Sunday, August 12, 2007

L is not, I repeat not, for Laurell K. Hamilton

I think I am approximately half of the Cyberiad fanfic community, but L is not for Lem either. Nor is it for Lewis.
Nor Lewis.

No, there is a far more significant L who made a major impact on my Weltanschauung long before I had heard of any of those people. L is for Lofting.
When I was young enough to keep track of ‘the longest book I have ever read’, and also ‘my favourite book’, it was Dr Dolittle and the Secret Lake for both of them, for quite a long time.

The Doctor Dolittle books gave me two big things, and a host of lesser things:

1. A Role Model
Dr Dolittle works incredibly hard. He is motivated by the unselfish pursuit of knowledge. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, he is omnivorous in his studies, by no means confining himself to ‘natural history'. He is famously unable to say ‘no’ to any request for assistance. His life is chaotic: it is a continuous medley of multiple projects running in parallel, frequently interrupted, which he is always ready to drop at a moment’s notice to sail off to the other side of the world. He is happy to rough it. He is without prejudice. Like Jesus, his human friends are drawn from the misfits and outcasts. He is usually mild-mannered, but is prone to occasional bouts of righteous indignation. He does not blow his own trumpet. He does not mind looking ridiculous. He cares absolutely nothing for what anyone else might think. He speaks truth to power.
Of course I am not at all like Dr Dolittle. But I should still like to be.

2. A Quandary
Androoo (the other half of the documented Cyberiad fanfic community) once floated an idea for a story set in a world where every living thing was sentient, and there was no perceived wickedness in killing or eating a sentient creature. Even thus is the world of Dr Dolittle. The rats are as sentient as the rat-catching dogs. Dr Dolittle talks to fish. There are even, in Dr Dolittle’s Puddleby Adventures, several chapters relating the first-person adventures of a maggot. This makes for an unsettling sort of world. What is ‘good’ in this kind of a world? How ought one to live in it? This is the yawning dark quandary which the whole series meanders around. It is never brought into the open. No attempt is ever made to explain it away.
Dr Dolittle is appalled by fox hunting, yet eats sausages. This bothered me from the very beginning. It did not seem right. I did not know many animals in real life, so it was easy to go on conforming to everyone around me, but the quandary stayed there in the background, ticking over in the darkness. Eventually I had enough self-confidence to become vegetarian myself. There were plenty of other influences, but I think it all started in Puddleby-on-Marsh.

Then there is this urge I get to stick pins at random into atlases. A large part, even after all these years, of my mental image of England. My unrequited fondness for languages. My preference for meandering novels with other stories embedded in them, rather than efficient ones which whisk you along from one plot event to another. My vague disapproval of Noah. Etc.


Marco said...

Nice choice! Perhaps point 2 was a deliberate strategy from the writer to question ones morals regarding animals.

Dr. Clam said...

I am extrapolating from very little information here, but I think that while Hugh Lofting certainly wished us to question our treatment of animals, the deeper problems of (2) may be inadvertent and that he may not have had a self-consistent philosophy. According to Wikipedia, his only published adult fiction was a narrative poem about the futility of war, published in 1942.

Jenny said...

Most of the young adult fiction in which the animals are sentient and are about animal communities (at least the ones i have read) have an accepted "animals will eat other animals" philosophy -the animals accept it, they just don't stop to talk to the eaten first. Usually the prey animals will fear an be cautious of their predator, but occasionally individual relationships spring up where a predator gets to know an animal and will not eat that individual one.

Sometimes they cop-out and the enlightened animals will only eat fish. I was always offended by them on the basis that if warm blooded creatures can be sentient, why not fish?

Dave said...

"So what *do* you think of Laurell K. Hamilton's body of work?", he asked cheekily, to cover up his essential ignorance of the works of Hugh Lofting, apart from knowing the first few lines of "If I could talk to the animals" as sung by Rex Harrison

Dr. Clam said...

Well, I *did* read the wikipedia article. I guess if I felt like that sort of thing I would be more likely to start another White Wolf campaign.