Tag Archives: science fiction

“Earthblood” . . . My First Literary Love

Do you remember your first love? Of course you do. No one forgets their first love.

Today’s post is about the first novel I ever fell in love with. I mean head-over-heels, smitten, infatuated.

It’s a book I doubt many of you have ever heard of–Earthblood (1966)–a minor science fiction novel written by two not terribly well-known sci-fi writers, Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown.

WOFIFAPR1966

I read the book in installments in If magazine during the spring and summer of 1966. (Before it was published in hardcover later that year, Earthblood was first serialized in the April, May, June, and July issues of If.)

I remember running to my local newspaper/magazine shop (yeah, they were still around back then) hungrily waiting for the new edition of If magazine to appear on its racks so I could continue the story.

My best friend at the time, Rick Agresta, and I would eagerly grab a copy each. If cost 50 cents, which seriously cut into the proceeds from my newspaper route, but I  would gladly have sold any of my brothers and sisters for just a sneak peak at the next issue.

A quick word about Earthblood’s two authors:

Keith Laumer had a moderately successful sci-fi writing career, which was seriously disrupted by a stroke he suffered in 1971 at age 46. Rosel George Brown, one of the few female sci-fi writers of the period, authored some well-received stories and a few novels (she was nominated in 1959 for a Hugo Award for best new author). She was only 41 years old when she died tragically of lymphoma in 1967, the year after Earthblood’s publication.

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Keith Laumer & Rosel George Brown

To be honest, there really is no reason why anyone today should have heard of Earthblood, Laumer and Brown’s one and only collaboration. Except that–back in the mid-Sixties, just as I was on the cusp of becoming an adult reader–it was the book that most mattered to me.

I’m taking a bit of a chance here, because up till now I’ve tried to make my Books That Mattered posts ultra-inclusive. The blog is about the books that helped shape the Baby Boom generation. So by definition, these are titles that have a wide currency. Many are still widely read; almost all are books most of us have at least heard of.

But Earthblood is a book that is hardly remembered today. A book that–even back when it was first published–may have really mattered only to me (and perhaps, Rick, my number one compadre back then).

But please don’t stop reading here. I’m hoping that these musings about my first literary love may resonate with some of you, perhaps get you thinking about your first literary love.

I promise there will be some fun stuff, even if you have never heard of Laumer or Brown or could care less about a forgotten sci-fi curiosity called Earthblood.

earthblood 1

Here are 3 reasons why Earthblood became my first literary love:

Reason #1: Earthblood Came Along at Just the Right Moment 

When I first read the novel in the spring and summer of 1966, I was just turning fourteen. I would graduate grammar school that June and was headed off to my freshman year of high school in the fall.

I was also ready to graduate from the books of childhood to something more . . .  what? . . . I had no idea. But like the young hero of the novel, I knew in my soul there was more out there for me.

Let me make it clear right from the beginning: Earthblood is not on anyone’s list of great novels. Not even great sci-fi novels. Not even very good sci-fi novels.

In many ways it’s pretty standard pulp science fiction: featuring a young male protagonist of mysterious origins living in a backwater planet (Luke Skywalker, anyone?), a traveling space circus, space pirates, a dizzying array of alien life forms, swashbuckling adventures, pitched battles, ethereal beauties, etc., etc.

The plot is ludicrous, the characters broadly-drawn and clichéd, the writing pedestrian–but nonetheless I loved, loved, loved it.

Somehow it was just the right book at the right time. And it struck a resonant chord in my adolescent self that still vibrates–even if a bit faintly–all these years later.

Keith Laumer and Rosel George Brown’s novel was an open doorway to a new universe of literature.

And once I opened that door, I found myself journeying deeper and deeper through a dizzying temple of books. One door would lead to another. From Earthblood to Childhood’s End to The Foundation Trilogy to Dune to Robert Heinlein to Ray Bradbury’s brilliant stories to Edgar Allan Poe . . . to ever more imaginative and substantial fare. All of which, of course, eventually led to mainstream literature and to many of the books I’ve been writing about, books that mattered.

Earthblood would prove to be my gateway drug.

Reason #2: Earthblood Was Our Little Secret

As with most adolescents, Rick and I were on a secret mission: a constant, never-ending quest for ways to define ourselves, to feel special, to forge experiences and make discoveries that were uniquely our own.

Earthblood was one such identity-defining discovery, but there were others.

I vividly remember that summer of 1966 because, besides Earthblood, we had uncovered this great Kinks song, “I’m Not Like Everybody Else.”

