Scrounging at the used book sale, I picked up a copy of Hothouse, a 1962 science fiction novel by Brian Aldiss. I’ve been trying to get into it, but after only 40 pages I’m getting stalled out.
Last night I grabbed Ross MacDonald’s The Doomsters, a 1958 whodunit, off of my shelf. I’ve read it, but I didn’t remember the title. After 40 pages I remember the plot, so there’s not much reason to go on.
I’ve been asking myself why I enjoy the opening of The Doomsters, while the opening of Hothouse bores me. I don’t think it’s a difference in writing style. MacDonald’s cheap hard-boiled prose doesn’t hold up too well. Aldiss’s attempt at visionary futuristic planetology is painfully lame, but I don’t think that’s the problem either.
I think it’s because MacDonald’s characters are vivid. They’re real. Aldiss’s characters are flat pieces of cardboard. In the opening pages of The Doomsters, private eye Lew Archer meets Carl Hallman, who has just escaped from a mental hospital. Hallman’s thinking is disorganized, he evades answering questions, and by page 21 he has socked Archer on the jaw and stolen Archer’s car. We don’t know whether to be frightened of Hallman, or to sympathize with his plight. Maybe he’s right: Maybe his father was murdered. Or maybe he’s just paranoid.
Here are some samples of Aldiss’s dialog:
“Fetch Lily-yo,” Toy told Gren.
And further down the page:
“Clat has fallen!” cried Gren.
“Lie still, Clat! Do not move!” called Lily-yo. “I will come to you.”
After another page of action, Clat (who is a little girl) is dead. But we’ve never even met her, prior to her accident — and now that she’s dead, none of the others mourns her. Lily-yo (the adult) blames herself for Clat’s death, even though she wasn’t present when Clat fell. Lily-yo decides it’s time to pass the torch of leadership on to the children. Essentially, she’s planning to commit suicide. Does she have a reason to want to live? Don’t ask. Aldiss doesn’t care.
Cardboard characters — not a good thing.