First off, my apologies for the month-long blog hiatus. Not sure what happened. I haven’t been on the video games. I haven’t been watching TV. I guess my time has been just reading, writing (not blogging), and the day job. In the past month, I’ve read The Windup Girl, Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, a novella called Wool, and The Terror by Dan Simmons. It’s this last book that I’d like to talk about.
I’m not a huge buff of nautical themes, but I always appreciate a book that integrates research into the story. The key word there being intergrates! I’m not a Tom Clancy guy who enjoys chapters and chapters that read like a military technology manual. The Terror is a great example of how the writer’s research is actually part of the story and not just the surrounding environment. The story is a fictional account of what happened during the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin back in 1845, but the theme is how technology and preparation can be absurdly off-base. Simmons doesn’t merely talk about the cold and the ice, but the clothing and the supplies and how much crap they carry around when they try to move across the ice. If that weren’t enough, he deftly contrasts the over-loaded English operation whose men are freezing and starving with the Inuit tribe who live almost comfortably in the same environment. It’s great stuff. A highly recommended book for pretty much anyone. Literary-grade historical genre fiction.
But don’t judge the creator by the creation.
Throughout my life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of artists, filmmakers, and writers. It’s great when you love a book, meet the author, and they turn out to be really cool. Examples? Comic book writer Ed Brubaker is a good guy. Happy to chat and not in that fake-y, “buy my books” kind of way. Terry Brooks handled the crowd at his signing with charm and patience. In fact, I don’t even fault writers like Greg Rucka or Neal Stephenson when they get impatient with fans who ask a lot of crazy questions. Or when people are just plain crazy like David Peoples who I met briefly at a screening at the San Rafael Film Center back in 2000. He was really, really out to lunch. Remember this, kids: drugs are bad for you.
Anytime I take an interest in the writer, I like to find out more about them as people. I’m pleasantly surprised more often than I’m let down. I’m a left-leaner when it comes to politics, but I don’t usually come up swinging against mainstream republicans. I take the “to each his own” approach. However, fringe crackpots on either end of the spectrum really bug me. Dan Simmons is pretty much Glenn Beck who writes horror and sci fi. Here’s the difference, I truly believe Glenn Beck is an act like Andy Kaufman or Joaquin Phoenix. He may be around the bend, but it’s only for the attention and the paycheck. Dan Simmons really believes this stuff. He lives in a cabin in the mountains and believes he’ll be in the better position when Obama destroys the world. So he’s a nutcase hater, but can I ignore that and still like his books? I’m not the only one who wonders about this. And this guy says the same thing.
My problem is that once I know a media creator is a dick, I can’t look at the work the same way. I was in the room when Michael Bay screamed profanities at one of the assistant editors over a nothing issue. As a result, I relished his Pearl Harbor failure. Now when I think back on The Terror, a novel I respected for its research, I wonder if all Simmons did was watch the Russell Crowe movie Master and Commander. I’ve seen the movie a half dozen times and as I read The Terror, I noticed a lot of similarities. When I was indifferent toward Simmons, I thought, “Of course there are similarities, how different can English nautical adventures be?” But after learning all this annoying stuff about the author, I think, “He lifted all this stuff from that movie and/or O’Brien’s series of novels.” And seriously, every little moment in M&C is mimicked in The Terror. A guy gets shot, make sure you get the piece of shirt out. Doctor is hurt, he better operate on himself. Guy gets smashed in the head, make a metal plate out of a coin for the hole in his skull. The list goes on. And don’t even get me started on Simmons’ Hyperion series which is lifted directly from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
The question is, why does finding out about the author’s political fanaticism spoil my reading experience? It’s because reading a book or watching a movie feels like a connection with the person or people who made it. When they’re making the work, they’re thinking like me to make it appeal to people like me, and when I consume it, I know how they were thinking when they made it. It’s like we’re thinking the same things! So when I enjoy or respect a Dan Simmons book, and I know he’s not just crazy, but mean and crazy, I don’t want to know that on some level we think the same way.
Maybe that’s a short-coming on my part, but lucky for me, there are plenty of books by nice folks out there to read. Check out anything by Mary Roach if you’re a non-fiction fan or the Criminal series of graphic novels by Ed Brubaker or sci fi by Richard K. Morgan and William Gibson. With the exception of Mary Roach, I’ve met these folks. And I like to know they think like I do.