Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Seems to be my week to keep the blog busy: About my Edmunds

The estimable Jerry Green, a loyal fan if ever there was one, recently read Finity, and his response, via Twitter, was:

3h3 hours ago
why did you mention Finity in your blog, i bought it in Hardback! amazed i kept reading you, what were you trying there?

Ah, I thought. Another fan I will have to point toward my blog post about Edmunds. Now where is the most recent version of that?

I discovered to my consternation  that the blogs on which I posted about Edmunds are all extinct (they were all author blogs connected with various commercial websites -- eBay and Amazon were two of them, but I vaguely recall there were more.

Well, then, time for my old Edmunds essay to come back from the grave again ... thank you for providing the pretext, Jerry, sorry you didn't like Finity, and hope this at least explains things a bit.

About my Edmunds 
… now, gods, stand up for bastards …

Now and then I run into people who complain that some of my books are "not really John Barnes books."  The complaint comes in two flavors; either

    1)    They complain that because it had my name on it, they thought it would read as if it had been written by me,


    2)    They complain that I spend so much time writing John Barnes books when I could be writing something like (the four that get mentioned) One for the Morning Glory, Finity, Gaudeamus, or more recently,  Tales of the Madman Underground. (Rather than write links to all of them here, I'll just point out you can find them and most of my other books at my Amazon profile.)

Well, this is going to be about that, sort of, as I get around to it.  One thing all my incarnations have in common is spending a while getting to the point, so if you're in a hurry … tough.

I mostly write science fiction.  For those worried souls who have emailed me since Tales of the Madman Underground came out, begging me not to abandon science fiction – pbbt!  There are at least four more science fiction novels in the pipeline.  I'm not even remotely leaving; I'm just writing other stuff too.

The other stuff includes my one and only fantasy, One for the Morning Glory, and a couple of science fiction books – Gaudeamus and Finity -- which were variously reviewed as "weird," "different," and "badly flawed science fiction novels," with a minority of critics and readers saying "If only Barnes would do more of these.

Those four books do have something in common, around to which eventually, as with the verbs in this sentence, I shall get.

Every so often someone asks me what my favorite SF novel is, and I pretty nearly always say John Boyd's The Rakehells of Heaven.  If you've never heard of it, just go get a copy, somehow. Read it.  If you don't like it, read it again until you do; not liking it is a character flaw, and you need to work on that.  If you love it – well, of course you will.  Anyway, if I want to re-read a science fiction novel, it's often the one I re-read.

Now, favorite is not the same thing as influential.  If you're looking for influences on my novels that I'm aware of, touchstones that I end up returning to again and again, to see how to do things right, that would be Poul Anderson's adventure SF (Flandry and van Rijn and all that), Jack Vance's Faceless Man trilogy, the four big Innis-mode novels of John Brunner (Stand on Zanzibar, Jagged Orbit, The Sheep Look Up, and The Shockwave Rider, if you've missed those), and a lot of John Wyndham (especially any time he wiped out the world; British writers in the 1945-65 era could put an end to humanity like nobody before or since, and Wyndham was the very best of them).

But as far as I can tell from the inside looking out, much as I love the book, the only part of The Rakehells of Heaven that had a direct influence on what I do was Boyd's forward to the reprint (which is about as obscure as you can get); he pointed out that although he had many other books, The Rakehells of Heaven and The Last Starship from Earth were the ones that made him happiest, and the ones that weren't like any of the other novels (and not much like each other, either).

He referred to The Rakehells of Heaven as his Edmund.  The reference is to Gloucester's son Edmund in King Lear; as Gloucester explains in introducing him:
Though this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for, yet was his mother fair, there was good sport at his making, and the whoreson must be acknowledged.
Not exactly, perhaps, the way you'd like your dad to introduce you, which has something to do with why, well before the end of the first act, Edmund is vowing to climb to the top in a series of crimes, finishing with "Now, Gods, stand up for bastards!", which I can never hear without humming "Stand up for Jesus," which is why it's a perfectly terrible audition piece to use on me when I'm directing.  The Edmund speech, I mean.  Though "Stand up for Jesus" wouldn't work very well either.

Meanwhile, back at that dubious main point:  Marriage is a perfect metaphor for the relationship between longtime professional writers and whatever genre it is they write: it generally begins with great affection, followed by difficulties as the writer and the genre come to understand each other all too well, and, if it lasts long enough, a reconciliation in which they realize that they are now so adapated to each other that no one else would have them.  And as in many troubled long term marriages, every so often the writer goes looking for something else, and there is a result of that, an offspring, one might say. 

As for the genre running around on the writer, pretty much every genre is a slut and a half., Science fiction in particular is a jaded old skank if ever there was one, ever since it ran away from that nice Mr. Wells and took up with Doc Smith and Edgar Rice Burroughs.  And of cours, little tramp that it was, sci fi quite broke Mr. Verne's heart over Wells, even before.

This sneaking away from the old familiar genre for a little fling with something newer with fresher, firmer tropes generally takes one of a few forms: jumping the fence entirely and producing something in some other part of town (as in Tales of the Madman Underground); sneaking over to the neighbor's for a bit on the side (as in One for the Morning Glory); or messing about with the nearest and dearest and creating awkward situations at every family reunion to come (as with Gaudeamus and Finity). 

That is, de-metaphoring for a bit, the writer goes totally out of genre, or into a neighboring genre, or stays in genre but decides, just this once, to write something s/he'd like to find in the bookstore.
What can I say about Edmunds?  I suppose something like the not-very-repentant husband says when he's trying to pretend this will strengthen the marriage.  "I was thinking of you the whole time," perhaps.  "Things just seemed so stale."  Or probably "I needed to see if I still could."

What I find, anyway, is that a good Edmund triggers a major burst of creativity, develops skills I want to develop, helps me see my way to what I need to do.  Furthermore, I find other writers' Edmunds often charm the living daylights out of me.  (Hybrid vigor, perhaps).

And perhaps most importantly, they may not be got between the lawful sheets, but the great sport in their making, and the bastardly vigor, is part of the appeal (if any):  if I know what is going to be in a book before I go in, I can imagine writing it (in fact I often do) but why in all the worlds would I read such a thing?  For a a wholly brand name writer whose books are easy for the marketing team (because they don't need to understand them) to try to write really well, strikes me as trying to learn to be a world-class nouvelle cuisine chef while also being the personal cook for a five-year-old who only likes hot dogs, Cap'n Crunch, and sketties. If you never set up a table someplace where you haven't been before, and make something you didn't know how to make before, it just seems to me like it's a long, long dull journey to the Big Remainder Table in the Sky.

So that's not how I do things; I have an Edmund now and then.

And there you have it … my Edmunds, got on t'other side of the lawful sheets, but with great sport in their making.  (Maybe that's the most important reason for writing an Edmund at all – because for the entire time I am doing it, writing is FUN again.)  Love'em, hate'em, that's how they got there.  And I sincerely hope that I really do stand up for my bastards, because I'm not the least bit unhappy to have them stand up for me.

Oh, and since [Name of Commercial Sponsor]'s policy is that I should be trying to enhance sales rather than just rambling on about any old thing, go buy one of those bastards, okay?