Of course, it was a B-side. The A-side was also a great song, “Sunny Afternoon,” which we both loved. But to its detriment, everyone else in the world was listening to “Sunny Afternoon” that summer–so it just didn’t have the allure and power of the song on the flip side.

No one else in the world was listening to “I’m Not Like Everybody Else” (or at least it felt that way to Rick and me). It belonged to just us.

Has there ever been a song more attuned to the yearnings and inner life of the adolescent than the Kink’s continuous growl:

I don’t want to ball about like everybody else,

And I don’t want to live my life like everybody else,

And I won’t say that I feel fine like everybody else,

Cause I’m not like everybody else,

I’m not like everybody else.

I remember Rick and I walking down the street, singing that song out at the top of our lungs: “I’m not like everybody else (like everybody else)/I’m not like everybody else (like everybody else).”

We must have sounded horrible–don’t recall if Rick could sing or not, but I can’t even manage to sing “Happy Birthday to You” without sounding like a scalded cat. But I guess–in the innocence of youth–it didn’t matter as much back then.

not like everybody else

So Earthblood was part of something bigger and more profound going on with my friend and me: we were starting to figure out who we were. Discovering things for ourselves. Carving out an identity that was uniquely our own (or so we thought).

And if our new high school wanted us to read old chestnuts like Northwest Passage or Life on the Mississippi or Two Years Before the Mast (which were all books on the St. Peter’s Prep incoming freshman reading list that summer)–well we could carve out an alternative reading universe. Something all our own. Something like Earthblood.

 It was our little secret.

Reason #3: Earthblood Is Not Just About Aliens and Space Adventures, But About Discovering the Best Part of Yourself

I wonder if George Lucas ever read Earthblood? If not, he probably read dozens of stories just like it, because Star Wars is Earthblood with somewhat better writing, a bit more humor, less violence and gore, and on a much larger scale.

Like Star Wars and countless other sci-fi stories, Earthblood is about a young hero of mysterious origins who, through the course of the story, finds out who he really is and what his mission in life really is.

All of which is, of course, catnip to your average fourteen-year-old.

The novel is set in a far distance future, after the vast thousands-year-old Terran Empire has been thwarted by the Niss, hostile aliens from the far side of the galaxy. After an epic war, the Terrans and the Niss have battled to a stalemate, with the Niss blockading the planet Terra (Earth).

By the time our hero, Roan Cornay, is born and the novel begins, the blockade of Terra has been going on for five thousand years. So long in fact, that many believe Terra is only a legend and does not really exist.

The novel follows Roan’s years-long quest to find his long-lost home planet of Terra, break the Niss blockade, and restore human beings to their rightful place in the cosmic order.

After many breathtaking adventures, Roan does indeed reach Terra and the novel ends with Roan and his small band of intrepid followers ready to begin to restore Terra to its former glory.

Not hard to see why a fourteen-year-old boy would gravitate toward the story. It has everything: a dashing and intrepid young hero, great adventures, weird alien life-forms, beautiful love interests for Roan, and a sense of his importance and destiny.

There’s so much about the book that speaks directly to adolescent yearnings and dreams.

Here’s Roan on his quest for Terra:

“Ma will know all about where I came from; maybe who my blood father and mother are. I have to find out. Then I’m going to Terra–”

“Roan–Terra’s just a mythical place! You can’t–”

“Yes, I can,” he said. “Terra’s a real place. I know it is. I can feel inside that it’s real. And it’s not like other worlds. On Terra everything is the way things should be . . . It’s where I belong.”

Roan constantly asks his adoptive alien parents why he feels so out of place, different, and less capable than his alien playmates–who have wings and make fun of Roan because he can’t fly:

He went down to dinner, but he didn’t look at the food on the table; he looked at Ma and Dad. And he asked, “What am I?” He always asked, but he never understood.

“You,” said Dad, “are a human being. And don’t you forget it.” That’s what he always said.

Roan looked at the steaming plate Ma put before him and didn’t want it. “Then that’s why I’m so stoopid. Why I can’t do anything the gracyls can do.”

Raff and Bella exchanged glances. . . .

“You were special,” Bella said. “Very special.”

Throughout the novel Roan proves again and again to be a fourteen-year-old’s ideal role model: decisive, resourceful, and brave. Someone with whom an insecure adolescent boy could eagerly identify.

Here’s a typical moment:

“We’re inside her defenses now,” he said. “They won’t be expecting any visitors in a hundred ton dinghy–”

“What do you mean?” a one-eyed crewman growled.  “You’re asking–”

“I’m asking nothing,” Roan said harshly. “I’m telling you we’re going in to attack the Niss ship.”

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And the experience of re-reading Earthblood after all these years?

