dreary, mundane, and tediously ‘realistic’. TV Tropes discusses the matter with its characteristic snark:
There is a Slice of Life story about childhood and coming of age. The main character has a best friend (an animal, another child, or a family member) who is a source of joy, wisdom, and understanding in their life. This friend is often frailer, more unworldly, or otherwise more ‘special’ than The Protagonist. Bonus points if the character is cute or adorable. At the end of the story, this very special best friend is abruptly killed off, usually in a clear-cut case of Diabolus ex Machina. A favorite trick is to have the death happen entirely off-screen. The more horribly poignant, the better. All this is generally accompanied by lots of ‘end of the innocence’ angsting from the main character, along the lines of ‘That was the day my childhood ended…’ Really, it's just the author's way of having a child suddenly make the jump to adulthood via a single defining tragedy. The Newbery Medal is a prestigious award given to American novels written for children. To win one, it helps a lot to use a story like this. The British equivalent is the Carnegie Medal, which has a similar reputation.

—TV Tropes, ‘Death by Newbery Medal’

Occasionally, in the past, an interesting and exciting book would win the Newbery, but not because it was interesting or exciting. One such winner was The High King, the last book in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain. The Prydain books are a wonder and a delight, full of excitement and action, wisdom and folly, and a moral compass that acknowledges the mixture of good and evil in the human heart without ever confusing the one with the other. The first four books did not win the Newbery. The fifth did, I suspect, chiefly because of its excessively bitter ending. Evil is defeated in the end, but at a hideous price: about half the characters die, and most of the others depart from the world of mortals as all magic comes to an end for ever. This is the kind of stuff the Newbery jury likes, if it must have fantasy at all. Librarians carry great clout in the publishing of children’s books; for it is difficult to make a children’s (or ‘young adult’) book break even without substantial library sales. Some authors write depressing children’s books because they themselves are genuinely depressed, which is understandable. Some write them because the paying customers want them, whether actual children have any use for them or not: this is at least pardonable. Some write them because they are fools, and want the prestige of the award itself: this is a cardinal sin against storytelling (and children), for the real audience is entirely divorced from the ostensible audience. The ostensible audience, for the most part, turn up their noses at such stuff, go off to watch television or play video games, and grow up to be non-readers. Harry Potter rescued a generation of children from hating books; but it was almost denied the chance. All the major publishers rejected the first Potter book; it was bought by Bloomsbury, a comparatively small concern. Legend has it that the acquiring editor there had no idea what to make of the book, and broke all kinds of protocol by giving it to an actual child to read. In Canada, it was passed over by every major house, and brought out by a small distribution firm called Raincoast Books. In the U.S., all the ‘Big Six’ publishers and their various imprints ignored the book, and it was released by Scholastic. These smaller publishers grew fabulously rich on Harry Potter; and with their customary business acumen, the big publishers chased the train and got on board as soon as the journey was over. For twenty years now, they have been searching assiduously for ‘the next Harry Potter’, and always missing the mark. The trouble is that the particular combination of ideas that made Harry so interesting is no longer new; and imitation Rowling wears much less well than imitation Tolkien or even imitation Star Wars. And the audience is no longer under-served; Rowling herself saturated it, and an explosion of Potter fan fiction has kept the most obsessive readers well fed. But more to the point, perhaps, the publishers never escaped their ‘Death by Newbery’ obsessions; they could not bring themselves to buy happy books. The dose they prefer is the Y.A. dystopia, sometimes dressed up as science fiction, sometimes as fantasy. Instead of the magical mini-world of Hogwarts, they have gone in for dumbed-down versions of 1984. So they bought The Hunger Games, which is a well-crafted and emotionally sound story with a thoroughly foolish premise; and The Maze Runner, which is emotionally sound but not well-crafted, and forgets its premise entirely between the first and second books; and many another Kiddie Crapsack World, quickly reaching the point of saturation, and just as quickly descending into mind-numbing bathos as the dystopias (to preserve their emotional impact) become ever more ‘dys’. This seems to be an occupational hazard for jaded semi-literary people who live in Manhattan. New York City, as seen from the outside, is a bit of a dystopia itself; and those who live there seem utterly indifferent to the good things in life as it is lived west of the Hudson River.
Saul Steinberg’s ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’.

‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’, by Saul Steinberg.

In the Y.A. dystopias, there is a strong tendency to divide the world into The Big City and The Wasteland Outside; and sometimes the City is Wasteland itself. The world-building in these books looks as if it had been done by somebody who took Saul Steinberg’s New Yorker joke absolutely seriously. In The Hunger Games, there is only ‘The Capitol’ and ‘The Districts’ that make up the tyrannical state of Panem; no mention of anything beyond its borders. This attitude is inherited from earlier Manhattan-centric science fiction. It takes a particularly virulent form in The Syndic, by Cyril M. Kornbluth. That book pictures a future America ruled by organized crime syndicates, taking the paradoxical (and highly implausible) view that the Mob would do a far better job of running society than the present system of government. Canada has been simply absorbed by the gangsters, and is no longer distinct from the U.S. – a common enough trope in American SF. Europe is a decadent and exhausted shell, scarcely mentioned; and the rest of the world, when mentioned, is entirely unimportant – merely a place where faceless brown subhumans with neither culture nor technology wring a bare subsistence out of the rice paddies. This device allows the writer to narrow his scope, and pretend that his dystopia is the only place in the world – to exclude the possibility of external influence by mere fiat. But it is a stupid device, and the best dystopian writers don’t use it. The world of 1984 is ghastly and not entirely convincing, but at any rate it is the whole world; and though the story is set in Oceania, we are made to understand that life is no different in Eurasia or Eastasia. Likewise, Heinlein’s Friday gives us a whirlwind tour of some fairly representative countries outside the U.S., and shows that they are all falling at various rates into the same pit of decadence. Harry Potter, which of course is not dystopian at all, at least acknowledges the existence of the ‘Muggle’ world outside Hogwarts, and has a plausible reason for ignoring it most of the time. The stories are simply not about Muggles. ‘But it’s for children,’ say the defenders of the dystopias: as if children were too stupid to understand the concept of other countries, or as if it were good for them to be indoctrinated in an ideology that includes the tenet, ‘Only America is real.’ It is an excuse for lazy writing – an excuse for short-changing children and robbing them of better stories. This raises an important question. When we talk about ‘better stories’, what kind of stories do we mean? What elements do our three breakthrough fantasies have in common? If we can find those, it seems like a safe bet to look for them if we want to find a fourth. (Continued in Part 4….)

