(urth) This Week in Google Alerts: _Home Fires_, 1982 roundtable
gwern at gwern.net
Wed Jun 5 10:13:36 PDT 2013
'A 1982 Video Interview with Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Gene
Wolfe Wherein They Discuss the Label “Science Fiction”'
No transcript; video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEmHXfJ185E
(24:51; uploaded by 'The Harlan Ellison Channel'
http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC1XrlRQsRxYfuc47CCJN05w ). This TV
show video was apparently uploaded for the 6 May 2013 _LA Times_
> ...In some ways, the show was so stereotypically highbrow -- an oriental rug, subtle classical music introduction and soporific announcer -- that it might be mistaken for a "Saturday Night Live" sketch. Not so when Terkel and Trillin hosted a trio of science fiction writers: Isaac Asimov, Harlan Ellison and Gene Wolfe. That's partly because of Asimov's out-of-this-world sideburns -- or are they mutton chops? But mostly because Ellison is in top rapid-fire, pugilistic form.
> Ellison comes out swinging. He doesn't like the term "science fiction," and as Trillin grapples to come up with the appropriate word to describe Ellison's feelings about the term, Ellison jumps in with "loathe." "I write a kind of surreal fantasy, but they can't put 'surreal fantasy' on a paperback," Ellison says.
> Terkel asks Asimov what he thinks of the term "science fiction," and Asimov disagrees with Ellison. "I love it," Asimov says. "That's what I grew up reading and writing. And I'm very broad-minded about the term 'science fiction.' I'll include under 'science fiction' everything that Harlan wants." "I'll get you later," Ellison interjects. Asimov continues: "It's just that my own personal feeling is that the best science fiction involves science." Later he explains this further, taking apart the movie "Alien," which he sees as little more than a spooky story set in space.
> The conversation jumps from genre to the pressures of marketing to the prophetic successes and failures of science fiction. The best part may be when Terkel, who's been slumped in his chair, sits forward to connect the way that writers perceive man's nature with how seriously their work is taken (spoiler: optimists lose).
This discussion, turns out, was not long after _Book of the New Sun_
started (_The Sword of the Lictor_ was '82 as well; I'm not sure
whether this video was before or after). Wolfe doesn't participate
much - Ellison dominates proceedings a fair bit - but see 4:40, 8:50,
"Home Fires: Just what you’d expect from Gene Wolfe", Marion Deeds
> It’s almost an axiom that a Gene Wolfe novel will raise questions about life, death, memory, psychology and identity. It also goes almost without saying that there will be a feeling of events happening behind the scenes, of which the characters themselves are even unaware. In these respects, _Home Fires_ is indisputably a Gene Wolfe novel.
> ...Before these issues can be thoroughly explained, the cruise ship _Rani_ is hijacked. Two-thirds of the book is something I can only describe as a leisurely action adventure. Skip emerges as a natural leader but he has a lot of meetings, where people talk their plans out in a methodical, logical manner. Skip is a defense attorney who is famous for his ability to cross-examine people; most of this story is presented through dialogue, but it still seems odd to have the rescue group made up of passengers sitting around one of the staterooms, calmly discussing their plan. The important thing here is that Chelle is at risk and Skip morphs into an adventure hero to save her, at one point leaping over a railing, firing a submachine gun into a group of hijackers. This behavior surprises him, but it gratifies him too because it changes his image of himself.
> Between the third-person point of view, Wolfe intersperses Skip’s (and later Chelle’s) first-person meditations. From the first page, Skip has worried that he is an old man. Chelle’s original plan was that she would return to a rich contracto, and he would get a beautiful young contracta. The plan has worked but isn’t satisfying either of them. Skip is wealthy, but Chelle is uncomfortable about how he makes his money. Chelle is still beautiful to Skip, but she sees herself as damaged. Because she has the thoughts and impulses of another woman, she also worries that she is mentally ill. Enforced separation and questions about who is trying to kill whom come between the two and heighten the suspense.
> ...I want to spend a few minutes discussing the women characters here. As much as people love Gene Wolfe, some do complain about his women characters. There are three women involved in the plot here: Chelle, Vanessa, and Susan, Skip’s secretary. Chelle is a warrior, physically and emotionally strong, and impulsive. Wolfe tries to give her a soldier’s bad language, but it reads awkwardly. What is appealing about her is her emotional honesty and her fearlessness. Vanessa, who is in a more vulnerable position, is also a compelling character, maybe because of her commitment to protecting her daughter. This makes her likable and also intriguing, since this is not how Chelle remembers her mother. Part of the difficulty with Vanessa is that her dialogue and actions seem dated. She could fit right into any 1940s noir detective novel; she would also be right at home in _Auntie Mame_ by Patrick Dennis. Susan is a disappointment. I think Wolfe gave her authentic motivations; I just think the relationship, and her reactions, were not original or very deep.
> ...What works brilliantly is the economy with which Wolfe sketches in the details of Earth. From the first few pages, I know that even though Skip is rich and privileged, his tap water has a faint smell of sewage, and his lights flicker from time to time. This tells me volumes about life in the North American union where he lives, without paragraphs of exposition.
More information about the Urth