Archive for the 'science fiction' Category

Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

Neal Stephenson: Cryptonomicon

May 9, 2020

51XM13WNJGL._AC_UY218_     I’ve been meaning to come back to this for a while, because I remember really enjoying it first time around, but also to see if Neal Stephenson stands up to a second reading, which I had my doubts about: Seveneves was a good yarn but I can’t see I’ll ever want to read it again, and I think I feel the same about Anathem. But, I really enjoyed his Baroque cycle and hope I will enjoy getting back to that eventually…

This one’s about code-breaking and the science of cryptography in general, with strands woven around the real-life Alan Turing and Bletchley Park, and the code-breaking efforts in the Second World War and a plot that involves finding an enormous gold cache supposedly hidden by the Nazis and the Japanese somewhere in the Philippines as they were losing the war. That strand takes place in the 1990s and involves the descendants of the participants in the wartime strand of the story; it’s also the plot-line which has dated rather, given the enormous progresses in computing and related technology since then.

The disquisitions on computing and cryptography are interesting and well-written, as those aspects of a Stephenson novel invariably are: he’s not afraid to attempt to educate his readers in passing, and those not in want of such education can skim-read for a few pages. He becomes even more interesting when he explores the notion that if you have broken an enemy’s codes and can therefore take evasive actions, that enemy will eventually be able to deduce that you have broken his codes and so do something about that… unless you can lay false trails so that he cannot be sure. Then it all gets a great deal more complicated.

It’s a pretty gripping yarn, and the key characters are very well created, fleshed out and developed; we grow to like them and become attached to them in a way that doesn’t always happen in this kind of (almost) science-fiction. There’s also a really good sense of place developed, particularly in the sections set during the war. And yet, in the end, I couldn’t get away from a feeling that it was just a little bit too wordy and long-winded this time around: a good story and entertaining characters, but that was it… a bit self-indulgent at times. I’m being churlish, I know: there’s nothing wrong with a novel being a good one-time read. That’s what it was first time around, and perhaps I should have left it at that.

True escape from lockdown…

April 17, 2020

Finally some suggestions for the science fiction readers among you, when true escapism is what you crave…the top five science fiction novels in my list.

71FUig5zsTL._AC_UY218_ML3_     Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia. I came across this years ago, when I was researching my master’s thesis at the Science Fiction Foundation, in its previous existence in Barking. It’s a door-stopper (1000+ pages) of a utopia from the earlier decades of the twentieth century, set in a land on Earth but not the Earth as we know it, and at risk because of the machinations of the world we know. Someone from our world explores and grows to love the place… pure escapism, and surprisingly addictive, I have found.

Arthur C Clarke: The City & The Stars. I’ve always felt this to be his best, streets ahead of Childhood’s End, which others have seemed to prefer. It’s stunningly ambitious, for in a sense the humans on Earth in a thousand million years time have what is basically eternal life, as they are captured and encoded in a huge computer, and are regularly brought back to life, re-created, for another existence (an idea which quite appeals to me – at least I’d get all my reading done, then). There are only two settlements left on the planet in the remote future, this one with built-in eternity, and another, which is much closer to our lives at the moment: contact between the two must take place, and contact with an intelligence from another world, too.

916Pcqj+xLL._AC_UY218_ML3_     Walter M Miller: A Canticle for Leibowitz. In almost apocalyptic times, the ‘best’ of apocalyptic novels, though completely without any hope at the end. A few survivors eke out a basic existence on the scraps of our world after a nuclear war; civilisation is preserved by an order of monks, and over centuries rebuilds itself until, inevitably, history repeats itself. A creation of the doom-laden Cold War years, it remains a masterpiece among many novels with a similar premise, for its unusual take on survival after armageddon.

Mary Shelley: The Last Man. Miles better than Frankenstein, less hectic in its pace, this is a very relevant tale for the moment, set in a republican England of the late twenty-first century (though not one which we would anticipate today) where a deadly disease gradually wipes out humanity until, as the title suggests, there is finally only one person left. It’s romantic in its notions and in its sweep, as well as playing to everyone’s megalomania: what would you do, and where would you go, when you are the last person left?

51KJD1RCF1L._AC_UY218_ML3_     Ronald Wright: A Scientific Romance. This is an excellent late twentieth-century take on HG WellsThe Time Machine, which takes the traveller north from London to Scotland, where in the far future a world closely resembling that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth seems to have evolved. There have been a number of novels which have played with Wells’ original idea, and this one is an extremely good and cleverly devised tale; I hesitated between it and Christopher Priest’s The Space Machine, which manages to blend The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds very skilfully.

