Bowl of Heaven — Larry Niven and Gregory Benford

Bowl_of_heavenIt’s almost always a mistake to represent alien consciousness in science fiction. Aliens, if we ever encounter them, are likely to be so alien that we can’t or won’t understand them—not at first, and conceivably not ever. The bigger problem with representing alien consciousness in science fiction comes from the language that is doing the representing.

Language, as pretty much everyone who has ever learned a foreign one knows, shapes what and how you think, as does the culture that carried by that language. Languages, though translatable, have different flavors. And the aliens in Bowl of Heaven sound like the humans, who sound like each other, and all of whom sound like Americans. They can’t do much better than call the human-built spacecraft “boldly simple.” These are aliens who, even more than most aliens in fiction, feel like humans dressed in exotic garb and wielding exotic technology.

Arthur C. Clarke wisely avoided this problem in Rendezvous with Rama, which is one reason the first one is so good and the latter ones less so.

It’s very hard to create fully differentiated human characters, each with a style all their own. Few accomplish this, which is why most writers choose a single first-person narrator, or a limited third-person narrator. One accomplishment in a novel like Anita Shreve’s Testimony is that the characters don’t sound alike, as they do in, say, Tom Perrotta’s Election, or many of Elmore Leonard’s novels. Hell, the style of, say, Remains of the Day, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, and Atonement are as different as they are because each of their authors is trying to achieve (and achieving) a very specific effect and way of thinking. Niven and Benford aren’t.

I got into Bowl of Heaven because Peter Watts blurbed it and wrote about it in Circling the Bowl. I should’ve paid more heed to the way he described it: “Bowl of Heaven resonates with me, not so much as a work of fiction but as an artefact of the publishing industry.” I can see why it wouldn’t resonate with him “much as a work of fiction,” because by that standard it doesn’t succeed well. I should’ve read his post more carefully and noticed that sentence, though he also notes that “Bowl of Heaven seems to have done just fine with the advance reviewers.”

_MG_9690-1Watts looked at Amazon reviews for the book and noticed that “27% of the reviews complain about sloppy editing and continuity errors.” I’m going to complain about sloppy editing too: a lot of my pages looked like the one on the right, in which extraneous words and sentences are crossed out. This is the sort of thing nearly all authors do on their own (many pages of my own work are filled with cross-outs), and that line and copy editors do too. Generally I ignore extraneous sentences in novels, because everyone commits a couple. But when page after page looks like the one depicted to the right, I get annoyed.

Anyway, Watts’s recommendation kept me reading despite editing problems, but I quit reading when the English-speaking aliens appeared, with all of their Capitalized Proper Nouns (“For Memor was not amid the fevered straits of the Change;” there are also mentions of “the Dancing,” “the Watchers,” and capital-A “Astronomers”). There’s better work out there: before Bowl of Heaven, make sure you’ve read Blindsight and Starfish first: those are Watts novels, and I don’t remember where I first learned about them, and both are hard to read at their beginnings but dazzling by their ends as pieces click into place.

To return to the language issue, novels like Bowl of Heaven tend to give SF a bad rep among lit-fic types, who are obsessively attentive to language and how people use language in very particular way. As I noted above, these authors aren’t attentive to those issues, and they also seem to have a confused point of view—and not one that’s intentionally confused for artistic effect, like Virginia Woolf. The effect feels like a mess: it seems like the novel is following Cliff from a first-person limited view, but then it slips into a paragraph or two with only things that Redwing, or other characters, could know. It’s the sort of thing that undergrads learn about in creative writing classes.

Maybe there’s an artistic purpose here, but if so I’m not seeing it. If not, it’s just a mistake, and seeing novels with many simple mistakes praised by many eminent science fiction writers will tend to subtly and unfairly devalue the genre as a whole.

Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream — Steven Watts

The standard for general nonfiction books these days is Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, which reaches astonishing depth in its use of music to explore history and culture as much as vice-versa. A book need not be as sophisticated as that one to still be worth reading, but less ambitious ones still ought to at least strive toward that standard. Steven Watts’ Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream doesn’t, or at least doesn’t obviously. It starts with a promising enough subject—a cultural symbol for much of the last 50 years—and an equally promising premise—that he will illuminate society based on one symbol. Alas, neither occurs, and we’re left with a book that does neither particularly well.

