Posts Tagged ‘Neal Stephenson’

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

August 27, 2021

     Various friends have recommended this novel highly over the years; someone selecting it as their choice in our book group has finally got me to read it, and I’m glad I did, despite finding it annoying and frustrating at times.

It’s another of those late 20th century, very long and rambling novels, almost shaggy-dog stories really, with enough varied subject-matter to arouse one’s interest and more than enough narrative skill to keep one hooked, although early on I did wonder where on earth Mitchell was going with it. At times I was reminded of Anthony Burgess, at others of Neal Stephenson’s astonishing Baroque Cycle. Sequentially in time we work our way from the early nineteenth century through six stories, to our present and then into the future, and then cycle back through them to where we began; there are various links and connections skilfully woven in between the stories, too. If you realise early enough that this is what will happen, you do also then begin thinking about Mitchell’s overall plan and direction.

For me the most interesting sections were a sort of future utopia based on current North Korean society, which was a real tour-de-force, a variation on the innocence/ experience trope, and I could see many traces of ideas from Daniel Keyes’ excellent Flowers For Algernon, as well as passing acknowledgement of Huxley and Orwell, in terms of unpicking the differences between utopia and dystopia. I remember from my teaching days being rather surprised at how many students said they would be quite happy to live in Brave New World. They had a point, sometimes unshaken by my next question, ‘OK, but would you be human?’ The recycling of the fabricants recalled both quite a few of Philip Dick’s SF novels, and also Harry Harrison’s Make Room, Make Room, which was the source of the cult 1970s film Soylent Green

The central, post-apocalyptic future world is really well-conceived and described, and finally convinced me about how good the whole novel was. Again, there are echoes of earlier novels, particularly Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker which I found reflected in Mitchell’s narrative style and use of language.

Mitchell’s ultimate question seems to be whether entropy is finally drawing the human species on to eventual self-destruction. My feeling now – some twenty years after its first publication – is yes, but Mitchell wants us to examine our thinking and realise that a better world may be possible, despite his not having described one in any of the various strands of his novel. Our response to our world, and the choices we make, depend on how we look at that world, how we visualise things and describe them, and in the end the stories we create about the past and the future, because it’s the stories that persist rather than what actually happened…in other words we create our realities and we could therefore create different or better ones, if we looked at ourselves differently, thought differently and described our world and ourselves differently. At least, that’s my take on this epic at the moment.

It’s a thought-provoking novel at many different junctures, and Mitchell attempts to reflect his thesis in the way he has structured the cyclical stories, but I did think that this wasn’t fully clear, and tended to obscure his meanings… A stunningly good read, though.

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: Seveneves

July 23, 2016

51J6jDML6PL._AC_US160_It’s a strange novel in some ways: for starters, the two main sections are separated by a period of five thousand years. Shakespeare takes us past sixteen years with a little awkwardness in The Winter’s Tale, but five millennia? And, whilst the first part is a ripping yarn that carries you along, the second feels limp, self-indulgent.

For some reason, never explained, in the near future the moon explodes, and the further process of its disintegration into rocks and meteorites which bombard the earth, brings about the end of the humanity, but not before everyone’s efforts have been focused on trying to create a future for the human race in space, with a colony of about 1200 people centred on the International Space Station. There’s a little mild exploration of how the species might react faced with the prospect of annihilation, but we are mainly focused on politicking, which demonstrates the absurdity of our species, and hard science: there’s a great deal – far too much, to be honest – scientific explanation of how all the different machinery and robotics and spacecraft work in the two years between the calamity and the end of humanity. What this means is that a lot of the time I was skim-reading: not that I didn’t want to know about how everything worked, but I didn’t want so much information…I wanted to get on with the plot.

Human stupidity leads to further problems inside the space station and to factions and breakaway groups, fighting and cannibalism, meaning that in the end humanity is reduced to eight females, seven of whom are able to reproduce… and we also get the impression that if everything were left to the sensible scientists, things would have gone a great deal better (!)

So, there was a plot, some excitement and some tension in that part… then we arrive in the future, with humanity having re-established itself, but in seven slightly different races and colonised the ex-moon’s orbit space, and engaged in re-engineering the old earth for habitation. And here, things do seem to flag, initially. Eventually, we become aware that there were some survivors of the cataclysm on the surface: a sea-based race descended from people on a nuclear submarine that sheltered in the deepest oceans, and a land-based one that had secured itself in very deep mine-workings; the encounters between all the different groups and the potential for future problems are quite interesting. However, I feel Stephenson spoils his plot by replicating a Cold War Red/Blue split and stand-off between the space survivors – of all the hackneyed tropes to come up with!

Stephenson creates a future world, with some utopian elements, but it’s ultimately fantastical in the sense that he doesn’t have to/ choose to tell us how we get there: the five thousand year time-leap becomes a cop-out, and in some ways we are in the vague and mentally exhausting ages of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men, where he takes us forward several billion years in a series of leaps, but fails to engage us emotionally in the future of the human race. And there is just too much scientific description of invented elements of future technology…..

I have enjoyed much of Stephenson’s earlier work: Cryptonomicon was gripping and credible, and the Baroque Cycle trilogy was a masterpiece. But here the ideas and the delivery feel rather laboured, and I felt up against science fiction’s oldest problem: can you create interesting and believable characters that really engage your reader (no) along with speculative ideas (yes) explained without too much technical detail (no). So, space opera then.

The Comfort Zone

November 2, 2014

I’ve been poorly and therefore resting over the last few days, and resting means reading. When I’m ill, I usually go back to old favourites, which means SF, detective fiction and the like. And that got me thinking: I’m not that adventurous in what I choose to read. I don’t stray beyond the genres I’m familiar with, and comfortable with. When I go to a bookshop, I head for the same sections. The newest thing I took on board was probably travel writing, about a decade ago.

So what? I could argue, I know what I like and I stick to it. But I’m not satisfied with that as a response especially when, in a house surrounded by thousands of books, I sometimes find myself feeling bored and unable to choose what to read next. And it’s not because I’ve read them all: there are sizeable piles of waiting-to-be-reads sitting about the place.

When I’ve tried being adventurous, I’ve sometimes been disappointed. Don DeLillo bored me. Saul Bellow was OK but I can do without him. When I was a teacher, sometimes students would introduce me to something new: I was persuaded to buy and read ee cummings’ poems, and was very grateful for the arm-twist. Apart from that, scanning my reading log tells me I’ve discovered and enjoyed Neal Stephenson (but he is SF-ish anyway) and Miklos Banffy (but he’s an Eastern European writer anyway).

I’m conscious, as I get older, that time is limited. Not that I’m about to fall off my perch imminently (at least I hope not) but I have moved on from thinking ‘yes, it would be nice to re-read that one day’ to ‘I’m probably not going to have the time or inclination to revisit that one, so out it goes’. So, do I have a jaded palate? Is this inevitable at my stage in life? Is there anything left for me to try, or to discover? Or do I just need to get out more?

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