If you have been moved or inspired to read any of the novels on any of my lists while you have been in lockdown, which not take a few minutes to say what you thought, in a comment at the end?

More books to get you through a lockdown…

April 14, 2020

Women get a look-in on this particular list of novels originally written in English; only three out of ten, but it’s a start.

Jane Austen: Mansfield Park. People discuss, argue even, over which is the best of Jane Austen’s novels. For me it comes down to one of the two on this list: ask me tomorrow, and the other of the two will be the best. Mansfield Park is the most complex of her novels, and one that for me is full of politics and ideas, and shows a depth to Austen that’s harder to find in her other works, as she subtly reflects on some of the enormous changes taking place in English society at the time she was writing, with the country in the middle of the Napoleonic Wars, early industrialisation and enclosures of the common land to name but a few. Her heroine is not someone to easily warm to, the hero’s choice to follow the vocation of the church is hardly thrilling, and the Crawfords, though attractive, are Satanic tempters… Or, if you want something simpler, there’s Persuasion, which is about the survival of love in adversity and how the hero and heroine finally do get what they deserve. The final section is as tense, powerful and nerve-wracking as it’s possible for Austen to be.

Charlotte Bronte: Villette. I like Jane Eyre, but have always found Villette more gripping and compelling, partly because of the complex relationship between hero and heroine, and partly because of the exotic setting. Writing that last sentence I’m struck with how it is just as true of Jane Eyre. Evidently I prefer how Bronte works it all out in Villette! And the ending of Villette is just marvellous, perhaps the first ‘open’ ending in the English novel, certainly very daring, and for me incredibly moving…

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo. Conrad has always called to me because of his Polish ancestry; he has always astonished me by his literary production in what was actually his third language. I like the complexity of the narrative structure of Nostromo, and the way the author manipulates his reader; the setting of this novel also reminds me of Marquez’ masterpiece I wrote about a couple of days ago, One Hundred Years of Solitude. There’s also a subtle psychological depth to Conrad’s characters which fascinates me, and we are thinking about a writer who was active at the time that psychology and psychoanalysis were coming into the mainstream of people’s lives.

Evelyn Waugh: Brideshead Revisited. I realise I’m back with the ‘vanished past’ novels that I was listing in my earlier posts, and an English take on the idea this time. It’s quite easy to forget Waugh’s framing of the main story while one wallows in the luxury and decadence of the earlier years, and perhaps you need the experience of being or having once been a Catholic for the utter sadness of the central relationship to have its full effect on you. For me, not necessarily a great novel, but a small and perfectly formed gem, and one wonderfully brought to television many years ago now.

Lawrence Sterne: Tristram Shandy. I’ve read a goodly number of experimental and just plain weird novels in my time – search for posts on Ben Marcus in this blog if you like – but this takes the biscuit, written by an English country clergyman two and a half centuries ago. You can still visit his church and home if you are in my part of the world. It’s the world’s longest shaggy dog story, wandering all over the place and getting nowhere, as well as exposing, in one of the earliest of novels, the limitations of any pretence to realism in that form.

Henry Fielding: Tom Jones. It’s rambling, it’s fun, it’s vulgar, and the boy and the girl get each other in the end. That sounds really trite, and you really have to look at it from the perspective of it’s being one of the very first novels in English. And Fielding’s dialogue with his readers is superb.

James Joyce: Ulysses. This one has to be in here. Sorry if you’ve tried and failed, but it really is worth it finally to get through the whole novel. The stream of consciousness is a fascinating idea: you can do it with yourself if you concentrate hard enough, but to have a writer take you inside the mind and subconscious of another person is a different experience. And then there’s the cleverness, the mapping of Bloomsday onto Dublin, onto 24 hours, onto Homer’s epic poem. I know it’s not for everyone. I’ll confess: having read Ulysses, I thought I’d be brave and attempt Finnegans Wake. Fail.

Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong. I taught this a few times, and it took a good while for its cleverness fully to sink in: so many of the poems of the Great War, and so many events and places, and also writers who took part, are so carefully and subtly woven in to this amazing novel, and when I do finally go back to it, I’m sure I will spot some more. And then there’s the clever framing of the story, and the subplot as the grand-daughter rediscovers the past. It’s not flawless, but as a way of linking current generations into a traumatic past, I think it surpasses anything else I know of.