The exotic and the familiar (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1. Throughout the 1970s, the ‘New Hollywood’ had been establishing itself. Heroes and villains, Westerns and war movies, were out of fashion. The critics’ new darlings were men like Coppola and De Palma, who pointed their cameras at the mundane and the sordid. The good characters in the new films were ineffectual; the effectual characters, as a general thing, were unselfconsciously evil. This refusal to engage ethical reality was called ‘moral ambiguity’, and praised; the tight focus on a narrow and unrepresentative segment of modern city life was called ‘realism’, and praised more strongly still. So far as the film business was concerned, fantasy, like animation, was banished to the realm of children’s movies. Such things were considered beneath a grown-up audience, and Hollywood as a whole was trying to be very grown-up indeed. One or two cracked auteurs tried to make animated fantasies for adults, and succeeded in making cult films for stoners and adolescents. The leading director in this strange movement was Ralph Bakshi, a graduate of Terrytoons, the knacker’s yard of animation studios. Bakshi made his name with an adaptation of Fritz the Cat, which had all the ‘moral ambiguity’ and ‘realism’ of any good 1970s film, except that the characters (all properly cool and urban) were depicted as talking animals. In the spring of 1977, Bakshi released his own magnum opus: a strange little movie, part drug trip, part twee morality tale, about the resurgence of Evil Technology in a post-apocalyptic fairyland. The protagonist was a hairball in a pointy hat who smoked cigars with his toes; the love interest was a bimbo fairy with porn-star curves and protruding nipples. Several scenes are delivered in the form of chalk drawings with voiceover by a dreary hippie-chick narrator: Bakshi had not enough money to finish the animation. The second half of the movie is filled with nightmare images made by rotoscoping black shadows over old war movies and Nazi propaganda reels – another money-saving device. The film was called Wizards. It was hailed by the critics as an animated cartoon for grown-ups, and promptly bombed. Within a fortnight of its release, hundreds of cinemas were yanking it off their screens and searching desperately for a replacement that would fill their empty seats. Unlike fantasy, science fiction was considered hip and intellectual enough to fall within the purview of the New Hollywood – as long as it confined itself to dreary post-apocalyptic morality plays that required little in the way of special effects. The age of Harryhausen was over; monster movies had been banished to the Late Late Show. In the New Hollywood, science fiction meant Soylent Green and Logan’s Run, Zardoz and Rollerball. These movies tended to follow a reliable formula. Humanity, being evil and stupid, destroyed itself and ruined the earth; the few survivors lived in dreary dystopias full of unnecessary suffering, with enough joyless sex and mindless violence to hold the attention of a marginally profitable audience. Science fiction critics (this was the heyday of the ‘New Wave’) praised these films to the skies, as mainstream critics praised The Godfather or Midnight Cowboy. The movie-going public remained serenely indifferent. One of the dystopian films was THX-1138, by a very green young director named George Lucas. It was regarded as an interesting failure; Lucas himself, as a less talented version of his friend Coppola. He abandoned SF to make a nostalgic film about the car-mad California of his teenaged years: American Graffiti. It was not cool or trendy, ‘realistic’ or ‘ambiguous’ or even urban; therefore it was a massive hit. Lucas found himself with the money and clout to make anything he wanted; and what he really wanted was to make a film that combined nostalgia with science fiction. He wanted to remake Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon as a big-budget ‘A’ film with modern effects and modern production values; but he could not get the rights to those properties. So he did the next best thing: he plagiarized them, and borrowed a plot from Japan, and made an SF film that evoked the adventure serials of the thirties and forties. It was a remake of an original that never existed: a movie that created nostalgia for itself. That movie was Star Wars. It was the sleeper hit of 1977: the cuckoo egg laid in the nest so carefully prepared for Bakshi’s abortive triumph. In the movie business, it changed everything. That summer, those hundreds of cinemas that had given up on Wizards were showing Star Wars instead, and making more money than they had ever dreamed possible. You could say that the nostalgic appeal of Star Wars represents ‘the familiar’ in Aldiss’s formula, and the science-fiction elements ‘the exotic’. But you would need to define your terms carefully, because the elements of the story are not divisible in quite the way you would expect. We can begin with the Leitmotiv of the movie, the unforgettable line that begins the opening crawl – the line that announces, with perfect confidence, where this story is going to take us:
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….
This is a perfect opening line: balanced, poetic, paradoxical. It recreates the form of ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’, and does it in a way that adroitly advertises the subject-matter of the story. A long time ago: a classic fairy-tale opening, just sufficiently removed from ‘Once upon a time’ to seem fresh and exciting. In a galaxy far, far away: an opening from the pulp era of science fiction, from the gigantesque imagination of E. E. ‘Doc’ Smith or Edmond ‘World Wrecker’ Hamilton. Nostalgia for the myths of the past; nostalgia for a future that never was. Lucas himself has said that Star Wars is not science fiction at all, but ‘techno-fantasy’; and this is clearly announced in the very first frame of the film. Here again we have the strange reversal of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’. To a young viewer in 1977 (myself, for instance), it was science fiction that was the familiar element. We were brought up on Star Trek and 2001 and Planet of the Apes; we had seen the Apollo landings on TV, had played the first commercial video games, and some of us were beginning to play with the first home computers. Life was science fiction, and the future, far more than the present, seemed like our native country. The mainstream culture, for the time being, still belonged to jocks and businessmen; but we already knew that the geek would inherit the earth. For us, ‘the exotic’ was precisely the intrusion of fantasy into this technological wonderworld, naked and unabashed. Like us, the denizens of Star Wars lived in a world of (often frightening) technical marvels, but the permanent and transcendent things were once more intruding into their lives. The military men of the Empire were delighted with their new toy, the Death Star; but Darth Vader was not impressed. ‘Don’t be too proud of this technological terror you’ve constructed,’ he told them. ‘The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.’ The Force was exotic; the Force was otherworldly – was alien even to the creatures that inhabited this superficially alien world. We loved the Millennium Falcon at first sight, as we loved the souped-up deuce coupe in American Graffiti, and for the same reasons. It represented the familiarity of technology; the tameness of machines grown old. But the Force did not grow tame. If a man could use the Force for his purposes, so could the Force use the man; could turn him to light, like Obi-wan Kenobi, or darkness, like Darth Vader. And as Luke Skywalker proved in the climax, it could even offset the world-wrecking power of the Death Star. At bottom, I suppose, ‘the Force’ is a manifestation of the old adolescent wish for infinite power, in a democratized form. It seems odd to talk about infinite power as a democratic thing; but it is true to the emotional experience. A child wants to be the centre of the universe. An adolescent knows, or is beginning to know, that he is not that special; that the universe was not built around him. In the older style of fairy tales, it is the One True King who can remove the sword from the stone; the One True Prince who can break the enchantment and wake the princess with a kiss. The Force gives us a free ride to destiny. So far as we knew at the time, Luke was not anybody in particular; there was no hint that the Jedi were a super-powered hereditary élite. Luke was an Everyman, a Jack the Giant-Killer, and we could imagine the Force doing as much for us as it did for him. At the same time, in our fantasies, the Force did that only for us – certainly not for the dull grown-ups and mundanes around us. Han Solo was a dashing rogue and a wizard at keeping old spaceships in repair, but he would never learn to use the Force. That was reserved to the special ones – that is, to all the millions of us in the audience. But we never stopped to think what it would be like if every kid in the cinema had the powers of a Jedi Knight. We were never meant to. Since the day that Star Wars was released, dull-minded critics have complained about the badness of the science, the impossibility of the technology. All such complaints miss the mark. They would matter in science fiction; but Star Wars is not science fiction. It is fantasy that happens to include spaceships and robots. Because science fiction was a recognized category in the film business and fantasy was not, it was sold as science fiction; and it helped science fiction and fantasy become inextricably muddled in the collective mind of Hollywood. All this, of course, leaked back into the world of literature; or flooded in. Del Rey Books published Alan Dean Foster’s ghostwritten novelization of Star Wars, and his non-canonical sequel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (since consigned to the memory hole). They already held the rights to The Lord of the Rings, and published the Thomas Covenant books. They had, through no merit of their own, cornered the market on three big combinations of ‘the familiar’ and ‘the exotic’: the story about the good magic of nature and the evil magic of the super-weapon; the one about a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away; the one about the unbeliever and the leper. The third of these, so expressed, seems rather small and unsatisfactory alongside the other two; and it is true that Covenant has remained a specialized taste, not very accessible to the bulk of fantasy fans, not much imitated by other writers. But it showed that the formula could be commercially successful even without the shock-appeal of novelty. Big Fantasy did not have to be sui generis; it could be replicated. And it was replicated, to the point of ennui and beyond. All through the next decade and change, SF publishers cranked out trilogies and tetralogies and as-many-as-we-can-sell-ogies, all cashing in on the form, if not the formula, of The Lord of the Rings, and selling largely to the market that had devoured Star Wars. The process culminated in the early nineties, when Tor Books, with cynicism and malice aforethought, commissioned Robert Jordan to write a mash-up of all the ologies, a shameless recycling of Tolkien and Frank Herbert and whatever else he could lay hands upon – The Wheel of Time. That gigantic series sucked the oxygen out of the room, and there was less space for Big Fantasies thereafter; until the literary version of the ‘New Hollywood’ people retooled and began cranking out ‘gritty’ and ‘grimdark’ and nihilistic anti-fantasies. That fashion is with us still, but there are beginning to be signs that it has reached its sell-by date. By the middle of the 1990s, the fantasy field, thanks largely to the tunnel vision of publishers, was in a state of apparently hopeless stagnation. Then came a Scottish welfare mother, with a series of children’s books that stubbornly refused to confine themselves to an audience of children. (Continued in Part 3….)

