The Wrong Format: Talent versus Gifts

2010/08/20 § Leave a comment

From The Overman Culture by Edmund Cooper:

It was Miss Shelley, not Miss Nightingale who told the children about the Overman legend. Miss Shelley was just as pretty as Miss Nightingale, but she had yellow hair. Michael liked her because she had taught him to count to one hundred. He had asked her several times to teach him. At first she said that he was not ready to learn. Perhaps, in the end, she just got tired of saying no. Counting was quite easy when you got the hang of it. As far as Michael knew, none of the other children could count. Perhaps they had not pestered Miss Shelley long enough.
She told the children about the Overman legend toward the end of the afternoon session of play school, when they were tired out after games and needed to rest a little before being collected by their mothers.
“Once upon a time,” said Miss Shelley, “there was no one at all in the wide world but Overman. And he was very bored, so he said to himself: ‘I must make something interesting happen.’ So he thought very hard, and finally he decided that he would make a man. Because he thought a man would be interesting. So he worked very hard, and at last he made a man.
“And the man was very grateful for being made and for feeling alive. But presently, he, too, got bored. And he said to himself: ‘I must make something interesting happen.’ So he thought very hard, and finally he decided that he would make a machine. So he worked very hard, and at last he made a machine.
“It was a very good machine, a very complicated machine, and the man was very proud of it.
“He said to Overman: ‘You created me, and I, too, can create. Look, I have created a machine.’
“Overman was amused. He laughed. He said: The machine is very good, but you are more complicated. You can do things the machine cannot do. So mine is the better creation.’
“The man was a bit disappointed at this. And he went away, determined to do better. Then he had a very ingenious idea. He decided to build a machine that could build a machine. This was a very hard task, and it took him a very long time. But eventually he succeeded. It was a very wonderful machine, very complicated indeed. The man was extremely proud of it.
“He said to Overman: ‘You created me, but I think I have done something better. Look, I have created a machine that can build another machine.’

I bought my Copy of The Overman Culture with some class prize money, I bought a copy of Beloved Son by George Turner as well, though I had to throw in some of my own pennies. Must have been fifteen or so, 1980 or 1981. Both have influenced me, though Cooper’s work has been more of the sleeper of the two. At least in that more culture-vultural way.

On reading it as a fifteen year old I remember being struck by the the young Protagonist’s name, ‘Michael’ being mine too, his desire to ‘want to understand’ when he grew up rather than become a sailor or astronaut, that all ‘drybones’ and ‘fragiles’ were named after famous people, and most of important of all, finding out in the denouement that the story (set in constructed anachronistic ‘London’) was placed in Tasmania, where I was growing up.

Beloved Son by comparison took place in a post-apocalypse Melbourne across Bass Strait, and not so far in the future as The Overman Culture.

Both spurred me to try and become an Australian SF writer, and while there is time enough left, it does not seem to have happened. I don’t tend to write plain prose, where, like Cooper,

“suspiciously Heinlein-type male heroes… act out their particular destinies (not always gloriously) against unfamiliar backdrops.”

It all makes me think about what was said about Robert Graves, who earnt his living writing historical novels set in classical Rome (I, Claudius) and which were highly regarded but what he really wanted to be was a poet. Poetry which is not highly regarded.

Or what was similarly said about Philip K. Dick and his desires to write straight mainstream fiction, but has ended up a high priest of SF.

What we are best at and what we most want to do are rarely the same. In this case a talent is not a gift but an obstacle.

Back to the quoted block above, the original text goes on with Overman making a woman for his man and sets up the journey young Michael grows into. If I had written it from this point it would be as follows, and from which no more story grows.

The Overman laughed, “You are very clever, making a machine which can make another machine, but look, I have already made you, and look what you can do!”

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