Philip Pullman: Northern Lights Trilogy. Highly-rated and very popular, but still underrated, in my opinion. I think it is an absolute masterpiece on many counts. Pullman’s imagining of the alternate and parallel universes, the wealth of detail – which was lost in the recent TV series – creating Lyra’s Oxford, the huge cast of characters and more fantastical creatures, many brought to life in great detail, unlike the wooden or cardboard characters that people a lot of fantasy. And then, the philosophical ideas that Pullman draws in, as well as the many parallels with Milton’s epic Paradise Lost… I’m blown away each time I come back to it. I’ve listened to Pullman himself narrating the entire work a couple of times, read the novels several times, seen the poor film The Golden Compass, and watched the amazing recent TV series – I can’t get enough.

There’s a couple of lockdowns’ worth of suggestions there; to be continued…

Plague in literature

March 17, 2020

Way back in the seventies, I vaguely recall reading a novel called The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton, a competently-written thriller among lots of other similarly well-written ones of the time, which depicted humanity threatened by a deadly virus. I remember nothing else about it, and it has vanished as so many other best-sellers do over time.

51wnFk+aO6L._AC_UY218_ML3_    As a student I also remember reading a rather better novel by Albert CamusLa Peste, or The Plague. Set in Oran, in the then French colony of Algeria, in the 1940s during an outbreak of the plague, it focused on the life and work of a doctor in the beleaguered city, and the psychology and behaviour of a population subjected to such a threat. Humans do not generally come out well in those circumstances; Rieux does his human best.

41kh7MYOOaL._AC_UY218_ML3_    I can remember teaching Daniel Defoe’s novel (note that, novel) A Journal of the Plague Year, which recalls the dreaded year 1665 in London. Again, people behave very badly, very selfishly, and irrationally in the circumstances; in those days there was almost no knowledge of how disease originated or spread, so the effects of the outbreak – almost an annual occurrence but far more devastating in that particular year are particularly horrible.

Defoe’s book is interesting on a number of counts. It is a work of fiction, written by a man who was only a small child in the actual year of the plague outbreak, yet it is presented as a diary account by someone who lived through the events of that year in London, with all sorts of details to emphasise its verisimilitude. Defoe was a journalist by profession, and so knew how to use and present his source material to great effect, and yet this book also has a claim to be one of the very first novels written in the English language.

51w+CUWfm2L._AC_UY218_ML3_    And finally, a novel with which I’m a little more familiar, from having read or listened to the audiobook rather more recently, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, set in England in the 21st century, when the world is devastated by an illness which clears the planet of its human inhabitants. Here is another novel with disease – or rather, the effects of disease – at its centre, but in the romantic vein in which she writes, Shelley is actually far more interested in the picture of a gradually emptying land and its exploration and traversing by a shrinking band of the nation’s elite. It’s as limited a work of science fiction as is her more famous Frankenstein in terms of detailed imagination of the future (although her vision of England as a republic has a certain charm), but absolutely marvellous in the way it can draw the reader into the solipsistic vein of imagining her/himself as the sole survivor of the species with the entire world as their oyster…

Apocalyptic literature is a genre mainly from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, although writers have tended to imagine humanity wiping itself out through warfare rather than being taken unawares by a disease it cannot cure or master.

L0030701 London's dreadful visitation ..., 1665

 

I’m wondering whether to revisit Camus or Defoe at the moment…have gone with Defoe.

On annihilation

February 1, 2020

A recent death in the family has inevitably had me reflecting on endings, disappearances, and what happens next. And while I have a faith and a spiritual life of sorts, I cannot think that there will be anything to come hereafter, in which I may have any connection to, knowledge or comprehension of this life which I have been enjoying for so long.

Many writers have imagined annihilation on a global scale, especially since 1945 and the first use of nuclear weapons. Think Walter Miller’s superb A Canticle For Leibowitz. Others have imagined environmental disaster, or disease on a pandemic scale. Mary Shelley’s The Last Man is my favourite example here. But these writers envisage some survivor(s), rather than the complete disappearance of humanity. Rarely have writers contemplated or explored the idea of annihilation itself.