The exotic and the familiar (Part 1)

I’ve heard Brian Aldiss talk about the same phenomenon. For him, a novel often requires two ideas. He describes them as a combination of ‘the familar’ and ‘the exotic’. He begins with ‘the familiar’ – usually something germane to his personal life, either thematically or experientially – but he can’t write about it until ‘the familiar’ is impacted by ‘the exotic’. In his case, ‘the exotic’ is usually a science fictional setting in which ‘the familiar’ can play itself out: ‘the exotic’ provides him with a stage on which he can dramatize ‘the familiar’. Rather like a binary poison – or a magic potion – two inert elements combine to produce something of frightening potency. The same dynamic works in reverse for me. I start with ‘the exotic’… but that idea declines to turn into a story until it is catalysed by ‘the familiar’. For example: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is squarely – and solely – founded on two ideas: unbelief and leprosy. The notion of writing a fantasy about an ‘unbeliever’, a man who rejects the whole concept of fantasy, first came to me near the end of 1969. But the germ was dormant: no matter how I laboured over it, I couldn’t make it grow. Until I realized, in May of 1972, that my ‘unbeliever’ should be a leper. As soon as those two ideas came together, my brain took fire.

—Stephen R. Donaldson, The Real Story

Three times in the last sixty-odd years, a work of fantasy has come along that redrew the whole map of the field; that banished the limits of the publishable, as then understood, as suddenly and thoroughly as Columbus banished the ‘ne plus ultra’ from the Pillars of Hercules. Lately I have been thinking hard about these works, seeing what they had in common with one another, and what set them apart from the other fantasies of their times, to see whether I could account for the magnitude of their success. All three of these breakthrough fantasies can be described in terms of Aldiss’s ‘exotic’ and ‘familiar’. Each, considered thematically, is a collision between two great, or at any rate large, ideas. And when I began to look at them in this light, I found a curious thing: which idea was ‘the exotic’ and which was ‘the familiar’ was not as obvious as it seemed. Indeed, the works themselves tended to familiarize the exotic and exoticize the familiar, so that those whose habits of mind were formed afterwards would never quite see the ideas as their first audiences saw them. Let me see if I can explain what I mean. First, in 1954–55, came The Lord of the Rings. At the heart of Tolkien’s magnum opus is a collision between two ideas as starkly opposed as life and death. Life, in this case, is the life of Middle-earth: a life deeply rooted in tradition and legend, close to the soil, based upon a deep and vivid understanding of nature in all its modes and moods. Death is the One Ring – the super-weapon with the power to destroy everything. To all the generations of man before the Industrial Revolution, Middle-earth would have been a familiar setting. The peculiar peoples, their customs and languages, would have seemed strange, but no stranger than the common run of travellers’ tales; and nothing like so strange as a world in which custom and tradition were openly sneered at, and millions of people hared off every day in the frantic pursuit of this year’s fashion and this year’s technology. A single weapon that could blast the whole world to ruin was something out of myth – religious eschatology or morbid fantasy. But in the aftermath of the two World Wars, the landscape of our own world was strangely reversed. People in the 1950s lived in grim daily knowledge of the super-weapon; and many of them lived in hive cities, far larger than anything known before the twentieth century, in which woods and open fields were exceptional sights, and the stars were largely banished from the night sky. And they had been carefully taught – propagandized is not too strong a term – that the ways of the past were dead and worthless, as irrelevant as last year’s motorcars or last year’s hemlines – that tradition was a dirty word. To such people, it was Middle-earth that was ‘the exotic’, the Ring of Power ‘the familiar’. The Lord of the Rings, which treated tree and leaf, seas and mountains, as normal, and the Ring as a deadly exception, was a specific remedy for the characteristic malaise of those times. Much has been said about the way Tolkien’s work inspired the New Left (with whom he had so little else in common) – the pacifist and environmentalist movements of the sixties. But the counterculture was merely the foam on the shores; the real sea-change occurred in the deep waters of Western society. Quite ordinary and conservative people began to think that mere technical progress was not automatically good. And while people of both sense and sensitivity had always known that nature was worth having, many of them awoke for the first time to the notion that nature needed saving: that the human race had conjured up forces capable of destroying vast and priceless things. Today, we have come some distance towards correcting the topsy-turvy world-view of 1954. More people than ever live in big cities, but most of them have at least an ignorant and sentimental regard for ‘the environment’. Wars have not ceased, but all nations, and most of the freelance extra-national combatants, have got it through their heads that some ways of fighting are simply out of bounds. The Ring and the H-bomb are once more becoming ‘exotic’, and the natural world ‘familiar’. Only a small part of this change, of course, was brought about by The Lord of the Rings, or by literature generally. But the change is real, and because of it, we can no longer quite appreciate how startling Frodo’s story was when it appeared, or why it seized so many hearts and minds with the force of revelation. Twenty-odd years passed: years in which modern and Modernist people assimilated the themes of Tolkien’s work without being contaminated by the work itself. The prophets of the new counter-industrialism – Rachel Carson, Bertrand Russell, Ralph Nader, among many others – were real; one could engage their ideas without risking anything as dangerous as imagination. One could accept nature and reject the H-bomb in a perfectly mundane way. Many people thought the Tolkien ‘fad’ had passed, that fantasy would once more be relegated to the ghetto of children’s literature, or (better yet) abolished altogether. A few quixotic publishers kept trying to make a buck out of the genre; they dimly supposed that there must be more than one way to make money out of this fantasy thing, whatever it was. In 1977, Lester del Rey published a group of highly successful books that proved it was so. Those books included The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, referred to above; but the second breakthrough fantasy came from a wholly unexpected source. (Continued in Part 2.…)  

‘Simplicity or style’

Over at The Passive Voice, Passive Guy has reposted a precious little peacock strut by a minor critic, entitled, ‘Simplicity or style: what makes a sentence a masterpiece?’ The author offers one sentence each from Pride and Prejudice, Emma, 1984, Neuromancer, and other works – as if it were the presence of that single sentence in each novel that assured its place in the literary canon. I found myself strongly moved to reply:
Ah, the Sentence Cult rears its ugly head. A novel is not made of sentences; it is made of scenes and récit, characters and plot elements – building blocks on the narrative level. The individual sentences are always replaceable – else it would be impossible to translate a novel into another language, or make it into a movie. Too often, the writer’s ‘masterpiece’ sentence marks a place where he ought to have followed the advice, ‘Murder your darlings.’ I can think of one notable exception. That is where the great sentence has special meaning and force inside the story. Perhaps it serves as a Leitmotiv; perhaps it is a bit of dialogue that the characters will recall later, and understand more of its import in light of later events. In any case, it must be possible for the reader to take it in stride. If you have to drop out of the story to pause and admire, the writer has manufactured an opportunity to lose you. All this, of course, is lost on the pinchbeck critic raised on ‘close reading’, which requires one not to experience the interior drama of the story, but instead to remain carefully on the surface. Such a reader is like the nearsighted tourist who spends his whole day looking at pebbles on the beach, and never even notices the ocean.