The reasons why a decent book that could be good isn’t aren’t always obvious, even if symptoms of its problems are. I keep coming back to James Fallows’ comment:

Here is something that is common knowledge in the publishing business but that few “normal” readers know: that the average article in a good magazine is much, much more carefully edited than almost any book. Yes, books can last forever while magazines go away after a week or month. But in a high-end magazine – like, well, the Atlantic, or the New Yorker, or the New York Review of Books, or one of a dozen others that invest in good copy editors and fact checkers – you’re far less likely to find typos, grammar errors, careless repetitions and contradictions, or simple made-up facts than you’ll find in books.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Ross normally writes for the New Yorker, as his book is impeccably edited. Before discussing the content of Mr. Playboy, its noxious style and innumerable mistakes have to be noted because they so distract from the reading of it. In Charlie Wilson’s War, such problems were relatively minor but noticeable. In Mr. Playboy, they’re glaring and enormous. We learn that: “[…] Hefner also emerged as a serious shaper of, and commentator on, modern American values.” He was also a “serious, influential figure in modern culture,” who “played a key role in changing American values, ideas, and attitudes” (all on 3). Hefner and Playboy shaped rather than just reflecting “American values” (4). He also helped transform “sexual values” (4). He personified “the mass-culture overhaul of modern society” and “he was a child of popular culture” (both on 5). The magazine became a “cultural litmus test [… for ….] modern American culture” (6). Playboy became a “cultural trendsetter” (6, again). Hefner positioned himself “as a dissenter in modern America” but “expressed many of the deepest impulses of mainstream American culture [… appearing on] the cultural skyline […]” (7). And he “presented a compelling vision of the good life in modern America” (7). I don’t know how often “modern” is used and in how many different ways and contexts, but the author or editor should do a “find” using a word processor and figure it out.

Enough of the introduction. The first chapter tells us Hefner’s boyhood fantasies “mirrored larger patterns in America’s emerging culture of self-fulfillment […]” (12). “The popular culture milieu of Depression-era America” helped shape Hefner (18). The Hefner family was susceptible to “modernizing influences” and “American popular culture” (19). “In certain ways they had embraced modernity.” Hefner’s mother “displayed a modern side” (both 21). Her modernity is mentioned again on page 26, where we also learn “American popular culture molded Hugh Hefner’s boyhood character,” and it’s mentioned one more time on 32. On 27, we learn more about “Popular culture.” After college, “Hefner’s emotional and ideological maturation received an added boost from American popular culture” (56). “Playboy’s appeal was rooted more deeply in the broad social and cultural milieu of postwar America” (72). You don’t say? I had no idea popular culture affected Hefner or Playboy.

On page 35, Hefner was dating a girl but “met someone else.” Two lines down, he “met a young woman who had been a classmate.” On page 40, “He became roommates with Bob Preuss, established a fresh circle of friends, and threw himself into a new round of experiences.” Why not just describe the circle and experiences? Further, we find out that “Bob Preuss, a roommate at the Granada House, was struck by [Hefner’s] candor in talking about sex” (46). Really? I had no idea this Bob guy existed.

On the consumer end, he advocated “consumer efflorescence” and “consumer products” and gave a model for the “stylish consumer” (all on 4). The early 1900s saw “the explosive growth of a consumer economy” (this phrase combining a cliche and repetition on 19). Alfred Kinsey’s findings shocked a society “committed to consumer conformity” (45). We learn about “an economy of abundance” and “material abundance” (the latter twice) on 73). On 74 we find the Cold War “molded these elements of abundance […]”, and that Life magazine ran photos showing “consumer amenities.” And on 75, we hear more of “people intoxicated with abundance.” Playboy encouraged “young men into a fuller enjoyment of American abundance in all of its material and emotional dimensions” (80). On page 83, we learn of “a climate of […] widespread abundance.” On page 104, we learn that postwar American has “consumer abundance.” Chapter seven is titled “An Abundant Life.” Mr. Playboy has an abundance of abundance.

