The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

For the novel Outside the Gates of Eden, acclaimed author Lewis Shiner goes back in time, just a bit, to uncover the what it is people of his generational cohort have brought into the present moment.

LEWIS SHINER:

As I got close to finishing my seventh novel, Dark Tangos, it was time to think about what might be next. I’d just read Anna Karenina for the first time, and it had amped up my literary ambitions. What would Tolstoy write about, I wondered, if he were alive right now? Or, to put it another way, what was the most important conflict of my generation?

The answer came so quickly it was like it had been lying in wait: the death of 1960s idealism and the rise of the culture of greed.

***

I’d never written a book by starting with a high concept. My previous novels were inspired by historical incidents or particular obsessions of mine, and they usually announced themselves with dialog playing out in my head. Specifics first, generalities later. In this case the idea had such a grip on me that the specifics came tumbling along after it–the main characters, the first scenes, various milestones along the course of what I immediately knew was going to be at least a thousand-page manuscript.

What I didn’t know was why. What happened to our Revolution? To all our revolutions? How did the rich come to own the moral high ground along with all the banks and houses? I hoped the answers would come with the writing.

And if Outside the Gates of Eden does answer those questions, it’s in a novelistic way. Which is to say, I don’t expect readers to extract simple answers and match them to numbered questions printed in the back. Instead I hope that the experience of (re)living those years in the controlled environment of a novel will leave them feeling like maybe they understand something in a visceral way that they didn’t understand before.

What I can offer here are a few core issues that emerged during the writing, compass points that I consulted whenever I found myself asking, “Where am I going with this, again?”

***

The first thing I figured out about the 1960s was that they fell into the last sweet spot on a graph with two intersecting lines. The first was the rising line of white, middle-class affluence. In practical terms, this meant that for the first time ever, most kids didn’t have to go to work at 16. Instead, millions of them could go to college and ask questions about why things had to be the way they’d always been.

The other line was the descending line of finite resources. Just as those millions of college students were revving up to change the world, the Club of Rome think tank issued a report called The Limits to Growth (1972), which was followed immediately by the 1973 oil crisis, which made it obvious to every automobile owner in the US that there was no longer enough to go around.

Suddenly a lot of people who’d been saying “Love thy neighbor” were saying “Me first.”

Also in 1973, Nixon finally kept his 1968 campaign promise to end the war in Vietnam. The war had been the number-one unifying issue for the counterculture since the mid-sixties. When the troops started coming home, no other cause was universal enough to take its place.

There was more. School busing alienated the working class, both white and black. Stagflation hit everyone in the wallet, and economists couldn’t explain it or fix it. Even as charismatic figures continued to arise on the right–most prominently Ronald Reagan–the left was devastated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.

The public attacks on the movement and its leaders were bad enough. Even worse was the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which infiltrated every radical organization from the Students for a Democratic Society to the Black Panthers to the American Indian Movement, disrupting meetings, pushing for increasingly violent and bizarre agendas, creating and widening the fracture lines within the groups.

The lack of leadership was crippling. It’s a sad truth that for every ten protestors at a rally, nine were there mainly in hopes of getting high or getting laid. Keeping the actual idealists motivated and active required a major effort, one the establishment undermined in every way they could.

Television proved their most potent weapon. Over the years, the constant mocking images of flower children and shaggy radicals made sincerity laughable and started us on the path to where we are now, where irony is the dominant cultural mode and “hippie” is just another Halloween costume for sale at Target.

And yet. Despite the odds, despite the defeats, images of the sixties endure. The words “Woodstock Nation” and “Peace and Love” still carry power down through the generations. With Donald Trump acting out the worst of crony capitalism on the daily news feed, more and more people are realizing that community, charity, and conscience really are our only hope for the future. And that is the biggest idea of Outside the Gates of Eden.

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Outside the Gates of Eden: Subterranean Press|Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Read an excerpt (scroll down). Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

14 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Lewis Shiner

  1. Don’t give up hope! The revolution didn’t die in the 60s. Two decades after the Summer of Love, the Berlin wall came down bringing the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and Apartheid ended in South Africa. There wasn’t much success in the _next_ three decades, but I’m convinced it’s coming.

  2. I was born in 1962, the son of a WWII (and Korean War) veteran so that technically makes me a boomer. But obviously turning 18 in 1980, after the Vietnam War and the draft ended, makes my experience different than the vast majority of boomers. Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation. I believe the baby boom generation could credibly be called The Worst Generation. First they rightfully or wrongfully broke the social compact that every prior generation had followed to serve when called. And in all the years since they have voted themselves tax breaks, new benefits (Medicare Part D, etc.), and elected leaders, of both parties, who sent their sons and daughters to wars their own generation was too entitled to fight in themselves. They have elected and supported leaders that committed perjury (Clinton) and engaged in a cover-up that is arguably obstruction of justice (Trump). Unfortunately the author seems to be taking another page from the boomer handbook; it isn’t our fault! It isn’t their fault they have nearly bankrupted our government. It isn’t their fault that they destroyed the public’s faith in government (in fact the author appears to pile on this theme; I wonder if he correctly blames boomer idols JFK and RFK for starting the surveillance and “agitprop” that is mentioned above?). It isn’t their fault that they have maintained the consume at all costs culture for decades after it was initially aimed at them. It isn’t their fault that they continued the decline in civility that admittedly started before the boomers came to power. Obviously I have a chip on my shoulder about these issues and I apologize to Mr. Shiner if I have misinterpreted or misrepresented his writing.

  3. The Culture of Greed, is in NO WAY a new thing. It is as old as humanity. Good heavens just google “Gilded Age”. Or “enclosure acts”.

  4. “Stagflation hit everyone in the wallet, and economists couldn’t explain it or fix it.”
    But they could explain it, and did fix it. The inflation part, anyway, was the result of interest rates being too low for too long. The fix was to raise them, the late 70’s had 15%+ interest rates.That caused a nasty, but short, recession and also got rid of inflation.

  5. I’m happy that Mr. Shiner has released such an ambitious new book. A lot of it is about music, which makes it that much better. Glimpses was one of my favorite fantasy books because it so movingly conveyed the pathos and power of wish fulfillment. It anticipated the fabulous trend of classic rock rereleases, with all their remixes, alternate takes, and unreleased demos. Brian Wilson even finished a version of Smile – pretty close prediction there!

    Also, Shiner’s writing has been getting better and better, and he seems to be having more fun. Recent stories like Doctor Helios combine history, social commentary, and genre action in a thrilling blend.

  6. I remember, and I can say that Lewis Shiner is correct about stagflation being a mystery.

    I remember my school principal telling us that no one knew what was causing this new thing called stagflation, that before there had only been a stagnant economy, or inflation, but never both. Years later, in community college, I checked the index of our hybrid (high school and college) economics text book: Nothing on what caused inflation.

    No one knew. Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau espoused a “six and five” plan for wages and prices, while I recall a newspaper article, during those troubled times, on how restricting prices hadn’t worked for the ancient Romans. (This when folks wondered if Trudeau’s “moral suasion”—a term from my textbook— should be changed into a law)

    A few years later later, still in the 1970’s, I found a self-help book, by Robert Ringer, where Ringer claimed the most important sentence in the book was that inflation was caused by inflation of the money supply by the government. He wrote this, I could tell, in despair that anyone would believe him.

    At last I found a smoking gun. Business guru Peter Drucker wrote that in conversation with Henry Kissinger, Henry had angrily justified causing inflation. Alas, I did not write down which book or page number, and Drucker has written a lot.

    One of the things the hippies got right was that there were conspiracies, such as the F.B.I. And inflation. We know now.

  7. Apologies Mr. Scalzi. I suppose I was feeling particularly “kvetchy” this morning.

  8. I am definitely going to read the book but “The lack of leadership was crippling.”?
    Perhaps – but could it also be a case of the Devil having the best tunes?

    As the writer states, the oil crisis ended the illusion that progress (or: prosperity) was fueled by magic. It taught people, who’d never thought about these things, that resources are finite and can be weaponised.
    It is easy to preach a message that sharing is good when the majority of people believe there are magic beans that can make everybody rich (enough.)
    It is harder to sell solidarity when most people think resources are becoming scarce and are strategic assets countries can/must go to war over.

    Within that second narrative it is easy for political leaders to make a virtue of self-centeredness and greed. It is much harder for any prospective leader to convince people that, for justice to flourish and for the planet to survive (us), the West has to give up a part of its wealth.
    Let’s not solely blame the Devil and his tunes though: it is us who want to believe in magic beans – and in evil monsters who want to steal those beans from us. It is much easier to find an enemy to blame for our misfortunes than to blame our own greed and thoughtlessness.
    So again, a crippling lack of leadership? I doubt it. More a case of hard truths being hard to sell.

  9. Judging from the keen comments, writers take note: there is a place for political fiction. My favourite such sf is “The Man Who Pulled Down the Sky” by John Barnes.

    I would remind us that idealism did not quite start in the 1960’s, although with our term “older generation” we wanted to believe it did, and boomers resented the establishment “talking down” to them. A booklet at the time, reprinted in Reader’s Digest, was called (from memory) An Angry Man Talks Up to Youth, where he said that his generation had ideals too, such as forming labour unions.

    I agree something has changed, gone with the Norman Rockwell paintings. I can’t quite imagine a young adult novel today having an idealistic town hall meeting like in Robert Heinlein’s Red Planet.

    I like how Lewis Shiner has writing ambitions and reads Tolstoy. I will fork out my hard earned cash for his book.

  10. I can’t help latching onto the stagflation discussion, because it’s interesting. When I was taking economics in high school, about a decade and a half ago, the teacher believed that we knew why stagflation had happened. Here’s the story he told:

    In the 60s, some guy by the name of Phillips had noted a correlation between the inflation rate and unemployment. As a strategy to reach full employment, this seemed like something to do that didn’t require getting a Keynsian stimulus bill through congress. Milton Friedman (a Libertarian hero, but a more complex character than that when not being used as a deregulation totem) argued that it was only applicable in the short term because the linkage was actually from the gap between actual inflation and expected inflation to unemployment, and appears to have been correct.

    On top of lacking a unifying target after the end of the draft for Vietnam, though, I wonder if “Once we’re in power, we can make things the way we want,” led to some less than flatter answers to “What do I want, anyway?”

  11. I’m glad to see the blurb from George R.R. Martin on the cover, because his book on similar themes — The Armageddon Rag — is one of his very best.

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