‘You’re No Good’

In stories, as I have said before, the substance – the events of the story – is the payload, and style is the rocket that delivers it to its target. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, in the other arts. More than fifty years ago, Clint Ballard Jr. created a payload that is still hitting targets today: a three-minute poison-pen letter in rhythm & blues form, called ‘You’re No Good’. It was recorded in a fairly pedestrian R & B style by Dee Dee Warwick, the younger and lesser-known sister of Dionne Warwick, and subsequently by Betty Everett, the Swinging Blue Jeans, and divers other artistes. But it was Linda Ronstadt who built the rocket that was truly fit to put it in orbit and rain its astringent soul upon the world. Ronstadt belonged firmly to the singer-songwriter tradition that was strongly en vogue in the 1970s, and her version is fuelled by, well, Linda Ronstadt. Her vocal performance delivers the raw emotion that the song demands, refined through the filter of her great musical skill and showmanship. Others before her had sung the song; Ronstadt sold it. But there is more than one way to build a rocket. Twenty years later, Aswad, a British reggae band heavily influenced by American soul music, recorded their own version of ‘You’re No Good’. I happened to hear it for the first time last night, and was struck by the unexpected power of the recording. The sound is as lush as a Turkish bordello; about fifteen layers of flavoured syrup poured over a base of crystallized honey. It ought to be unbearably cloying. But it is all done in the service of the song; the rocket is built precisely for its payload. Where Ronstadt gave us a show of emotional sincerity, Aswad’s vocalists deliver the words with authority and gravitas, with thick layers of musicianship to make the bitter pill palatable. When you hear Linda Ronstadt sing ‘You’re No Good’, you feel that you have been told off. When you hear Aswad, you have simply been told: not with bitterness or rancour, but with the finality of a magistrate passing sentence. That, at any rate, was my reaction. I encourage you to judge for yourself: But there is something rather odd in being told with magisterial finality that you are no good. It may be utterly sincere, but it is not true. This is a point that I should like to go into, for it is a matter of unexpected controversy. Chesterton would have us never say that something is not good; he would prefer that we say, for instance, ‘This is a good knife, but not good enough for the purpose at hand.’ There are objects in this world that are sold as knives, allegedly for use, but that will not cut any substance under the sun, including butter. I have been cursed with such objects at picnics; it takes about three ounces of force to bend them, and five to break them, and thereafter you have to eat with your fingers; and so I cannot quite agree with Chesterton’s categorical generosity. But perhaps Aquinas (whose philosophy G.K.C. was striving to follow) can help us over this difficulty. He would have said, no doubt with justice, that the horrid plastic thing I was given at the picnic may have had the form of a knife, but it had not the substance; it was no more a real knife than Madame Tussaud’s waxwork Queen Elizabeth is the real Queen. A real metal knife may be very dull, but it is at any rate good for something; and with this caveat, I think we can let Chesterton’s dictum stand. We have all seen plenty of this kind of ersatz: books that contain no information and tell no tale, records (supposedly of songs) that contain no singing and no music, public services that deliver no service and have open contempt for the public. Such things are sold to us (sometimes very expensively) as a kind of placeholder; often enough, we are told that if we want the actual function of the object, we have to pay extra. The thing actually sold is a formal equivalent, but not a functional equivalent, of the thing we think we are buying. But there is no merely formal equivalent to a human being. The most gullible customer can quickly spot the difference between Mme Tussaud’s Queen and the genuine article. He has never met the real Queen, but at least he has a vague general knowledge (derived, perhaps, from fairy tales) that real queens are apt to move about and talk. What Aquinas calls the substance of the Queen is not there. Substance in this connection does not mean matter; it is not (directly) a question of the organic molecules that a body is made of. The substance of a human being is what makes it human: what makes it capable of functioning as the thing that it is. There are certain things that a human being is good for; and the qualities that make one good for those things are the substance of humanness. When you say ‘good for those things’, you are at once admitting the general question of goodness, and answering it in the affirmative. Every living thing, as such, is good; life itself is a type of good. The mosquito may be very inconvenient to us, but it is a delicacy to the catfish; and indispensable to the mosquito. Every living creature is useful to itself; its purpose may be fair or foul, but whatever it is, if you take away the creature, the purpose is utterly defeated. It is often hard to see this with human beings, because a human is a very dangerous animal. If we were judged simply by the harm we might do, we would probably be against the law. Many persons wish to ban guns because they are sometimes used to kill people. The gun-owner responds to this by saying, ‘Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.’ And the more consistent kind of gun-controller is apt to reply, ‘Well, in that case, maybe we should ban people, too.’ The Human Extinction Movement is a real thing, and a real nuisance. It may seem odd that the people who wish to abolish humans should also wish to abolish guns, which could be so useful to them in their noble mission; but they are fastidious, and stick to their principles, and do not wish to have truck with anything that might be harmful. Their consistency does them credit – I think. Eventually they may become consistent enough to have the same kind of objections to plague germs and predators and politicians and pamphlets; but it seems unlikely at present. They have not got it in them to perceive the central paradox of existence. Every thing that exists, as such, is good; but every thing, just because it exists, can be used to do evil. I have yet to see the rise of a Movement to Abolish Everything; but I continue in good hope. The fact is, the only way to completely extinguish the good that there is in a man, is to extinguish the man himself. We talk of dehumanizing our enemies, and sometimes we accuse them of dehumanizing themselves; but really they are only dangerous – only capable of being our enemies – because they are so thoroughly human. This is true even of the worst specimens. A rather saintly German pastor, who had suffered terrible things at the hands of the Nazis, was once brought before Hitler himself. When asked what the Führer looked like, he said, ‘Like any man; that is, like Christ.’ He was capable of seeing the image of God even in his most dangerous enemy. He would not have said to Hitler, ‘You’re no good’; he would have been more likely to say, ‘You have a great capacity for good; why don’t you use it?’ It probably would not have averted the war or the Holocaust, because Hitler was convinced that these things actually were good; but it would at any rate have left the door open for a miracle. Years later, another visitor came away with a hauntingly human image of Hitler. Siegfried Knappe, a young Wehrmacht officer (he was twenty-eight when the war ended) who was briefly the youngest divisional commander in German history, was in Berlin during the final agony of 1945. His superiors sent him to Hitler’s bunker to deliver some bad news, fearing (with justification) that he would do drastic things to them if they delivered it personally. Knappe, who had briefly met Hitler once before the war, was moved to pity and horror by what he saw. The great dictator’s hair had turned white, and his teeth were falling out; he shook with an uncontrollable palsy, and could hardly use his hands. He was a man visibly falling to pieces. As Knappe said, he had been the symbol of Germany; and now he was the symbol of what Germany had become – a thing reduced to ruin by its own uncontrolled rage against the world. Knappe (so he says) thought of shooting Hitler and ending the nation’s agony, but somehow he could not bring himself to do it. It was not merely that he feared punishment, though the SS guards would certainly have caught him and executed him. Hitler’s humanity, though poisoned and ravaged, was still there, and still capable of eliciting a response. Knappe felt sorry for him. That faculty of pity, however, was one thing Hitler had expunged from himself. For decades he had disciplined himself, in the name of the ‘Higher Morality’ of Nazism, to deny every moral or humanitarian impulse; to make himself hard and lethal, like a knife. The plastic thing at the picnic table is a contemptible knife, because it is soft and flexible, and easy to break. People are not contemptible because they are flexible, or even (necessarily) because they are soft; we do not expect them to be made of stainless steel. But Hitler judged people as if they were knives. One weapon after another broke in his fanatic grip; and the last one to break was himself. When it did, he showed no more pity for himself than for any of his other victims. A few days after Knappe’s visit, Hitler dehumanized himself in the only way the thing can really be done. He shot himself in the brain, and for good measure, bit down on a vial of prussic acid as he pulled the trigger. From that moment he was no longer functionally human, even in a partial and damaged sense. He did retain a merely formal resemblance to a human being, like a figure at Madame Tussauds. Even that was lost a few hours later, when his SS bodyguards poured petrol over him and reduced him to bone and ashes. It was only on that day that he truly began to be no good.

