What do you do about racism or sexism or otherwise (what I see as) hideous views from books written long ago, when such things were seen to be the norm, accepted, the commonly-held opinion? Shove it from your mind? Look past it? Stop reading
Take The Path Beyond the Stars, published in 1969, and try to separate the book from the long-storied history of Emil Petaja in science fiction. (I say that latter because, even though I’ve never heard of him before, he was named as the first Author Emeritus by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which means he must have been a household name (or the SF&F equivalent) at one time.) Its sexism is forefront and contains liberal dashes of misogyny as well. The main character is presented as so unpleasant in the first few pages that I can’t see how I’m supposed to identify with him except that the book clearly seems to want me to.
All of that, unpleasant as it is to read, I find somewhat fascinating the same way I find a bad movie fascinating. How did this get made? What was this person thinking? But what killed this book for me was the fact I found it boring. The War with the Newts presented every character in an equally unsympathetic light. Donovan’s Brain (which I’m reading for the next Unpulped) has a main character who is pretty thoroughly reprehensible, and his disdain for others (including his wife) is his central, highlighted flaw. He’s an ass, but the story surrounding him is gripping.
In The Path Beyond the Stars, characters talk in paragraphs, taking turns to give us all the exposition we need, explicating entire swaths of scientific discovery and argument in a single breath. When he’s not thinking about how special he is, Jon Wood is an utter dick concerning women:
“Her doll-size replica was pretty, and that helped.”
“She didn’t smile at all, though her mouth was made for it; nor did she bat her long lashes or exercise any of the presumed feminine pererogatives.”
“At work, he had no time for female wiles.”
His attitude might also be genetic, since his father treated his wife the same way. The prologue consists of Jon’s parents shooting their child off in an escape pod as they are about to fall into a star. (Which is just one of the parallels between this story and Superman.) As you might expect, the father is eager to get their son to safety, but the mother keeps trying to get her son back, to keep her with him, even though that means certain death for him. Because mothers (and women in general) are irrational creatures, ruled by emotion, driven towards relationships above all, and whose main tool for getting through life is their sexuality.
At this time I should admit two things. The first is that the views I’m talking about seem that of Petaja, not of the characters in the book—there is no narrator filtering the prologue (a possible excuse for Wood’s views). The second is that I did not finish the book (hence the DNF in the post’s title). Boring is the death of reading.
Another excuse for the way Petaja presents the story, sexism and all is that maybe this novel is following the patter of noir detectives, the most cliché of which are male power fantasies. The private dick sits in his office drinking whiskey straight from the bottle to try and kill the hangover of the night before when a femme fatale sways in to invite him to deadly, exciting adventure.
Key word: exciting. I’ll leave you with this illustrative example of the lack of excitement. Two contradictory sentences, contradicting each other, in contradiction.
“There was no time for questions or explanations. Eventually their huge, slimy pipeway assumed a straightness, which assured Jon they were almost home.”