January 15th 2010
Sam-Who-Likes-Nothing – The Stars My Destination
I always wondered why I never read this book. By the time I was in college I had read most of the pre-1960 SF classics, but for some reason this one never crossed my palms.
Now I think I know why. Except for a certain muscularity, and a wonderful description of synesthesia toward the end, it’s not very good.
In a lot of ways, the book is simply a bad Mickey Spillane novel, with spaceships. Too much generic tough guy, and not particularly well done, either. We have churlishness, we have brutality, we have rape. But it’s all glossed over pretty quickly. And I don’t think the reader is supposed to dislike the protagonist as much as understand his animal primitiveness. Stanley Kowalski in a space suit. Then, about two-thirds of the way through the book, our hero has a sudden, and completely unjustified shift of character. Unjustified, because the process of this shift within him is never shown. It is only decided, abruptly, from one page to the next.
This was always a huge flaw in a lot of New Wave SF of the ’60s and ’70s. Characters were likely to do anything at any time, but there was never a lot of care put into describing why. I think the reason for this was because most SF to that point had been written as basic adventure fiction, which gave the genre a long history of not exploring its characters’ psychological motivation. Kimball “Kim” Kinnison isn’t one of the more deeply drawn protagonists I’ve ever encountered. Then again, he doesn’t have to be.
There’s a big difference in what is required of a character motivationally if that character races through a series of adventures without thinking twice about what he’s doing, than there is of a character who decides two-thirds of the way through that everything he’s done so far has been wrong. In the latter case it’s necessary that the writer show the process that brought the character to that conclusion. The character’s change is one of the central parts of the story – it can’t be skipped. Just as no part of the narrative process can be skipped (well, almost never, but that’s another post), no part of the character’s motivational process (or emotional, if that’s what’s important) can be skipped either. It has to be explained as well, at least as much as the narrative.
Which a lot of genre, when it tries to reach for more than thrills and wow, fails to do. Now, as well as then. Given the fact that The Stars My Destination is hailed by many readers as one of the great novels in the genre, that failure of motivational clarity in SF is understandable. But it shouldn’t be.
If we can’t do any better than that, we’re never going to reach the stars.
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Butler is the author of The Stoneways Trilogy from Tor Books: Reiffen's Choice, Queen Ferris, and The Magician's Daughter. Find out what Reiffen does with magic, and what magic does with him... Visit site.
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