Quality vs quality (A teaser)

A new essai written especially for my new collection, Style is the Rocket.
In a certain town that you have never heard of, though you may have lived there all your life, two restaurants face each other across a busy street. Both pride themselves upon the quality of their cookery; but if you read the menus posted beside their respective doors, and the little blurb at the head of each, you may come away with the idea that they are not using the word quality in precisely the same way. The restaurant on the north side of the street has a bare white exterior and a bare white signboard, very chic in a thoroughly minimalist way; and on the signboard you will find this notice:

HOUSE OF MINUS A Quality Restaurant

Minus Sugar Minus Fat Minus Sodium Minus Cholesterol Minus Gluten Minus MSG Minus Additives Minus Preservatives Minus Pesticides Minus Impurities of Any Kind

The same bare white aesthetic is continued inside, with bare white tables and hard white chairs; and it is rather emphasized by the fact that most of the tables are empty. There are a couple of health-food cranks in one corner, and a lonely old man with digestive trouble sits near the kitchen door. In the middle of the room, a party of avant-garde restaurant critics are talking loudly, praising the wonderful geometric arrangement of the food on their plates, but not actually eating any of it. They can perhaps be excused for this omission. For in truth, the food at the House of Minus is rather unappealing. The only thing on the menu is a special kind of digestive biscuit, manufactured on the premises, and carefully designed to contain nothing that could injure anybody’s health or offend anybody’s palate. The recipe was dictated by the owner, a self-made man who piled up millions in another line of work, and has convinced himself that sickness and death would depart from the world if only everybody could be made to live on an exclusive diet of these biscuits. Needless to say, he himself never eats there. On the south side of the street is a bizarre building, as rococo as a wedding-cake, painted in all the colours of a fluorescent nightmare. If you shade your eyes carefully, you will be able to read the sign:

POSITIVE DELIGHTS A Quality Dining Experience

Fusion Cuisine From Anywhere and Everywhere! Thrill Your Taste Buds! Astonish Your Friends! Every Meal an Original Creation!

This, at any rate, sounds more promising than the Spartan fare across the street; but something seems not quite right, though Positive Delights is considerably busier than the House of Minus. Some of the customers are university students, visiting the place on drunken dares; some are tourists, steered this way by leg-pulling locals. A lot of people eat here once; but the place gets hardly any repeat business, for the delights, sad to say, are booby-trapped. The cooking is skilful enough, for those of adventurous tastes. The chef has a way of combining the most unlikely ingredients and somehow making it work: it is the only place in the town, or perhaps any other town, where you can get barbecued sardines with a side of chocolate-coated garlic. And there are no words sufficient to describe the ice cream vindaloo. But there is some question about the ingredients that he uses. Customers have a disturbing tendency to develop food poisoning, or go into anaphylactic shock. The meat dishes are rather suspicious. Small domestic animals go missing in the neighbourhood, and several customers have found dog-licences or bits of collar cooked into their dinners. It is a red-letter day when someone gets a salad that hasn’t got insects in it. Nobody quite knows how the restaurant avoids the wrath of the local health inspector, but somehow it has stayed in business for several years. Now, the really odd thing about these two establishments is that they actually exist. I have altered the truth in just one detail. The ‘House of Minus’ and ‘Positive Delights’ are not actually restaurants: they are writers.
Read the rest in Style is the Rocket. Now available!

‘April Fools’

M*A*S*H: A writer’s view. #14 in the series.
M*A*S*H, as I have mentioned before, reached a grand climacteric in 1979. Before that, while the series gradually changed in tone, becoming more dramatic and less consistently funny, it remained substantially the same show that Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds had created. Actors left the cast, but new characters were invented to replace them; writers left the show’s stable, but new talent was recruited. The newer writers were not in the same league as Gelbart, Laurence Marks, or Greenbaum and Fritzell; but they were quite good enough to ensure the smooth running of the machine that those more gifted hands had built. After 1979, the show stopped developing altogether. That was the year that Gary Burghoff left, the last regular cast member to do so. Many fans of M*A*S*H felt his loss keenly, and it is true that the show was never the same afterwards. But in fact the character of Radar had been slowly diminishing in importance for years. As I mentioned before, Burghoff had special dispensation (written into his contract renewal) to skip ten of the show’s twenty-four episodes each season; and for the most part, his absences were so deftly handled that one simply doesn’t notice when he fails to appear. The real break with the past happened offscreen. Each year before that, there had been a certain amount of turnover in the writing staff, but never enough to seriously jeopardize the continuity of tone and character development. From seasons 2 through 7, on average, about a quarter of the writing credits went to writers who had not worked on M*A*S*H before. Then Ken Levine and David Isaacs left the show, feeling that they had said everything that they could think of to say in that medium. The show was becoming stale and repetitive, and they did not want to linger on, treading the same rut again and again. Most of the writers left along with them, or (what amounts to the same thing) were not hired by the new editing team. Eleven new writers got their first M*A*S*H writing credits in the 1979–80 season, and among them they accounted for 78 percent of the credits that year. If you leave out the two-part ‘Goodbye, Radar’, written by Levine and Isaacs before their departure, the percentage rises to 81. So far as the writing goes, it was very nearly a whole new show. Where the old M*A*S*H was a screwball comedy, the new M*A*S*H was a ‘dramedy’ with a tendency to drop the comedy element altogether. Old M*A*S*H made fun of the Army from inside knowledge; new M*A*S*H preached against war from the viewpoint of civilians who could hardly understand what an army is for. Old M*A*S*H had an ensemble cast, and most of the humour arose from the interactions among the characters. New M*A*S*H was Alan Alda’s baby, and a number of episodes were marred by his habit of inserting Hawkeye into scenes where he simply wasn’t needed. Old M*A*S*H was skilfully written and brilliantly funny. New M*A*S*H sometimes made you wonder why it had a laugh track at all. The eighth season actually works reasonably well in spite of these massive changes. The new writers, as always, brought new points of view and new ideas; and the actors, after so many years’ experience playing the same characters, helped to assimilate the new talent and maintain a connection with the show’s past. Some of the new hands were good screenwriters, and one, Jim Mulligan, was brilliant. But the forward motion of the show stops, never to resume again. The cast and crew begin to perform by rote, and the stories decline into formula. The last episode of that season was ‘April Fools’, written by Dennis Koenig. Koenig had a knack for comedy writing. He had recently come from a stint as a writer for Rhoda, and he would go on to write or story-edit chunks of Night Court and Growing Pains. He was eventually credited as a producer on M*A*S*H. One cannot question his ability. But at that time, there were serious lacunae in his skills. ‘April Fools’ shows him at his best and worst. By this time, M*A*S*H scripts had developed a fairly strict structural formula. There was always an ‘A’ plot and a ‘B’ plot, which ideally contributed to each other’s resolution, but sometimes barely intersected. The ‘A’ plot was straight drama as a rule, the ‘B’ plot comic relief, which tended to become more perfunctory and clownish, and less genuinely funny, as the years wore on. Every regular actor had to be guaranteed a sufficient quota of lines and screen time; which meant that the rich variety of supporting actors and roles tended to diminish. In the early seasons of M*A*S*H, we feel that the cloud of extras in olive drab who populate the set are there for a reason: we see enough of them at their work – supply sergeants, orderlies, motor pool men, mess NCOs (but never the cook, who remained a faceless menace until late in the series) – and, of course, nurses – to give the feel of a fairly large and busy hospital. In the later years, jobs were given to the regular cast simply because they were regulars. We occasionally see surgeons running the mess, heading charity drives, even doing laundry and hauling garbage. The concluding episode of season 7, ‘The Party’ (by Burt Metcalfe and Alan Alda), shows this tendency at its worst. The people of the 4077th arrange a during-the-war reunion back in the States, at which their loved ones can congregate and get to know each other. It was a daft idea to begin with. What makes it unbearable is that the eight series regulars, and only those eight, got to invite their families to the party. The other hundred-odd members of the 4077th were omitted without a thought. The script seems to have been hacked together at the last moment, after ‘Goodbye, Radar’ was postponed to the following season. It makes the weakest season finale since ‘Showtime’, the collection of random skits and sight gags that concluded the show’s first year. ‘April Fools’ is a stronger finale than that, but it largely works in spite of itself. The central conceit is not one of the show’s best; there is no proper ‘B’ story at all. There are merely two takes on the same comic plotline: one that tries to be funny and often fails, one that tries to be farcical and succeeds. The story functions because the villain of the week is menacing enough to maintain genuine tension, and the laughs are magnified because they relieve that tension. In structural terms, Koenig makes the best of a middling scenario. But his work tends to fall apart at the sentence level, and the scenes are not strong enough to bear the weak dialogue. Let us set the scene. The surgical staff are changing out of their whites after another gruelling session in O.R. They exchange sour gibes. ‘This war has definitely lost its allure,’ says B. J. Winchester merely groans. Then Hawkeye delivers a well-crafted quip:

