Thursday, January 21, 2010

All Things to All Readers?

Jacqueline has mentioned that each reader of a book reads a different story. I’ve been rereading bits of Heinlein’s STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND and started thinking about what most appeals to me in that novel. It’s Michael Valentine Smith’s analogy to Tarzan. Both are human orphans brought up by members of another species to think of themselves as members of that species, and each develops superhuman powers as a result of his unique childhood. The aspects of STRANGER I enjoy most are the expositions of Martian biology and psychology and Mike’s “raised by wolves” difficulties in adjusting to life as a Terran. There must be millions of other readers, however, for whom the center of the book rests in its satirical reflections on human society or in the “water brother” religion Mike creates (as evidenced by real-world cults based on it).

Suzy McKee Charnas has written that her postapocalyptic first novel, WALK TO THE END OF THE WORLD, was inspired in part by THE PRISONER OF ZENDA. She based one of the central characters on the roguish villain of the two Zenda books, Rupert of Hentzau. I would never have guessed that connection from reading her novel. She and I apparently like widely different things about ZENDA. For me, Rupert exists to provide a foil for the hero, Rudolph Rassendyl, and the center of the Zenda duology is Rudolph’s self-sacrifice. Heinlein’s DOUBLE STAR, on the other hand, is an obvious rewrite of ZENDA, with the twist that in the classic novel the substitute, Rudolph, is superior to the weak king he replaces, while in DOUBLE STAR the narrator is the inferior—a thoughtless, self-centered young actor who grows into the role of the wise statesman whose role he assumes.

I recently read SWORD OF AVALON, Diana Paxson’s latest prequel to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s MISTS OF AVALON. I like it better than most of the prequels published so far because it focuses on an event directly related to the Arthurian mythos, the forging of Excalibur. The Atlantean prehistory and the reincarnation theme, which doubtless appeal to many readers, hold no interest for me. What I want from the series is more explicit Arthuriana. Yet another example of how different readers focus on different aspects of the same book. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon in reading reviews of S. M. Stirling’s “Dies the Fire” series. At least one reader finds Stirling’s emphasis on the rebuilding of society with a revival of paganism tedious. That reader would probably welcome more action and battle scenes, which I skim over to get back to what, for me, is the real story—the cultural and sociological stuff.

Likewise, Jacqueline’s Sime-Gen series initially fascinated me because of the quasi-vampiric elements. I’ve come across comments from other readers who hardly noticed that aspect of the books.

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Margaret has pinpointed a motif embedded in various novel's "Situation" element.

    I suspect one of the things that a given reader looks for in a novel, the thing they enjoy repeatedly, will come into that category.

    It's not the plot or setting or genre. It's not even the story itself. But the "Situation" of the main character and other elements positioned (see my discussion of "composition" ) relative to the main character.

    A main character is embedded in a Situation at the beginning of a story.

    The character's "problem" or conflict is that the Situation is not Composed to suit his liking.

    The character acts to change the current Situation into something he/she likes better and either succeeds or fails in the "ending."

    Readers usually enjoy all the variations and combinations of stories constructed on a given Situation.

    The most popular Situation today seems to be the conspiracy theory of reality -- "they" are somehow keeping the majority from knowing something (magic begins fighting a war among us; evil rising) and the main character's Situation is that they find out or know this secret and must act.

    The most recent Fantasy novels based on this Situation portray the main character as accepting the Situation and acting only to maintain the status quo or to better their own position within that static Situation.

    Look around at our everyday reality and see if you can find a hint of that Situation.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg