Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Of old masters and old futures

An important part of my writing regimen is ... reading. Or, more accurately, rereading.

That is: I reread stories and books that have made deep, lasting impressions, the better to understand why (or if, upon reexamination) those pieces resonate with me. Most recently, I reread classics by two masters of the genre: The Dragon in the Sea, by Frank Herbert (1955), and The Puppet Masters, by Robert A. Heinlein (1951). Both are, in quite different ways, Cold War novels.  From there, the two diverge.

The Dragon In the Sea  is a novel of submarine warfare, set in a future clearly evolved from the early Cold War. The West is in a death struggle with the "Eastern powers," with Russia chief among them. Dragon is an overt Cold War adventure melded with a psychological thriller, as physical and mental pressures build on one submarine's crew

The storytelling is in third-person-limited point of view (POV) -- that is, we're in the heads of every member of one sub's crew, never knowing more than they know.

Frank Herbert, of course, is a master. He breaks two cardinal rules of modern SF -- and for him, it works. There's lots of detail about futuristic submarines and the mechanics of sub/sub duels -- as much a military procedural as an SF novel. The amount of detail explicitly conveyed would be disparaged today as an "info dump."

The other surprise to the modern reader: we sometimes jump from one character's head to another within single scenes. That, too, is contrary to modern style. I'll admit that I occasionally found those (non)transitions jarring.

The Puppet Masters involves extraterrestrial parasites who take control of humans (decades before the Go'a'uld of the Stargate franchise), the takeover being all but undetectable. The novel is often taken as a parable of Cold War paranoia.

Heinlein is the master of the telling detail in lieu of narrative description. As in: "The door irised open" or "The hotel room overlooked New Brooklyn and Manhattan Crater." How are those short passages (I'm relying on memory -- they may not be quite word-perfect) for conveying in a few words this is the future, and a lot has gone on since your time?

The other difference between the two books: Heinlein used first person POV (as he often does), and we never stray from one character's head. My impression is that first-person POV has gotten rare in SF.

So: we have two near-contemporaneous old masterpieces, by old masters, on a Cold War theme -- in every way handled quite differently. It's a useful reminder not to take too rigorously prescriptions of how a story must be told or a scene set.

And a second lesson? Sociology may be harder to project into the future than technology. Both novels read well more than a half century after they were published -- except that in one aspect, they seem dated: gender relations. Herbert has a wife come flouncing into a room.  Heinlein has a well-trained, kick-ass woman agent become instantly submissive when she gets engaged.

With that heads up about gender relations, both titles are highly recommended.


Unknown said...

Old fan of Puppet Masters but I haven't read Dragon... might have to hunt that up!

Deirdra A. Eden said...

You have a fabulous blog! I’m an author and illustrator and I made some awards to give to fellow bloggers whose sites I enjoy. It’s not a pass on award. This is just for you to keep. I want to award you the Best of Sci/Fi Blog Award for all the hard work you do!

Go to http://astorybookworld.blogspot.com/p/awards.html and pick up your award.

Edward M. Lerner said...

Thanks, Deirdra.

- Ed