          HAWKEYE If we didn’t have such a terrific union, I’d give my two-week notice.

In the context of the scene, this line works very well. It is exactly the kind of wry, exhausted humour that one does hear from people who are demoralized by overwork. The ‘terrific union’ crack is a fine backhanded slap at the practice of manning Army hospitals with conscript surgeons. Only this is not what Hawkeye said. He actually made a different joke:

          HAWKEYE I’d give my two-week notice, but I’m too weak.

I happen to have a fondness for puns, and this one is especially good, because it comes naturally. The wordplay is not forced at all. It is brief, snappy, and has the proper timing for a one-liner. But I tell a lie – again. Here is what Hawkeye really said:

          HAWKEYE If we didn’t have such a terrific union, I’d give my two-week notice… but I’m too weak.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is the Joke-and-a-Half Technique. The punchline of the first joke is the setup of the second. That means that the first punchline occurs in the middle of a sentence, which is the worst place for it, and destroys the timing. It also means that the second punchline comes across as an apology for the weakness of the first joke; and since the second joke is conceptually weaker than the first, the whole thing comes down with a bump. We begin with the setup for a wisecrack about Army life, and end with the pun. The line would have worked better if it had been amputated at one end or the other. This kind of trouble recurs throughout the script. The would-be funny lines are clustered together as if they were afraid to travel alone. Instead of a build-up, a punchline, and the requisite canned laughter, one seems to get a weak joke, another weak joke to explain the first, maybe a third joke to apologize for the second, and some by-play to stretch out the timing and make it to the next checkpoint on the laugh track. So we have the doctors changing clothes after an O.R. session, and cracking rather tired jokes, which eventually meander around to the actual topic of the scene: B. J. has received a package of food from home, parts of which he shares out to his colleagues. There are brownies for Hawkeye, fruit salad for Col. Potter, and a large can of pralines.

          WINCHESTER      (grabbing the can from B. J.) Ah! Pralines, the South’s only contribution to civilization.

          B. J. Don’t be shy, Charles.

Of course, there are no pralines; only that old standby of unimaginative practical jokers, the snake nut can. The snake jumps out of the can, and Alan Alda tries to sell the scene by screeching with laughter. In case this doesn’t work (which it doesn’t), Koenig follows up with the weak explanatory joke:

          B. J. Hey, Charles! Beware the Perils of Praline!

Potter is gruffly unamused; Winchester calls it a ‘lame jest’, which is exactly correct. Now the apologetic third joke:
MARGARET SCREAMS, off. She opens the curtain upstage with a violent jerk and enters.

          MARGARET      (furious) All right. Who left the dead minnows in my pocket?

          WINCHESTER      (in mock indignation) They were alive when I put them there. You’ve killed them!

HAWKEYE and B. J. hoot with laughter again.

          POTTER Et tu, Winchester?

          MARGARET Go ahead and laugh, guys, there are plenty of minnows in the sea. A Houlihan never forgets.

          POTTER Et three, Margaret?

MARGARET exits by snapping the curtain shut.

          POTTER What’s going on here?

Now we get another joke-and-a-half, but this time the conjoined one-liners do not even work separately:

          B. J. ’Tis the season to be silly, Colonel. April one-eth is at hand.

Yes, folks: we have another practical joke episode. Practical jokes have worked brilliantly in the past on M*A*S*H, either as the ‘B’ story or as incidental comic relief. This is the first time they are required to carry the whole weight of an episode, and frankly, this crop of jokes just isn’t equal to the burden. We have seen some golden pranks in the past, usually at the expense of Frank Burns: Frank is packed in a shipping crate while he sleeps. Frank falls for a get-rich-quick scheme involving a nonexistent stock, ‘Pioneer Aviation’. Frank digs a foxhole outside the Swamp out of sheer paranoia; B. J. fills it with water, and Sidney Freedman shouts, ‘Air raid!’ Almost none of the gags in this episode rise to that level. The pranks are tedious, sophomoric, and perfunctory. As hard as the cast tries to sell them by overreacting with paroxysms of mirth, the viewing audience is unlikely to muster more than a tired and ironic ‘Ha, ha.’ Potter, at least, has the sense not to let himself be dragged down to this level. Koenig meant him to express this sentiment in the inimitable Potter style, part down-home folksy Missourian, part vivid and fanciful. Potter likes his wordplay; he likes to express himself by a modern version of what the Anglo-Saxon scops called ‘kennings’. The tone was set in his very first O. R. session at the 4077th: ‘Nice to know there’s still a little pizzazz left in the old digits.’ He habitually checks for comprehension of his orders with interrogatives like ‘Capisce?’ or ‘Comprende?’ The style, as I say, is inimitable, and Koenig does not manage to imitate it. Instead he produces a kind of ghastly burlesque:

          POTTER Just include me out. Understandez-vous?

Hawkeye promises to comply. But as Potter turns to leave, we see a raccoon tail pinned to the tail of his shirt with a haemostat. Cue the laugh track; another checkpoint. Cut to Klinger’s office, where the yawning clerk is just getting off the phone after taking down a TWX message, which he hands to Potter as the colonel comes in. Father Mulcahy barges in, wearing a woman’s frilly dressing gown. He is irate at having been made the victim of yet another lame practical joke. Again, Koenig follows up the weak sight gag with a weak one-liner:

          POTTER Good morning, Padre. Or should I say, Padress.

This line is followed by several more perfunctory gags at Mulcahy’s expense, after which he leaves, having accomplished nothing. One suspects that he was shoehorned into the scene merely to give William Christopher something to do in this episode. Now, at last, we get down to business. The plot is kicked into motion by another cheap parody of a Potter expletive:

          POTTER Now that Gorgeous George is gone, can we get back to— Holy haemostat! We’re in for it now!

          KLINGER For what, sir?

          POTTER Colonel Daniel Webster Tucker, lord high executioner of the Surgeon General’s office, is coming to observe our medical setup!

          KLINGER ‘Observe’ doesn’t sound too scary.

          POTTER This fellow can observe you to smithereens! From what I hear, he’s a fire and brimstone doctor with a three-second fuse. A stickler’s stickler. Quotes Army medical regs by memory – especially the part on courts martial!

