Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Sagan Diary

Sometimes I bring in real, live authors (in person or via the internet) and give my class the chance to ask them questions. Oddly enough--or so it seems to me--the one they always ask is some version of "how did you get inspired to write this book we've been assigned?" And this is usually after at least five weeks of me working on them to think--and read--more critically. "Can't you think of some more interesting questions?" I ask. "Don't you want to know why Jack, in Lauren McLaughlin's Cycler, is emerging more often as the story progresses?" Or I think to myself "wouldn't you like to see who would crack first if John Scalzi's Consu face off against Joan Slonczewski's Sharers?" (By the way, this is an idea for Who's More Awesome if it could be done as well as some of the previous posts like Ferrets vs. Poseidon or Sasquatch vs. The Abominable Snowman).

For me, at least, knowing too much about an author's inspiration is a bit like watching Peter Jackson's special features on the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring--Legolas and Arwen, in particular, looked and sounded enough like how I'd imagined them all my life that it was an unpleasant surprise to hear how the actors sounded without lines to read. Sometimes it's better not to know, because then you can continue to imagine.

But some of us just can't resist reading everything available by our favorite authors. And so I got a copy of The Sagan Diary for my birthday, and I read it. I expected it to be what a previous reviewer calls it, a "contrapuntal work" to the three novels in the Old Man's War series (Old Man's War, The Ghost Brigades, The Lost Colony). But there's nothing in it that I hadn't already inferred from reading those books. There's a section in the chapter entitled "Speaking" about Jane's relationship to language that doesn't go any farther towards explaining the point of view of one who was born able to communicate mind-to-mind than the novel that introduced the idea did. Why I thought the diary might be able to, I don't know--it's the age-old science fiction conundrum of how can you imagine an alien with no mouth? Or no eyes, etc. It's almost impossible not to have some substitute for eating or seeing, because even human language--most of our metaphors--is so wrapped around those methods of sensory experience.

Also I was disillusioned to find a sketch of the character Jane Sagan looking exactly like the photos of Scalzi's wife that he posts on his website from time to time. Too much information! I had my own picture of Jane, and she was smarter, stronger, faster, braver--and more mysterious--than any human woman in existence could ever be. Plus, I don't like the implication that the hero is based on the author, because the author has already succeeded in making him larger than life. Why poke a tiny hole in the Macy's parade balloon of "The Heroic John Perry" just to see if he'll start zooming around on his strings and making that amusing brrrrff noise?

I was entertained by the preface, in which a military analyst complains about how useless the diary is for her purposes. Very eighteenth-century, preface-reading. I'm always quite agreeably entertained when a modern writer makes good use of the tradition.

I was puzzled by the lengthy appendix, a list of names, none of which I recognized from the Old Man's War novels, until I discovered that they are the names of people who pre-ordered the first edition of The Sagan Diary. Okay, harmless enough, but why preserve that appendix in the mass-market edition?

Have you ever procured a copy of something supplemental to the main works of an author of whom you are extraordinary fond and been a bit disillusioned by it?


Anonymous said...

I do like to read biographies of authors but I can't think of any offhand that made me dislike a favorite.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I know I have. I'll have to think -- Well, James Joyce is a bit of a schmuck, I think, but I still think Ulysses and Dubliners are works of genius. I just read a review of something by Curtis Sittenfeld which was a terrible piece of writing, but I think American Wife was great -- but Prep was not.

Ron Griggs said...

Over the years I've purchased at least 15 books of the posthumous writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, including the 12 volume set now called "The History of Middle Earth" edited by his son. This represents somewhere between four and five thousand pages, much of it comprised of fragments written and rewritten again. And I've enjoyed every page.

That may be the great exception to your rule.

FreshHell said...

I know I was disappointed to find out that AA Milne (or was it EB White?) was a distant-at-best father.

Jeanne said...

Freshhell, I believe you're thinking of Milne, who was a typical distant Victorian father and didn't even read the Pooh stories to Christopher (he did read other things to him).