81m4LsvGXVL._AC_UL320_ML3_    71DcF-BqxUL._AC_UY218_ML3_    There are two literary works – very different from each other – which have chimed in with my thoughts. One is Eugene Ionesco’s masterpiece Le Roi Se Meurt (The King Dies) which I have mentioned a number of times. The king has to die, as must we all, and his time has come, yet he cannot accept the inevitable: he rages against it, even as his kingdom, in pathetic fallacy, disintegrates around him. His two queens assist him: the younger and more beautiful young one urging him to resist, supporting his denial (of the obvious) while the elder strives to get her husband to accept the inevitable. Death cannot be resisted. Amid his mental struggles, the king wants someone to teach him how to die, and is told – in a bleak sentence which has stayed with me for half a century, “Everyone is the first person to die!” For me, there is the profundity of great wisdom and great art in that bald sentence, so terrible when fully contemplated. And in this play, no afterlife is on offer.

The second text which spoke to me is a science fiction novel from the 1940s, Olaf Stapledon’s neglected Last And First Men. It’s a difficult, painful and strangely dull read at times, as well as an absolutely astonishing work of the imagination: Stapledon takes us on a whirlwind imagined history of humanity through (I think) eight very different incarnations of the human species over a period of several billion years, and its existence on several of our solar system’s planets. And as the years whizz by on the clocks of the Time Traveller’s craft in HG Wells’ novel up until the moment of the death of the sun, Stapledon’s journey takes us just as far into the future, but what shocks most is how quickly our own time, the people, places, countries and world we know are left behind in the mists of time. Gone and forgotten forever are all the marvels of our era, the Bachs and the Shakespeares and the Einsteins, gone are the cathedrals and the wonders of the world, ground to dust over millennia by time and geology: how long will the slightest traces of any of our world and our (feeble) achievements be recognisable? Shelley’s Ozymandias comes to mind: ‘Look on my works, ye might, and despair.’

The sense of annihilation is the total vanishing, the utter evanescence of anything connected with us on the scale of the universe, our utter insignificance. And when I contemplate that on an individual or personal level, my mind fails me, quite honestly. For how long will anyone have a memory of me, or my deeds? So then, I’m faced with the question: what is the point? And faced with that insignificance, all I can imagine is to try and live well and care for those close to me and dear to me, to enjoy myself, and do good where I can for as long as I’m able. I came across an old Arab proverb many years ago: “One day, you will only be a story: make sure yours is a good one.” That speaks to my condition.

Philip Pullman: Once Upon a Time in the North

January 1, 2020

51MctBCN2bL._AC_UY218_ML3_   A long time ago, shortly after the completion of the His Dark Materials trilogy, a couple of short books were published, extending and developing parts of the story. I acquired one – Lyra’s Oxford – at the time, but the other I haven’t had until now, and a very welcome stocking-filler it was, too.

Once Upon a Time in the North is a tale of Lee Scoresby’s very early days as an aeronaut, and his first encounter with the bear Jorik as they join forces to outwit various malevolent forces. It was also interesting as the source of an encounter shown in the recent TV adaptation, which I hadn’t recalled from the original trilogy, where Lee quotes legalese to outwit one of the local bureaucrats who are in the pay of the Magisterium…

But the little volume is most enjoyable for what I suppose I’d call the local colour: the development of the characters of Lee and Jorik at a time long before the events of the trilogy, and the atmosphere of the community in the far North which is fleshed out and brought to life. Neither this little book nor the other I’ve mentioned are anything special, but they are an added bonus for those who love the totality of Pullman’s amazing creation…

2019: my year of reading…

December 30, 2019

I’ve not done anywhere near as much reading this last year as I normally would, for a number of reasons, and recently have not felt able to settle down to anything as demanding as a full-length book, so for the last couple of months it has been magazines and online articles, mainly. I have acquired 30 new books this year – so some success on cutting down how many I buy – disposed of a good many more than that, and actually read 53 books in total, so just over one a week. I never imagined the total would drop so low…

I realise on looking through my reading log that I’ve spent a fair amount of time re-reading this year. At the end of 2018, I began working my way through the novels of Philip K Dick again, and got about half-way through them before I got side-tracked; I also re-read some Raymond Chandler, some Garrison Keillor and quite a lot of Ursula Le Guin, prompted by her death earlier in the year. Her work remains as powerful as ever for me, in many different ways. I’m looking forward to tacking her epic Always Coming Home next year.

Why so much re-reading? Looking at my shelves I see that there are so many old favourites still there, which have survived the annual cull of books which head their way to Amnesty International, and I feel drawn to revisit them, and the pleasure I recall in the past. I used to have the feeling, “well, I’d like to re-read that one day…” and move on; nowadays, something follows that thought up with, “get on with it, then!” So I have.

Like many of you, I have a fair number of what might loosely be called “coffee-table books” in a dismissive sort of way: I mean the kind of large format, illustrated books that don’t necessarily lend themselves to a cover-to-cover read, but are for deep browsing; I’ve spent a good deal of time revisiting those this year, too, especially the ones on travel and exploration. Very satisfying.

But it hasn’t been completely a year of re-reads. New discoveries have included R H Mottram’s The Spanish Farm Trilogy – there seems to be a good deal of First World War fiction out there that I still haven’t discovered – and John Barton’s marvellous book on the history of the bible, which I really enjoyed and found very thought-provoking, too. And I really liked the French writer Gilbert Sinoué’s Le Livre de Saphir .

Now we come to statistics and awards. For some reason – and I do wish readers would enlighten me – the most popular post of the year by far has been my brief and instant reaction to Carol Ann Duffy’s poem The Wound in Time, which she wrote to mark the centenary of the end of the Great War. Other posts on poems from that war have also been pretty popular, along with my thoughts on Ismail Kadare’s novel about Stalinism in Albania, Le Grand Hiver. I’m pleased to be reaching such a wide variety of readers, and I still wish I head more from you…

My biggest disappointment this year has been my re-reading of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series; I wish I hadn’t bothered and then I might have retained more of my original admiration for his achievement. When researching for the post I just published on him, I noticed there were some prequels and linked short stories, which I will not be bothering with.

Once again, there is no award for weirdest book: obviously I’m not reading weird books at the moment…

I’ll give Philip Pullman my award for best new novel for The Secret Commonwealth, the second in his Book of Dust series. It is on a par with the first one, and I know I’ll have to wait another couple of years for the last in the series.

I’m cheating a bit here, but my award for best novel goes to Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, which is coming up for a re-read pretty soon, so that I can dig a bit deeper than just the plot, and admire what she has done in writing a sequel to a novel no-one imagined there could ever be a sequel to. It’s clever, it’s serious, it’s thought-provoking, and for me everything that a good novel should be.

I haven’t read a great deal of non-fiction this year, but John Barton’s A History of the Bible was outstanding in its erudition, its clarity and its honesty. He isn’t afraid to dig deeply or to ask awkward questions, and yet the Christian scriptures are not diminished or undermined by his forensic examination.

Vassily Grossman’s Stalingrad is easily my Book of the Year: it’s not a new novel, having been written before I was born and published in a number of incomplete versions in Soviet times. What we finally got this year was a very careful edition which is probably as complete and as accurate as can be with a work completed in such challenging circumstances, excellently translated and introduced, and superbly annotated: a work of love by Robert Chandler. It’s the prequel to the astonishing Life and Fate, which has rightly been called the twentieth century’s War and Peace. Only a Russian could have written it, and it is a tragedy that the horrendous experience of Russians during the Nazi invasion and occupation is not better known and understood in the West.

I wonder what next year will bring? So far, press articles about what’s coming up in the next few months have been rather unpromising. And I don’t have any particular plans in terms of what I want to read, although I am currently enjoying re-visiting old favourites, so there will probably more of those…

Philip Reeve: the Mortal Engines series

December 29, 2019

71nGj+Yiq7L._AC_UY218_ML3_   Many years ago, while I was still teaching, Philip Reeve came to our school and did an inspiring writing workshop with our youngest students. This will have been at the time when this series of books was being published, and I remember thinking at the time that it was all rather in the shadow of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I binge-read the Reeve series when I was ill at the time and really enjoyed it: having recently been laid up for a couple of days I decided to repeat the experience, and have to say that I was rather disappointed…

It’s a much easier read, with plots that are less complex, although still extremely convoluted and confusing at times, and there are no deeper, underlying meanings for the interested reader to seek out, as there are throughout Pullman’s novels. The idea of constant warfare – Municipal Darwinism – between enormous mobile and travelling cities, is a very imaginative concept and one that Reeve carries off with great verve. He also has child/ adolescent heroes and heroines, who engage the reader, although they do lack a lot of the depth and development of Pullman’s characters. The underlying message is one about the wrecking of the planet through competition: the fixed, mobile, submarine and aerial cities are all vying with each other, screwing the past and the planet in order to survive. Where have we met this before?

I’m aware I’m treating Reeve as in Pullman’s shadow here, but I feel the comparisons are inevitable really. True, the stories are very different: Pullman’s parallel universe echoes our own and develops in a different but recognisable way and gains from the Brechtian effect of involving both alongside each other, whereas Reeve’s universe is set in a fantastical far future which sets his reader in a very different situation.

The target audience is rather different, too, I think. Pullman’s work is clearly accessible to younger readers, who will engage with it at the level on which they are capable and comfortable, and be challenged to grow up through their interaction with his ideas and characters; it’s equally accessible to adults who will be provoked by it in rather different ways. Reeve’s novels are certainly aimed at a young adult readership, but I’m not sure how challenging or satisfying they can be to an adult audience: I read them as pure escapism, and second time around I was rather underwhelmed. Pullman challenges us through encounters with violence and sexuality where Reeve, though acknowledging these aspects, skirts around them somewhat.

Mortal Engines is fast-paced, with multiple and interconnected storylines, and lots of cliff-hangers; shifting from plot to plot keeps use entertained and engaged; Reeve writes well. But there is nothing to slow down mere consumption of the plot: characterisation, apart from the main ones, is rather sketchy. At times I felt he lost control of the story and almost seemed to be making it up as he went along, but in the end I thought he was just about in control of his material: what it all lacked for me was depth.

I also found it hard to cope with the unevenness of tone: the comic character Professor Pennyroyal was annoying throughout and the episodes involving him detracted from Reeve’s attempts to be more serious, emphasising the far-fetched nature of the plot, and involving characters which never engaged our sympathies or loyalty. By the time I reached the final volume I was confused and itching to reach the end: Reeve was no longer master of so many plots and characters, even though he did manage to pull things together in a way in the closing pages, where he briefly explored the notion of humanity as a plague on the planet, and one worthy of being finally eliminated…

So, for me it bears one reading, for the originality of its conception and for being highly entertaining. But the notion of humanity as a scourge on the planet is insufficient to sustain four lengthy novels, and the notional utopia he establishes in the closing pages does not convince. However, he wasn’t writing for me…

On death in literature

December 8, 2019

People die in literature all the time; their deaths are dwelt on for a while, and affect other characters. What occurs rather less often is deliberate and sustained consideration of the subject of death itself, perhaps viewed as too depressing to sustain an entire novel.

You can reflect on death in poetry: John Donne, for instance, does it masterfully in his Holy Sonnet Death Be Not Proud. Donne, Anglican clergyman and Dean of St Paul’s, knows that death is not the end, not ultimately something to be fearful of, because it leads to something far better – heaven and eternal life. He thunders at Death personified, though as a twenty-first century reader I’m not convinced, and I wonder at times how much his seventeenth century readers were.

Eugene Ionesco devotes an entire play to death; of all his works that I’m familiar with, Le Roi Se Meurt, which I had the good fortune to study at A Level (alongside King Lear, which was an interesting comparison) is the play I’ve found most powerful and affecting. The king has come to the end of his life and usefulness and so must die, but first he must accept this, and prepare himself for non-existence. Here, a king is an Everyman figure: powerful he may have been, but he cannot avoid the lot of every human, no matter how lowly. He rages and refuses, attempts to elude and evade; his young Queen supports him in this futility, holding out vain hope, while his other, older Queen must drag him kicking and screaming to face reality. It’s an absurdist drama and gains a great deal of its power from this, with the near-Brechtian alienation effect sharpening the focus on one man and his coming to terms with death. The single line (translated) “Everyone is the first person to die” had a profound effect on me at the age of 17, and I’ve never forgotten it: it gets to the core of the question so directly.

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Illych is jarring, disturbing: one day Ivan’s life is running normally, the next, he learns he has a fatal illness, which takes its course, and we observe his growing confusion and confusedness in himself as death approaches, as well as the attitudes of family, colleagues and neighbours, whose responses vary from initial concern to eventual boredom, because their lives are continuing normally and they are not (yet) faced with death in such a brutal way. And this is the way we react to knowledge of someone’s approaching end: we may be shocked or upset, and yet are reassured by the knowing that we will survive.

I first read Arthur C Clarke’s The City and the Stars as a teenager, and have come back to it a good number of times; as you might expect, as I’ve grown older, my response to it has changed. I now see how he has attempted to remove death from human experience, not in the manner of the Swiftian Struldbruggs, but through technology: the computer that runs the city of Diaspar (go on, work out the almost-anagram) has perpetuated that city for a thousand million years whilst the rest of Earth has worn out and disappeared. Each citizen has their mental pattern, their brain and memories stored, and is brought back to life every thousand years or so, for another, fresh existence… you die and yet you don’t, being preserved in the computer’s memory banks. I quite like this idea, and could happily while away some hours planning my next existence.

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