It is interesting that Koenig has no trouble writing authentic Potter patois – when he is not trying to be funny. ‘Holy haemostat’ is embarrassingly bad; it reaches for a laugh and misses. Potter’s next two lines are not intended to be funny, but they show wit, spirit, and a flair for descriptive language. The Potterese language is entertaining in itself; but when it stoops to accommodate the laugh track, it shows symptoms of lumbago. Koenig would have done better to let Potter be Potter in this scene, and let Klinger handle the comic relief. Potter orders Klinger to clean up his files and order supplies – ‘everything you can order, including order forms!’ Next, he calls an emergency meeting of the senior medical staff, consisting of the other surgeons and the chief nurse. Klinger wakes the Swampmen, setting up another weak practical joke: As Hawkeye puts on his boots, he discovers that one of them is full of oatmeal, courtesy of Major Houlihan. Cut to the meeting. Potter lays down the law concerning Tucker’s visit:

          POTTER So for the sake of me and my eagles, which I worked so hard to get, there will be no – I repeat, nada – in the way of larks, antics, or shenanigans while he’s here. Got it?

But Hawkeye cannot leave ill alone. He promises to follow Potter’s instructions to the letter – no jokes while Tucker is in camp – but talks the other Swampmen into one last prank to take revenge on ‘Margaret the Menace’. They retire to the Swamp to plot amongst themselves. Meanwhile, we see Klinger in the motor pool, trying to enlist Sgt. Rizzo’s help in shaping up the camp. This scene is a comic gem; the minor recurring actors, unlike the leads, were never shy about being funny. G. W. Bailey is an unsung comic genius. He plays Rizzo to the hilt as a scheming, Cajun-fried goldbrick, three parts bayou drawl and one part narcolepsy. Klinger finds him under a jeep, supposedly repairing it, actually taking a nap. Not even Colonel Tucker’s inspection can disturb the motor pool sergeant’s tranquillity. In a magic phrase, he reveals ‘the Luther Rizzo secret of military success’:

          RIZZO Never smile.

          KLINGER Huh?

          RIZZO The Army hates to see a man grin. Makes them think they’ve failed somehow. But moan and groan and carry on, and they’ll leave you all to your lonesome. Long as they know you’re miserable, they’re happy…. You can do anything you want in the Army. Just act like you don’t want to do it.

This lesson spawns a brilliant scheme in Klinger’s warped but fertile brain: the last of the great Section Eight ploys. He will use reverse psychology on the Army:

          KLINGER I’ve been doing it all wrong!

          RIZZO Yeah!

          KLINGER I’ll be the world’s greatest soldier!

          RIZZO Right!

          KLINGER Make ’em think I love the Army!

          RIZZO Right!

          KLINGER Then, and only then, I’ll pull the old switcheroo!

Happy with his new idea, Klinger leaves Rizzo to resume his snooze under the jeep. We return to Hawkeye’s practical joke. Considering the conditions on the Fox set, it was spectacularly ill-conceived. Each episode of M*A*S*H was filmed several months before its air date. This allowed most of the production to take place in summer, taking advantage of the longer daylight hours. But the last episodes of each season were generally filmed in autumn, on a sound stage replica of the outdoor set in the Malibu hills. For this reason, these late episodes tended to include a lot of night scenes: the replica set looked less obviously fake with the added lighting effects. ‘April Fools’, as I have said, was a season finale, filmed entirely indoors. In an over-elaborate and sadly unfunny prank, the Swampmen steal Margaret’s tent, leaving all her belongings arranged inside the tent frame exactly as they were before. Alas, the eye can tell that the scene is taking place on a sound stage. Not a breath of wind disturbs her frills and lampshades. To over-compensate, Koenig makes Margaret react with a tantrum: not the generous overflow of martial anger that she used to exhibit in her days as Hot Lips, but the watered-down late-season version, signalized by a frigid gasp of maiden-aunt indignation. Again, we see the second weak joke to compensate for the first. Margaret barges into the Swamp, not yelling, but feebly bleating, ‘Get up, Pierce, you tentnapper!’ She yanks back the blanket on his bunk to reveal a plastic skeleton, which causes the hardboiled Army nurse to scream like a little girl in a Hallowe’en haunted house. The Swampmen emerge from their hiding place, and the encounter degenerates into a pillow fight. Lest anyone forget this is a comedy, Koenig supplies a steady flow of weak gags:

          MARGARET Where is my tent?!

          HAWKEYE We pitched it somewhere!

HAWKEYE, B. J., and WINCHESTER laugh hysterically while MARGARET beats them with the pillow until it bursts.

          MARGARET Where is my tent?!

          B. J. We gave it to a dog, now it’s a pup tent!

Of course, Col. Tucker chooses this very moment to make his appearance. Tucker is brilliantly played by Pat Hingle; he makes an utterly convincing and straight-faced heavy. He is not impressed to see three surgeons and a head nurse having a pillow fight. They try to make light of it, and fail:

          TUCKER This is disgraceful. Absolutely disgraceful.

          B. J. You know, you’re right. They just don’t make pillows the way they used to.

Potter comes out of his tent, yelling more imitation Potterisms:

          POTTER What in the name of Marco blessed Polo is going on here!      (looking at TUCKER; suddenly fearful and contrite) Oh. How do. Uh… You would have to be Colonel Tucker.

          TUCKER And you would have to be Colonel Potter. My God, Potter, what kind of place are you running here? Don’t you have one competent person here?

Enter Klinger, playing the one competent person. He is wearing his Class A uniform, bracing and saluting like a West Pointer – the model of military efficiency. He sucks up to Col. Tucker in fine soldierly style, after which Tucker retires and Potter gives his staff a cornball chewing-out. Next day, we see Tucker observing in O. R. This scene is a wasteland of missed opportunities. Tucker himself is brilliant; the surgeons are badly let down by the script. Margaret tries to apologize for their conduct the night before, but Tucker brushes her off. B. J. and Winchester are removing shrapnel from a patient’s chest, and trying to show off for teacher:

          WINCHESTER      (picking up the shrapnel with forceps) Ah, ha. Voilà!

          B. J. Nice work, Charles. For a foul ball, you sure know your way around the old chest cavity.

          WINCHESTER      (laughs) Thank you, Hunnicutt. Yes, it was rather exceptional work. Wouldn’t you agree, Colonel?

          TUCKER What do you want, a medal?

          B. J.      (indignantly) Hey, he just saved this kid’s life!

          TUCKER Isn’t that the general idea?

The trouble is, Tucker is exactly right. Removing shrapnel from a patient’s chest is routine meatball surgery. Winchester is a brilliant thoracic surgeon; to congratulate him for this virtually amounts to sarcasm. Here is an opportunity lost. If Koenig had jettisoned Mulcahy’s needless appearance, and tightened up the dialogue (particularly by reining in the Potter gags), he would have had time to develop this into a genuinely dramatic scene. Winchester could have been working on something genuinely difficult, which would make Tucker’s reaction more obviously one of personal spite, and not a perfectly reasonable response from an irritated senior officer. As it is, we are actually tempted to sympathize with his sarcasm:

          POTTER Colonel, I’ll admit we’ve got a full rack of eight-balls here, but when it comes to cutting, these people are the real McCoy.

          TUCKER I should hope so. I assume they’ve all been to medical school.      (clasping his hands in mock contrition) Oh, I am so sorry. I should give the good doctors a round of applause for doing their jobs.      (clapping) Hear, hear, Doctors. Hear, hear.

Now, at last, the story is moving at full steam. Klinger, the Model Soldier, escorts Tucker on a tour of post-op. He insults the doctors on duty, sticks his nose into their patients’ charts, and generally puts their back up. Hawkeye rebels:

          HAWKEYE      (frigidly polite) Can I help, Colonel?

          TUCKER Just having a little look-see, Doctor, that’s all.

          HAWKEYE This is my patient. You have any questions, ask me.

          TUCKER Why, Doctor, you don’t have anything to hide, do you?

HAWKEYE Only my outrage. You know, you really are a sanctimonious—

B. J. and WINCHESTER approach TUCKER.

          B. J.      (interrupting) Hawkeye, no. Let me.

          WINCHESTER Colonel, I really must voice my resentment concerning your attitude.

