My science fiction rant
On Sunday 12, 2010 I finally finished reading St. Augustine’s City of God, the foundational Christian classic written 1,600 years ago during the final decades of the Roman Empire. Now and then during the last few years I thought about reading it, and after committing myself to it, it took me about seven months of on-again-off-again reading. It was worth the read, and I think it ought to be required reading for all Christian divinity students and medieval European history students. It was not a thousand pages of dense philosophy. In fact, the translation was fairly easy to read. But there were still hundreds of pages of unchanging dullness as Augustine relayed Biblical information to an audience that was mostly illiterate and knew little about the full Scriptures, probably relying instead on a handful of Gospels, a Pauline Epistle or two and a Psalter. Come to think of it, today’s public might be similarly described. Not that today’s public is illiterate - in developed countries we are mostly uniformly literate. But today’s public remains at least as Biblically illiterate as the medieval public - which was largely illiterate - was.
The beginning and the ending seemed easiest to get through. And, typically of long books, most of my time was spent battling my way to the half-way point after which I sped up and finished relatively quickly, like slowly walking up a big hill and then quickly tobogganing down it again.
Over the last few years I have read a few really long classic books, several exceeding 1,000-pages: War and Peace, Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserable, The Count of Monte Cristo,David Copperfield, City of God. War and Peace was almost 1,600-pages and took most of a year to read. I didn’t realize until I was half-way through it that it was a love story. I realized it was a love story only after I watched the 1950s movie of it starring Henry Fonda and Audrey Hepburn. (It was an awful film.)
Then I read a short Jules Verne science fiction book, From the Earth to the Moon, originally published in 1865. I have only read one other Jules Verne book, Journey to the Center of the Earth, when I was in elementary school. His stories are so famous, though, that it feels like I know 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, even though I haven’t read it. I decided to buy and read this short Verne book because he is so famous and I haven’t read much of him, and because just now the big English-language bookstore in Shinjuku has several modern classics in cheap paperbacks (Published by Bantam Books) on display in a Bantam Classics section. Their paper covers reproduce the original cover art. So I thought I would read one, two, or maybe even three Jules Verne books before starting my next big project - re-reading The Odyssey in prose format.
I regret reading the Verne book because despite his fame and renown I found him to be a typically badwriter - typical of science fiction writers, I mean. Maybe my problem is because it is a translation from French - 19th century French at that. But I have complaints about other SF writers, too, so what is it with science fiction writers? They are so often hailed as geniuses - Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein - and yet they are such awful wankers! I’ve read each of these authors’ major novels just to find out what all the hoopla was about. But their writing is so bad it almost gags me! Their characters are two-dimensional. Their plots are shallow. They excel at boring narrative as a substitute for complex story lines, character development and dialogue that reflect authentic human life. It’s like they don’t really know or understand very much about society. I feel the same way about the American horror writer, Stephen King. I think King is the single most over-rated professional writer in the English language and the best example of awful writing. And yet he succeeds, he has become wealthy with his writing, and is highly reputed. But he is such rubbish it’s unbelievable that he has such a reputation. John Grisham, Dan Brown, and J.K. Rowling (of the Harry Potter books) are likewise so bad that I stopped reading them.
Maybe it’s the concepts that SF writers deal with rather than the quality of the writing itself that warrants admiration. It must be that, because I’ve read the major modern SF writers and found them to be literary rubbish.