Jim Crace’s Harvest, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, the Hooptie-Jaguar Continuum, Moral Fiction, Grammarly, & Disclosures

(Disclosure: The publisher sent me a review copy of HARVEST because I *loved* Crace’s THE PESTHOUSE so much. HARVEST didn’t hit me nearly so squarely as PESTHOUSE–largely because of my inborn anti-Anglophilia bias–but is still a great read. Slow, yes, but tense and engaging. The language is taut, and the progress as steady and terrifying as watching those videos of the 2011 tsunami rolling into Fukushima.)

So, let’s broadly assume that a car more or less has two systems: The go-parts (engine, brakes, transmission, etc.) and the looky-parts (body shape, paint job, seats, handling, etc.) An ugly ass car with a solid engine–i.e., a “hooptie”– will get you places. You might be embarrassed to be seen in it, but it gets the job done, and in a pinch you are *always* grateful for the solid lil mule. A beautiful car with nothing reliable inside–e.g., my dad’s much mourned late-60s British-racing-green Jaguar–is lovely to look at, but frustrates you into rage when you actually try to get anything done.

In terms of books, something like HUNGER GAMES is a hooptie: It’s a chugging little story held together by duct tape, rust, wire coat hangers, and your inability to afford something better. A lot of the more literary-influenced speculative fiction that’s hot right now (Kameron Hurley’s GOD’S WAR, for example) is on the other end: Wonderful language, evocative worlds, interesting conceits, but 100 pages in I still can’t figure out where the hell I’m going–or if the car’s even moving. I mean, I sorta don’t care, ’cause it feels pretty rad to just *sit* in a ’60s Jaguar, but that’s the thing: You’re stuck just sitting in it. (FYI, I’m 90% sure I’ve swiped this car metaphor from Joe Hill, or maybe from his dad, or maybe even both of them on separate occasions. I’m the GONE IN 60 SECONDS of concept-plagiarism!)

Crace’s HARVEST is right in the middle–despite being pretty deep into the “literary” end of the spectrum. The language is restrained and lyric, the characters deep without being ponderous, the conceit interesting but simple–meanwhile, the story actually moves forward with grace and momentum. I never found myself up til 2am still turning pages (as I regularly do with our Lord and Savior, Stephen King–and did with Crace’s PESTHOUSE), but I was also never tempted to abandon the book. Even when I was called away for a few days (I’ve got a toddler who frequently sucks at sleeping), I was always able to drop right back into the story and characters, and glad to do so.

Like PESTHOUSE, this novel is *also* a post-apocalypse novel, just one that happens to be set in the historically accurate past. A few weeks back a filmmaking/photographing pal of mine wondered aloud (via Twitter) if rubble was *mandatory* to post-apocalyptic dystopias (subtly bemoaning, I think, the aesthetic stagnation in this vein of storytelling). Fortunately, I can point her to HARVEST, where Crace gives us a model of a dystopian future that isn’t rooted in Rust Belt Detroit rubble, or even in the future. The world, it seems, has already ended over and over and over again.

HARVEST is a workmanlike novel, and I say that with admiration–and the suspicion that, considering the topic and central ideas, this was a conscious choice, to craft a novel that is solid and reliable and workmanlike, as opposed to one which soars. That capacity to show the restraint due your subjects tips us off to how accomplished and masterly Crace is. All of which is to say that this book is, in a way, a sort of literary pool sharking. *Damn!* Mutherfucker played us for fools all along!

Carrying forward with our discussion of the “hooptie-Jaguar continuum” (i.e., poorly written tales with great engines vs. beautifully crafted tales that don’t go anywhere), John Scalzi’s OLD MAN’S WAR is a bit to the hooptie end of things. This is by no means an insult, because the story has a great little mule of an engine–it had me up late reading on many nights. Heck, it’s even a fairly good looking hooptie: the prose itself is solid and stays out of the way. It’s a Good Book(TM).

That said, there is *a lot* crammed in there–seemingly every notion Scalzi had about war and age and distance and loss–and so the impact of any one of his really interesting, possibly intricate ideas is sorta lost in the roar (part of the reason that the novel is three-star, rather than four). The shoehorning bummed me out, since it meant that we raced right past a lot of stuff that I really wanted to explore–and that brings me around to the other reason I’ve low-starred a book that, honestly, I really, really enjoyed:
What the Hell is this book saying about war?