          TUCKER No, you mustn’t. What you really must do is keep your mouth shut!

Margaret tries to offer Tucker her sympathy and support. He rejects it with another insult – ‘I hardly need the support of a woman!’ – eliciting another maiden-aunt gasp. As Tucker turns to leave, Hawkeye brings matters to a head:

          HAWKEYE Colonel, I wonder if we could have a four-letter word with you outside the hospital zone.

          TUCKER Fine! I’m a reasonable man.

They step outside. Margaret and the surgeons offer up a few snippy lines of their own, to which Tucker responds with brutal effectiveness:

          TUCKER Get this. I’m going to shape this place up, and I can’t think of a better way to start than barring all of you from medical service.

          HAWKEYE      (laughing mirthlessly) Golly gee, boys and girls, are we in dutch!

          B. J. The colonel’s going to make us stand in a corner of Korea.

          MARGARET And go to bed without supper.

          WINCHESTER For which, Colonel, I shall be eternally grateful.

          TUCKER You people think you’re very funny, don’t you? Well, I’ve had it with you screwballs. As of right now, you’re all on report for gross insubordination, conduct unbecoming officers, and anything else I can think of.

          MARGARET I can’t believe that.

          TUCKER You’d better believe it, Major. If I have my way, you’ll all be court-martialled. And since I’m the man who makes those decisions, I always get my way. Let me see you laugh that one off, gang.

In spite of the bad one-liners and the wordy dialogue, Koenig has brought the story to a fine crisis. Hingle’s performance helps us postpone the moment of fridge logic, at which we will wonder why doctors who have got away with far worse for years should be court-martialled over pillow fights and angry words. But there is enough reason on the writer’s side to make the idea work. In the pilot, as we saw, General Hammond refused to court-martial Hawkeye and Trapper because he could not spare two such skilful surgeons; this set a pattern that was often repeated. But Tucker is not in the chain of command; the MASH units are not under him, and he is not responsible for their effective operation. He can afford to be a loose cannon, and has the power to indulge personal vendettas. Now we cut to the ‘B’ plot. Tucker walks into Klinger’s office, only to find him dressed up as Cleopatra: the promised switcheroo.

          TUCKER I don’t understand. Is there going to be a costume party?

          KLINGER Oh, I hope not. I don’t have a thing to wear!

Tucker concludes that Klinger has broken under the strain of being the only competent soldier on this crazy post. He offers Klinger his long-awaited medical discharge, which the corporal accepts with a fine show of reluctance. Unfortunately, the writer’s next move is another weak one. Back at the Swamp, the four condemned officers plot their revenge against Tucker. Instead of working up their defence against his charges, they decide to ‘let the crime fit the punishment’. They will pull a practical joke on Tucker, presumably so they can actually deserve their sentence in Leavenworth. This is a thoroughly stupid idea, but it matches their childish behaviour through the episode so far, so we let the writer get away with it. But he has to resolve the plot fast, because our disbelief will not remain suspended for long. Cut to the officers’ club, where the Swampmen and Margaret enact their vengeance. Tucker comes in and orders his usual drink, a shot and a beer. The bartender, per arrangement, brings the colonel his shot.

          TUCKER I ordered a shot and a beer! Where’s my beer?

          HAWKEYE Beer’s on you, Colonel!

Hawkeye pulls a rope, tipping over a bucket of beer concealed in the rafters and soaking Tucker. The colonel surges to his feet, sputtering with rage while the condemned officers laugh like hyaenas.

          TUCKER Nobody does this to Daniel Webster Tucker!—

TUCKER falls face down on the bar.

          MARGARET      (alarmed) What is it? What’s wrong?

          POTTER It’s his heart!

They stretch Tucker out on the floor and prepare to administer first aid. Winchester orders a cardiac kit. In the midst of the hubbub, we hear Tucker faintly calling for Hawkeye.

          TUCKER Pierce…

          HAWKEYE      (kneeling beside TUCKER) What is it? I can’t hear you.

          TUCKER Is that you, Pierce?

          HAWKEYE Yeah, what is it?

          TUCKER Just one thing…      (beat) April fool!

The whole inspection was a prank, set up long in advance by Potter and Tucker. The two colonels are old war buddies, and cooked up the scheme to upstage the younger officers and their juvenile jokes. The victims take it uncommonly well, laughing and applauding.

          HAWKEYE Fellow jokers, we are in the presence of greatness. We have been royally had!

In the tag, we see them all gathered round the bar, listening to the colonels’ reminiscences.

          TUCKER Sherman and I have been doing this for three wars now.

          POTTER Of course, things didn’t always work out so good. Remember the time we slipped the rubber hamburgers into the chow line?

          TUCKER Yeah. Trouble was, nobody noticed!

The last one taken in by the joke is Klinger, who still thinks Tucker’s offer of a Section Eight is legitimate. He walks into the club in full Egyptian regalia:

          KLINGER Come on, Colonel! I want to get home to see my mummy.

All the others break up in laughter.

          KLINGER What’s so funny?

FREEZE and ROLL CREDITS.
Once more, Pat Hingle’s performance is letter perfect. The setup worked only because he was absolutely convincing as the ‘lord high executioner’; the payoff works because he is equally convincing as Sherman Potter’s old practical-joking chum. The transformation requires brilliant acting to remain believable, and Hingle delivers it. As I said, ‘April Fools’ shows the new writers at their best and worst. The scenario is a strong one; the best, probably, of all M*A*S*H episodes turning on practical jokes. The central joke, Tucker’s performance as the Genghis Khan of the medical corps, is strong enough to pull the whole episode’s weight. But there is a lot of weight to be pulled. The pace is slowed by corny Potterisms, excessive dialogue, and above all, by the sheer weakness of the minor practical jokes in the setup. The whole story (to borrow George Orwell’s phrase) is well told without being well written. Klinger’s subplot is as good as anything his character was used for on M*A*S*H. If the rest of the dialogue had been written with the same quality as his scenes with Rizzo and Tucker; if the supporting practical jokes had actually been moderately funny; if the script had relied less on corny Potterisms and apologetic second jokes — if these things had been accomplished by a little judicious editing, ‘April Fools’ would have ranked as one of the finest episodes in the series’ long run. As it stands, it is not much more than a passable vehicle for Pat Hingle’s bravura performance. The trouble, I suppose, is that the judicious editing was not forthcoming. Dennis Koenig was not only the screenwriter, but the story editor as well. And as Frederik Pohl once remarked, the problem with being your own editor is that you have no editor. Larry Gelbart, or even Levine and Isaacs, would have made Koenig sharpen up his quill until it drew blood. Koenig the editor could not perform that office for Koenig the writer: he lacked the necessary critical distance. Half the job of a comedy writer is to come up with scenes and lines that make the audience laugh. The other half is to throw them away, and replace them with scenes and lines that make the audience laugh louder. ‘April Fools’ stands as an unfortunate landmark in the final era of M*A*S*H: the lazy execution of an excellent idea. Too often, in these last years, we will see the lazy execution of mediocre ideas. The rot has set in; soon we will begin to smell the gangrene. Back to M*A*S*H: A writer’s view

Life, Carbon, and the Tao

My essai for the first anniversary of L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Superversive blog is now up in full: Part One: What’s so special about carbon? Part Two: What’s so special about the Tao? Reposted on SuperversiveSF in one piece. Go, read, and I hope you enjoy. In other news, I shall not be writing this week, as I have finally enlisted some help to do a top-to-bottom cleaning of my flat, which is many months overdue. The accumulation of books and papers was making it impossible for me to hoover up the dust, and the dust was making it difficult to do anything else. I have been living largely on a diet of antihistamines and facial tissue. Enough of that!