Fun . . . and moving. It felt almost as if I were reading the book over the shoulder of my younger self. I can totally see why I fell in love with the book back then. And still love it.

But there were a few surprises.

The biggest surprise upon re-reading Earthblood is how different in tone the book is than I remember it.

For one thing, Roan is a much more complicated character than I recalled. He is, of course, intrepid and brave and resourceful.  But he has some serious flaws. He has a nasty temper. Is dismissive and imperious with those around him. He even impulsively and needlessly kills the only other pure-blood human he has ever met, the pirate captain Henry Dread.

The other surprise is how violent and disturbing some of the action is. Roan’s first love, the exotically beautiful Stellaraire, is shockingly incinerated in a ship-board fire. In another scene, a slave girl is sadistically and gruesomely decapitated in front of Roan’s eyes during a banquet. Game of Thrones meets Star Wars.

earthblood 3

All in all, Earthblood held up for me. It obviously met a need back when I was a gawky, awkward adolescent, trying to find his way in the world. And even today, after all these years, it is still a satisfying read.

So that’s the story of my first literary love. The first of many “books that mattered” that would nurture, guide and sustain me over the years. I would welcome hearing about some of your first literary loves.

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Five Things to Love about “Slaughterhouse-Five”

This may not come as a shock to many of you but Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) is one terrific novel. Witty, thought-provoking, wise, profoundly moving.

Funny thing is, when I first read the book in my college years, I wasn’t at all sold on its brilliance or importance. I liked it OK. But it struck me back then as a bit too slight, too glib, too “easy” to be considered a great book.

In fact, I probably wouldn’t have even bothered to read Slaughterhouse again if not for my Books That Mattered blog.

[I must point out that I was definitely in the minority in my feelings about the novel. “Slaughterhouse-Five” is firmly ensconced on both the Modern Library’s 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century list (#18) as well as Time Magazine’s 100 Best Novels list.

When I quizzed Baby Boomers about the “books that mattered” to them, it was one of the most often-mentioned titles. So I guess I was a bit of an oddball in not loving the book back in the day.]

Slaughterhouse-Five Original

I suppose I read Kurt Vonnegut’s novel at exactly the wrong time for me to really appreciate it: my senior year of college (1974) when I was starting to get a little pretentious and precious in my literary leanings. I was really into modernism and Eliot and Pound and Joyce.  I had started to view literature as a kind of elaborate game of Clue–the more obscure and arcane the allusions, the better. In comparison, Vonnegut’s novel just seemed too transparent and accessible.

So let’s just say that Slaughterhouse-Five and I were not a perfect match back then.

Having just read the book again for the first time in 40 years, I’m a little mortified that I was so cavalier about the novel. What a little twerp I must have been. That great Dylan line flashes in my head: “Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

It strikes me now that maybe I’ve learned a bit in the intervening years and one of the biggest lessons is that great literature doesn’t have to be difficult or knotty or complicated. It just needs to be.

Kurt Vonnegut

So how does Slaughterhouse-Five look all these years later?

Pretty awesome.

On re-reading it, there are five aspects of the novel that I especially love:

ASPECT #1: Vonnegut’s Humanism

I find myself particularly impressed with humanity of the book. I’d somehow formed the impression over the years that Vonnegut was a cynical, deeply pessimistic writer.

[“Slaughterhouse-Five” is the only Vonnegut novel I’ve read so far. Note to self: read more Vonnegut.]

But reading Slaughterhouse now, my impression is quite the opposite. Vonnegut seems incredibly humane and generous and open-hearted.

Early in the novel the narrator recounts the biblical story of Lot. As we all remember, God destroyed the evil cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, sparing only Lot and his wife. But Lot’s wife couldn’t resist taking a look back at the ruined cities (God had forbidden her to do so) and was instantly turned into a pillar of salt. Here’s his take on that story:

And Lot’s wife, of course, was told not to look back where all those people and their homes had been. But she did look back, and I love her for that, because it was so human.

Cynical? I think not.

Aspect #2: Vonnegut’s Playfulness

I also love Vonnegut’s ability to maintain a sense of humor even in the face of incredible darkness and tragedy. He is very funny, but never at the expense of his characters or his story. It is humor forged in the fires of hell.

Here, he recounts how he had been struggling for many years to write about the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden (an event that Vonnegut experienced first-hand as a young POW):

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.

I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“Yes,” I said. “I guess.”

“You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say,” ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

Aspect #3: Vonnegut’s Narrative Experimentation

I don’t know about  you, but I am soooo tired of the whole “meta” thing: novelists whose novels are all about writing the novel you are reading; poems about how hard it is to write a poem; movie-makers whose movies are all about, yes, you guessed it . . . the movie they are making, etc. OK, we get the joke: everything we’re reading has been made up by the author. Can we please move on?

Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the few meta-narratives that actually work for me (Ian McEwan’s Atonement is another). Because the book is not only about the absurdities and horrors of war, but also about the absurdity of trying to write a novel about war.

Here’s the first paragraph of the novel, where the narrator clues us in on what he’s up to:

All this happened, more or less. The war parts, anyway, are pretty much true. One guy I knew really was shot in Dresden for taking a teapot that wasn’t his. Another guy I knew really did threaten to have his personal enemies killed by hired gunmen after the war. And so on. I’ve changed all the names.

Unlike so many writers who employ meta-narratives in their works, in Slaughterhouse-Five, the technique works brilliantly. This is because in Vonnegut’s hands the blurring of the line between “fiction” and “reality”–between what is “made up” and what “really” happened–is not just a goof or a parlor trick.

There is real purpose here: Vonnegut is saying that the “truth” of Dresden is too big and awful and complicated to be communicated solely by fiction . . . or solely by non-fiction. In fact, trying to convey the truth of something like his wartime experiences overwhelms any traditional literary approach.

So when Vonnegut admits that he is both the author of the novel as well as a character (whom we occasionally glimpse on the sidelines of the action), it strikes the reader, not as trickery or game-playing. It feels like the work of someone who is desperately trying to come to grips with a reality that is so profound that none of the old rules apply.

Thus, the authorial intrusions, the jumping back and forth in time, the way the novel keeps circling back to the central story of Billy Pilgrim’s experiences in Germany: the reader feels there is no other possible way to tell this particular story. Which is as it should be.

slaughterhouse-five

Aspect#4: The Tralfamadorians

No matter what you may have heard, let me just say it here: Slaughterhouse-Five is not a work of science fiction.

That may be part of the reason that I was a little unappreciative of the novel back in the day: not having read any Vonnegut before, I was expecting a little more of a mainstream SF novel.

Unlike true science fiction, I don’t think for a second we are supposed to take the Tralfamadorians (the aliens who abduct Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist, and put him in a zoo on their planet) seriously or as realistic depictions of an alien life form. They are clearly a literary device meant to act as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on and pointing out the absurdity of being human:

. . . they were two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. . . . The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three.

Looking at it now, I’d put the novel more in the “imaginative satire” camp than SF (more like Swift’s Gulliver Travels than, say, Dune or Childhood’s End).

Nevertheless, the Tralfamadorians are a marvelous invention. Perhaps the most interesting thing about them is their conception of time. Here is Billy Pilgrim in a letter trying to describe how Tralfamadorians view things:

“. . . when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are . . . It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

I suppose the real question is: how seriously are we supposed to take the Tralfamadorians and their world-view? On the one hand, their approach is appealingly Zen-like and serene: accepting whatever happens because it has always happened and always will happen.

And yet, being human, can we ever learn to just accept things (such as Dresden)? Can we ever really hope to adopt the Tralfamadorian viewpoint:

“When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is ‘So it goes.'”

 Aspect #5: Vonnegut’s Depiction of War

Has there ever been a scene that more economically and chillingly depicts the tragedy of war than the moment in Slaughterhouse-Five when Billy and his fellow POWs emerge from their bomb shelter after one of the most savage and destructive acts in all of human history: the firebombing of the beautiful city of Dresden.

There was a firestorm out there. Dresden was one big flame. The one flame ate everything organic, everything that would burn.

It wasn’t safe to come out of the shelter until noon the next day. When the Americans and their guards did come out, the sky was black with smoke. The sun was an angry little pinhead. Dresden was like the moon now, nothing but minerals. The stones were hot. Everybody else in the neighborhood was dead.

So it goes.

135,000 people–mostly civilians, thousands upon thousands of women and children–were incinerated in one of the most pointless acts of warfare in human history. The civilian death toll was nearly that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

No one contests the fact that Dresden had virtually no value as a military target. It was sheer, wanton destruction. Twenty-three-year-old Kurt Vonnegut was there to witness it all. And was destined to one day come back to it in his imagination and relive it all again for our benefit.

so it goes

Slaughterhouse-Five is one writer’s noble attempt to make sense of the senseless.

It is a book that should be read by anyone who is seduced by the “glory” of war, or the idea of a “good war,” or the notion that civilian deaths can be written off as “collateral damage,” or any of the other fictions we tell ourselves to make war seem less barbaric than it always is.

It was a must-read back in 1969 when it was first published and remains even more of a must-read today.

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