Just to clarify, it isn’t that this book is saying something about war that I disagree with; plenty of books and stories and films I’ve liked a lot argue for the nobility and necessity of Violence. Even when I find it disagreeable, I can always live with a well-formed claim, attractively presented. My beef here is that whatever Young Scalzi’s ideas of war were, they aren’t on the page in any coherent way.

Part of the problem is that this *really* seemed like it was building towards being a statement about the Arab-Israeli conflict. I know that might sound nuts, but it seemed far from accidental that the army in the novel is the is the CDF (or “Colonial Defense Forces”)–a pretty obvious analogue (in my eyes) to the real-world Israeli army (the one every Israeli, male and female, is conscripted into), which is the “IDF” (“Israeli Defense Force”). More to the point, the position of Scalzi’s earthlings–humans as an embattled minority that needs to hack out a foothold in the Universe by any means necessary–is precisely the founding principal of the State of Israel. It just seemed too obvious a match.
But Young Scalzi appears to have next to nothing to say about war–not in the Mid-East in the 20th/21stC, or anywhere else at any time.

Ultimately, the most the book might be said to claim is something like “war is really bad and wasteful, but we have no alternative,” and that strikes me as nothing more than the sort of weak “giving air time to both sides” BS we see when journalists let a climate scientist speak for 5 minutes, then let a denier speak for 5 minutes, and act like the preponderance of evidence *doesn’t* all fall to one side.

I’m not saying war is such a clear cut case. But I am saying that Scalzi fails to attempt to articulate a solid claim about the utility of war. You might counter that maybe Scalzi didn’t *want* to argue about war. Leaving aside the fundamental question (Why would you want to write a war book with “WAR” in the title and *not* argue about war?), my reply is this: It was Scalzi’s responsibility to tell us, his readers, something about war. *That’s* what this needed to be a 4-star book. Again, it didn’t need to say what *I* wanted said about war, it just had to say *something* about war. I *totally* disagree with what DIE HARD says about the Redemptive Power of Violence, but that’s easily a 4-star piece of storytelling.
Here’s the brass tacks: If you write, and if you write well, then your stories–not history, or statistics, or day-to-day observations–are going to constitute the bulk of what forms your fellow citizens’ worldviews. Regardless of what they say, very few men and women enlist because they want to uphold the Constitution; they enlist because of TOP GUN and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, “Dulce et decorum est . . .” and all that jazz.
Scalzi–even the Young Scalzi that wrote this debut novel–is such an able storyteller, and has become over time such a Lion for Justice, that his fundamental mealy-mouthedness in OLD MAN’S WAR sorely disappointed me. In the end, saying nothing in this way is a form of cowardice. At best, then, OLD MAN’S WAR’s statement about war is sort of an implied meta-statement cribbed from Yeats’s “Second Coming”:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.”

Interestingly, this failure to stake a moral claim seems to become more pronounced as you move toward the “hooptie” end of the Hooptie-Jaguar Continuum. HUNGER GAMES, for example, likewise seems untroubled by its disinterest in examining the presumably accidental irony of denouncing state-sponsored violence while glorifying the Personally Redemptive Power of Violence. It’s as though–as is so often the case with an actual automotive hooptie–that we get so wrapped up in keeping the car moving that we totally lose track of why we’re going where we’re going, and if going there is a good idea to begin with.

That said, OLD MAN’S WAR left me eager to read more of Scalzi, eager to see if he’s grown more bold in staking out moral territory in his fiction–’cause that is the real battleground, brothers and sisters. Just like every writer who came before you, your op-eds and blog posts and “statements of belief” and whatever will be lost to time; it’s only the stories that’ll last, so the stories are the places where you need to make your argument.

FYI: I used Grammarly to grammar check this post, because a pleasant young man flattered me, asked nicely, and offered me mild compensation in the form of an Amazon GC. Grammarly dinged me on 47(!!!) critical writing issues and gave me a failing grade (36 out of 100!) for this post. Check it out:

So, there’s your grains of salt. (In case it seems whack, the “Plagiarism” charge is reasonable, as this post draws heavily from two book reviews I previously published.)