Judge Dredd and Jane Austen, Sitting In a Tree

Robert N. Lee makes his Shimmer debut in #17 with “98 Ianthe,” a story I love for its voice and its irreverence and reverence both. It’s that kind of story. You have to read it, exactly the same way you have to read his guest post here, about romance. Ah, romance. -ECT

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I never read Lord of the Rings. I read Pride and Prejudice instead.

It wasn’t this cover, alas.

That’s not entirely accurate, but it’s a good opening.

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I did read The Hobbit, in fourth or fifth grade. I thought it was okay. I gave Fellowship of the Ring a try because my aunt Denise was a big nerd who was very excited about The Silmarillion — just then coming out — and new Dune books and the like. Later she gave me A Wizard of Earthsea; that was way better than three more long-ass books of hobbits and elves and dragons crap. Plus poems and appendices. Not in this life.

As far as Christian-themed fantasy lit went, I’d already graduated from C.S. Lewis to George MacDonald. Tolkien came off like a giant bore compared to The Princess and Curdie and Phantastes. My mom’s church friend who was a lit major and gothic/fantasy geek turned me on to MacDonald. She took an interest in me when she found out I’d read The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce and Dracula already and had opinions about them.

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This is accurate: the year I read Pride and Prejudice, the first time, was also the year I first read 2000 AD: 1980. We’d moved from Hawaii for sixth grade to New Jersey for seventh, and then back to Hawaii for eighth.

Judge Dredd, especially, I finally got to read (I’d read all about the comic back in New Jersey, in Fangoria or someplace, I had drawings in my sketchbooks of Dredd and I’d never been able to read the comics), because a couple at my parents church in Hawaii were the first adult fandom couple I ever met. And they took an interest in me when she found out I loved Doctor Who and we went to see Big Giant Science Fiction Name speak at the local SF/F book shop and stuff like that. And she loaned me a lot of books.

You could get 2000 AD in Hawaii, now, I found out the first time I ever went over to their house. She had all of them. And I went OMG YOU HAVE 2000 AD? And she went OMG YOU KNOW WHAT THAT IS? And she insisted I take them all home and read them.

Her husband was a hard SF guy, and not into comics. Not a talker, either. We bonded a little over Hal Clement and talked shit about Big Name, those are the only conversations I remember ever having with him, really.

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We talked shit about Big Giant Science Fiction Name because…he was gross. It was a big disappointment, going to see him speak. He talked about sex the entire time, not his work or science fiction generally or whatever. I mean, it was Hawaii and he was on vacation and probably two sheets to the wind, at least. But come on.

I’m sitting there going This Guy Is a Dirty Old Man, Is All, Does Nobody Else See This? And it seemed like all these other adult nerds around me didn’t, they were just eating it all up and LOLing. Not the couple I came with, though, they did not look pleased.

They asked me what I thought on the way home, and I wasn’t sure what to say, I didn’t want to blurt out That Sucked. But I did anyway, and they agreed, thank god. She told me there were guys like that in fandom, like everywhere, watch out for them. You definitely don’t want to be that guy, Robert.

I already knew that. Mr. Darcy would not have approved of Big Name at all.

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Pride and Prejudice, I read because my mom left it next to the toilet with the magazines, and I thought it was another book. I thought it was a book of Hawaiian history I’d used for a school report. It was not that.

I was somewhat put off by the cover — oh, this was one of the old books my mom read. I didn’t know if I was in the mood for an old book whose back cover text seemed to assume everybody already knew what this Great Classic was and was mostly quotes from people who were clearly snoots. The back cover text promised scanning the first few pages and getting dazed by old school language over a story I did not care one bit about already. Something to forget about after leaving the bathroom.

It was not that.

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I don’t remember ever not liking romance — in fiction, in movies especially. More even than reading, my mother and my aunt and my sister had a great influence on my budding film obsessions.

We only had one TV. I could either go do something else or watch the movies my mom and sister liked, a significant amount of the time. I guess that ended in other houses with boys finding something else to do.

Not at my house.

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My favorite movies, the handful of movies that jostle for Best Movie Ever in my head and keep me from ever making a proper list are:

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Vanishing Point (1971)

Of the five, two are flat-out romance stories — one tragic, the other not so much. In a Lonely Place’s source novel may be a Inside the Mind of the Psycho book in the Patricia Highsmith/Jim Thompson vein, but the (much improved) Nicholas Ray film adaptation is a love story. In which a murder also happened and people are suspected and etc. I Know Where I’m Going! is the greatest movie love story ever. I.M.O. Shadow of a Doubt has layers upon layers of dark and bitter commentary on romantic ideals and romantic relationships going on – anybody who objected to Park Chan-wook’s take on my favorite Hitchcock movie in this year’s Stoker has never really seen Shadow of a Doubt.