On page 86, Playboy begins through “working in the small Superior Street town house in an atmosphere marked by common purpose and camaraderie […],” and we find out below that “A sense of closeness marked the office atmosphere.” At the top of the next page, “An early staffer observed, ‘There was a closeness there […]'” followed by, “Amid this warm atmosphere [….]”. Did anyone edit this book in a modestly serious fashion? If that weren’t enough, cliches occur too frequently, as when Hefner and Playboy “had taken the country by storm” (3). His first wife “scarred him for life” (48). “Everything seemed possible” (61). Something “captures [Hefner’s] imagination” (62). “It helped drive the final nails into the coffin of traditional Victorian morality […]” (121).

Watts chronically makes the kind of mistakes I mark in freshmen papers. He says, “[Consumer society] was intimately connected to a larger ethos of pleasure, leisure and entertainment” (129). How is it connected? He says “important elements of fantasy went into the presentation of these “real” young women.” That sentence isn’t needed because he goes into those element later in the paragraph. He says of one Playboy staffer who feels superior to the organization, “The reasons were complex” (92). Don’t say the reasons are complex—show why they are complex.

There’s more, but I don’t have the heart or, more importantly, the interest to observe every problem that could’ve come out of a student essay. Most of my examples came from the first half of the book because I didn’t read the second as carefully. Mr Playboy also shows why magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic are so good, aside from their editing: either might’ve taken the 70,000 or so words in this book, compressed them a 6,000 word article, and lost little if any meaning while giving the virtues of compression. If Watts had hired me, many of these problems could’ve been avoided. The above barrage is free, however, and if anyone (like his publicist, for example) knows how to forward said advice to Watts before the paperback edition, I’d highly encourage you to do so. It might alleviate some of the book’s problems. There is an inherent danger in studying a person wittier and deeper than you are in that quotes and jokes from one’s subject will upstage the writer. On page 106, surrounded by banal commentary, Watts quotes Hefner saying:

There’s nothing dirty in sex unless we make it dirty. A picture of a beautiful woman is something that a fellow of any age ought to be able to enjoy […] It is the sick mind that finds something loathsome and obscene in sex.

It’s the kind of elegant stylistic and intellectual formulation Watts seldom gets to. Perhaps the most self-referential part of Mr. Playboy and its author comes amid a discussion of Hefner’s enormous and apparently misguided effort to write a piece called “the Playboy philosophy” every month. Watts says, “While [Hefner’s] unadorned prose could be crisp and illuminated with flashes of insight and passion, more often it was turgid and repetitive.” This sentences applies to Mr. Playboy, and Watts shows no sense of the irony in his committing of the same sins he projects on Hefner.

Still, occasional passages, if not redemptive, do convey signifance. Watts likes the amusingly sophomoric through phrases about how “a new commitment to pleasure penetrated [tee-hee] into the most intimate, personal realm of human life…” Bits have surprising pathos, like a quote from one of Hefner’s former girlfriends described on page 205. He also reveals an original thought about Playboy and its creator on page 53 when he says:

Hefner also struggled to shape his views of the world into some kind of cohesive form. In typical adolescent fashion, this bright young man had soaked up a mishmash of ideas and theories during his high school and college years, ranging from Hollywood movies to Freud, popular cartoons to Darwin, Protestant theology to Tarzan.

Such random influences can’t be so unusual given American pop culture, and this section helps show some of the internal contradictions of Playboy’s later philosophy, or faux-philosophy. Such moments are too rare in Mr. Playboy, and I don’t think they’re the fault of the subject—they’re the fault of the writer. Maybe if Watts better connected the facets of Hefner’s life to anything besides themselves, the book would have been improved. As it was, the ten or so girlfriends listed through the latter half of the book only demonstrate that Hefner famously likes to date young. If there’s a better known facet of his life, I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps one day a better biographer will come along and show us what’s really new.

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