I first received The Lord of the Rings as part of a four-book boxed set, complete with The Hobbit, for Christmas in 1985. I also received a boxed set...moreI first received The Lord of the Rings as part of a four-book boxed set, complete with The Hobbit, for Christmas in 1985. I also received a boxed set of the first four Dune books. I was 13 and in 8th grade.
Like many 13-year olds, I loved The Hobbit but I thought The Lord of the Rings was simply awful. For one thing, the plot was not immediately obvious to me. (Keep in mind that at the time my enjoyment reading primarily comprised Doctor Who novelizations and Choose Your Own Adventure books.) Instead of the short chapters of plot and dialogue to which I was accustomed, Tolkien provided page after page of exposition, describing the local color and history with any "action" provided almost as an afterthought. And then there is what may have been the biggest problem of all with The Lord of the Rings: the scores of strangely named characters and places, some of whom are central to the story and others of whom are purely peripheral and which is which is unclear. I mean, sheesh, who names their two main villains Sauron and Saruman, names that differ by only one syllable?
It should be here noted that while I loved reading at age 13, I was also not the best reader. Memories of reading what I managed to of the trilogy consist mainly of reading a single page over and over and over again just to follow the main thread of the story. Somehow I managed to finish The Fellowship of the Ring and made it a few dozen pages into The Two Towers before I threw up my hands and abandoned Tolkien to the realm of "authors I think are overrated." I still have a vague recollection of giving a a pretty worthless presentation on the first book in front of Mrs. Fox's English class, the same class I was in when the Challenger exploded. (I also have an even vaguer memory of reviewing some disposable piece of genre SF called Dushau), but that's another story.) In short, I never thought I would ever read this book again, and considered all those folks who worshiped Tolkien to be little short of fools.
Fast-forward sixteen years. It's Christmas time in Champaign, and I'm attending The Two Towers with my coworkers, mainly because the bosses gave us cinema tickets for the holidays. As the movie begins to unfold, I remember those few dozen pages that I read at 13, and I slowly begin the journey of reappraising Tolkien. While I agree with those who urge reading the book as well as simply seeing the movie, I think that in this case I could not have done the former if I had not done the latter. Peter Jackson's trilogy allowed me to familiarize myself with the overall story arch (something that was hard for me to do from within the perspective of the novel, at least at first) and also helped me to handle the enormous cast of strangely named characters. (Finally Saruman and Sauron were decidedly distinct characters in my mind's eye, and the logic behind their naming, based as it is on Tolkien's invented languages, became more apparent.) So in fall of 2007 I finally decided to give the damned book another chance, mooched the one-volume "trilogy" (apparently Tolkien always considered it one big novel) through BookMooch, chose it over the New Testament for 2008's "big book" (sorry Mom), and devoured it in January, 2008.
In short, I loved it, particularly the exposition and the bizarre names for characters and places. Strange, huh, how the passage of time will do that to one's sensibilities? The very features of the novel that I found off-putting in 1985, I found absolutely ingenious in 2008. The names and locations in The Lord of the Rings all figure into a much-vaster cosmology and narrative history, and this becomes more apparent when the reader peruses the voluminous appendices. All the details that seemed arbitrary and distracting from "the action" were in fact anything but arbitrary, deriving as they did from a comprehensive mythology (of a world that did not exist until Tolkien wrote it into existence!). Take for example the appendix on the "translation" of the text explaining why Tolkien chose English words like "elf" and "dwarf" and "halfling" to "translate" the "original" Elvish words. Apart from the implication that there is really an original manuscript written in Elvish, this appendix also implies that the "elves" in this story aren't really elves, the "dwarves" aren't really dwarves, etc., but that these are the closest analogs that the translator could find in fantastic literature.
That these 1,000+ pages, with all their hyper-detailed exposition, are merely the tip of the iceberg of Tolkien's invented world, makes the novel all the more amazing. This really is a masterpiece of storytelling and myth-making. I can understand now why so many people love this book. I am now one of them.(less)
An honest-to-goodness synthetic mythology that is 10% raw tedium and 90% sheer genius. It took me a while to build up the confidence to read this, but...moreAn honest-to-goodness synthetic mythology that is 10% raw tedium and 90% sheer genius. It took me a while to build up the confidence to read this, but it really isn't that daunting once you make it past around page forty. At that juncture, the mythical narratives of rise and fall become hard to put down, even with all the hard-to-remember names and places.(less)
First contact with beings of superior intellect leads to unified humanity and World State; this post-scarcity humanity develops along an unknowable tr...moreFirst contact with beings of superior intellect leads to unified humanity and World State; this post-scarcity humanity develops along an unknowable trajectory, an agenda hidden from human view, to its final transformation into something totally discontinuous from the human condition. Absolutely haunting.(less)
Fast-paced Christian response to the conquistador mindset that still plagues science and science fiction. Well-worth reading even now, particularly as...moreFast-paced Christian response to the conquistador mindset that still plagues science and science fiction. Well-worth reading even now, particularly as a counterpoint to messianic transhumanist SF.(less)
"Could he have been the fork in the road that America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from? Suppose the Slothropite heresy had...more"Could he have been the fork in the road that America never took, the singular point she jumped the wrong way from? Suppose the Slothropite heresy had had the time to consolidate and prosper? Might there have been fewer crimes in the name of Jesus and more mercy in the name of Judas Iscariot? It seems to Tyrone Slothrop that there might be a route back--maybe the anarchist he met in Zurich was right, maybe for a little while all the fences are down, one road as good as another, the whole space of the Zone cleared, depolarized, and somewhere inside the waste of it a single set of coordinates from which to proceed..." (556)
"Sometimes things aren't very clear, that's all. Things look like they're going against us, and thought it always turns out fine at the end, and we can always look back and say of of course it had to happen that way, otherwise so-and-so wouldn't have happened--still, while it's happening, in my heart I keep getting this terrible fear, this empty place, and it's very hard at such times really to believe in a Plan with a shape bigger than I can see...." (682)
"Like other sorts of paranoia, it is nothing less than the onset, the leading edge, of the discovery that everything is connected, everything in the Creation, a secondary illumination--not yet blindingly One, but at least connected, and perhaps a route In for those like Tchitcherine who are held at the edge...." (703)(less)
"What frightens me in retrospect about The Sheep Look Up, with its vision of a world where pollution is out of control," said John Brunner, "is that I invented literally nothing for it, bar a chemical weapon that made people psychotic. Everything else I took straight out of the papers and magazines...."(373)
"As far as there are any guides for science fiction writers wanting to make their near-future societies credible, the rules of thumb that have proved most reliable in my experience are these," lectured John Brunner near the end of his life. "take it for granted that the government will disregard long-term dangers—such as those affecting the environment—in order to cling to power; that the citizenry will do the same because thinking is too much like hard work; and when the handful of Cassandras are proved right, they will be held to blame and very likely stoned or shot." (380)