One of the movies is primarily about working relationships and corruption and power — love barely touches the dark world of Sweet Smell of Success and exists in the story primarily as a means to get yourself destroyed. The last one’s about a fallen knight on a doomed last quest, except he’s got a 1970 Hemi Challenger instead of a horse. There was once a lady, now lost, glimpsed briefly and only in memory. So…another kind of romance.

“Romance” is a good word, all around. Why would anybody be ashamed of it?

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Pride and Prejudice wasn’t so much a dusty old classic, I found to my delight, it was a romance novel. And I already liked those.

I have no idea how many “kissing books” I’d read by then. A lot. I ran out of my own new library books to read, often, as a kid, and went rummaging through others’ collections. I read my dads’ theological and political books and his Fletch and Wambaugh novels. I read my mom’s Micheners and Krantzes. I read my sister’s V.C. Andrews and Sweet Valley High. I read whatever guests brought to the house and left laying around.

One summer – the summer previous, I believe – my mom got my sister in to Rosamond du Jardin’s books. If you’ve never heard of her, that’s because she wrote Sweet Valley High, basically, back when my mom was young. Her books were very popular in the mid-twentieth century, less so once The Sixties started in earnest. They had all fifteen or twenty of her books at the local library, I believe my sister read all of them, that year.

I read one, bored. Unfortunately, that one was Practically Seventeen, which kicks off the epic Tobey and Midge Heydon Cycle, so I was pretty much in for all six of those books. I had to find out which guy Tobey was going to end up with, and that meant stick with her through college, and then it turned out SHE HAD A SISTER WITH THE SAME KIND OF PROBLEMS. Wait, there’s more?

I tried to read one of du Jardin’s other series, after, since my sister was now all excited that I liked those books and was reading them with her, but…the Heydon sisters had spoiled me, I guess. Pam and Penny Howard seemed a wan imitation, at best.

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Here’s how I got sucked into Pride and Prejudice, there in the bathroom, a recreation of my thirteen year old mental processes – or as best I can manage, anyway, from giving the novel a quick reread before writing this post:

1. Mr. Bennet hates idiots. Right on. And he’s funny about it.
2. Mrs. Bennet is kind of an idiot. He gets that. He loves her. I like Mr. Bennet better already.
3. I got to read about this daughter Mr. Bennet loves best and Mrs. Bennet can’t figure out.

I already knew it was going to be a love story, that’s obvious from line one, and…hey, is this going to be a love story about a smart girl who thinks everybody else in the world is hilariously stupid? Because they’re my favorites! And it was, and of course, the smartest girl in any room runs into the smartest boy in every other room and they hate each other immediately, they’re so smart they’re that stupid.

But everybody who doesn’t know Pride and Prejudice knows that story, even. I didn’t know those other stories I’d read and seen took cues from Austen, yet, but I’d find that out eventually.

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I keep writing love stories, lately. I didn’t mean to, initially — I meant to write other things, and the stories ended up being more about love and relationships than ghosts or apocalypse or time travel.

I never got how people who love books best about flying saucers or dragons of ghosts or murder can have the gall to mock people who love books about love. I mean, first, of all the things to despise: that. But then: really? You love books about medieval-style battle between goblins and trolls riding flying horses. Maybe you’re the kind of person who reads nothing but that book, over and over, except the goblins are gnomes and the elves are banshees, this time around, and they all do battle on flying earthworms. And people who love books about first kisses, they read about the process of getting there over and over, they seem strange to you.

Okay. People have a lot of gall. I learned that first from romance fiction, probably.

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The first overtly romantic story I wrote, I wrote for my mom. I wrote exactly the kind of science fiction story she always loved best, and I guess I did it okay. In that, after she read it, she called me and she’d totally gotten it without my prepping her, she knew exactly what kind of story I’d written and why.

And that, I guess, is as good a way as any to wrap this meandering thing up: for my mom. And for every other woman along the way, reaching out to shape the course of my adult nerdhood.

I remember, always.

Thank you. For Jane Austen and Judge Dredd and everything else.

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