Published in 1947, Greener Than You Think is still an engaging, funny read. The protagonist and narrator, Albert Weiner, is one of science fiction's mPublished in 1947, Greener Than You Think is still an engaging, funny read. The protagonist and narrator, Albert Weiner, is one of science fiction's most delightful and dastardly villains, and he is all the more so because he seems genuinely blind to his own villainy. The scenario - scientifically-altered bermuda grass run amok - is comical, but as the plot develops apocalyptically, it is also weird and disturbing. This book provides a bunch of laughs and some commentary on modern American priorities and attitudes that are peculiarly still timely. ...more
The audiobook version of this novel to which I listened contains a preface by King that must have been written a good decade or so after its originalThe audiobook version of this novel to which I listened contains a preface by King that must have been written a good decade or so after its original 1982 publication. In it, he meditates on what his pseudonym, Richard Bachman (under which The Running Man was originally published), meant to him while he used it and after it had been exposed a pen name.
Particularly he highlights how the public treated it almost as a ruse than as a legitimate literary decision...Stephen King pretending to be someone else, pulling a prank on his fans. Whereas, from King's perspective, he really felt as though Bachman could write things he himself, as Stephen King, could not.
He viewed Bachman as a dark alterego, more jaded, more violent (or willing to write that way). It might seem odd for a moment to envision an author like Stephen King requiring a darker alterego. His name is synonymous with horror fiction, he has described hobbling and killer clowns, children in peril, supernatural terror and murderous rampages of many kinds. But if you carefully consider his body of work as King, I think his optimism is nevertheless palpable. The books of Stephen King, and most especially certain key characters in them, embody a certain faith in humanity's ability (or at least the ability of specific humans) to act with integrity and kindness, to - despite their terror, pain and deep imperfections - strive to fight the good fight. King may be as violent as Bachman, but - if The Running Man is any indication - he is much less jaded.
The Running Man is set in a dystopian future America that would have seemed distant in 1982, but is now just a couple of decades away. It has a lot in common with other early 80s dystopias, mostly filmic: e.g., the hyperurbanism and flying cars of Bladerunner; the extreme social divisions, authoritarianism and corporatism of Robocop and Brazil. It's apparent why it was also tapped to get a film treatment, as poor and unfaithful a version as that turned out to be. Let us say no more on that count.
Excitingly - and hard to do in this genre - the novel still feels timely and resonant with current fears: that corporations and their interests will come to control all aspects of American life, that we - assisted by this corporate interest - will poison our world and ourselves, that class divisions will widen and anyone unlucky enough to wind up at the bottom will become fodder for upper class entertainment, and that entertainment will become (if it's not already?) a tool for keeping everyone docile and compliant.
I won't say too much about the ending, except that it's cruel and and pessimistic and nihilistic. It's capped off by a twist of glorious sardonic humor. And this ending - of all parts of the book - makes see why Stephen King believes he needed to channel Bachman to do it. ...more
The second installment of any popular series, whether in film or literature, is notoriously difficult to pull off. I read Catching Fire to prep for thThe second installment of any popular series, whether in film or literature, is notoriously difficult to pull off. I read Catching Fire to prep for the impending film release and have simply found further evidence for why this series succeeded enough among readers to warrant filming in the first place.
The pacing is very different from The Hunger Games, slower up to a certain point; the stakes are higher; the general thrust of the plot more expansive. But Collins retained the fundamental components of the first novel: her characters, their relationships, and their dystopian world, while gesturing toward a cataclysm that, in the next book, promises to change everything (the Han-Solo-in-carbonite moment). I devoured this book in a matter of days and look eagerly forward to coming movie....more
It's hard to know what else one can contribute to a body of criticism as huge as it is for a book of this popularity. There can't be much new to add.It's hard to know what else one can contribute to a body of criticism as huge as it is for a book of this popularity. There can't be much new to add. But I will observe that read this book in one day - something I have not done in a very long time. It is that engrossing. And I am looking very forward to procuring the next installment....more
I subscribe to reader-response theory. Personal experience as a reader has made convincing the premise that a static set of words placed together in aI subscribe to reader-response theory. Personal experience as a reader has made convincing the premise that a static set of words placed together in a certain order can mean different things to different people (or to the same person) at different times. That is, the reader participates in a reading experience at least as much as the author and in a more generative, malleable way. Because I buy reader-response theory and because I read a lot, while reading I often consider my own role in the experience I am having - especially if that experience is mediocre.
Some time ago I began Stephen King's Dark Tower series. I had an ambivalent attitude toward Stephen King that I discussed at length in my Goodreads review of The Gunslinger, the first book in this series. I am now working my way through the fourth book, The Wizard and the Glass, and where The Gunslinger was a compelling breeze to get through, this one feels like work. I have spent no small amount of time trying to figure out why.
I dig the protagonist of the entire saga, Roland of Gilead a/k/a the Gunslinger. Part Clint Eastwood à la High Plains Drifter and part in-the-grips-of-ring-madness Frodo, Roland can seem sympathetic yet unlikable, he is both trustworthy and suspect. He serves a greater quest more than he serves himself and this makes him ultimately volatile, despite his seeming reliability. Having reached this point in the series, I have followed Roland over thousands of miles, through different worlds and times, I have seen him collect a group of friends about himself who know no more about him than I do - his friends feel the same things I, the reader, feel: trust in Roland's ability and fear of his obsessive purpose.
Given all of this, The Wizard and the Glass should offer a huge emotional payoff. To begin with, the first hundred pages or so resolve the cliffhanger ending of the third book, The Waste Lands. Then it moves on to an extended flashback, occupying the majority of the novel, in which Roland finally reveals to his friends the events out of which originated his single-minded goal. Through this flashback, we get to see Roland at fourteen or fifteen, before his life's purpose has become usurped by his quest for the Dark Tower. We meet a Roland who possesses the youthful sense of possibility in his own future - a potentially glad future as opposed to the one with which he ends up, filled with peril, endless searching and the knowledge that he may have to sacrifice his owns friends to achieve his goal.
In this flashback we get to witness the origins of the series plot line and we also recognize in young Roland the seed that circumstances would twist into the man he becomes. I usually adore this kind of back story, particularly when it involves characters and stories with which one has had the time to become well-acquainted and in which one has grown invested. So what's my problem? Why have I had to force myself to finish this thing?
I distribute the blame equally among myself and Mr. King. As to my own role in a mediocre reading experience - I think I did not take into account the arc of a saga, as opposed to a discrete novel. Sequels and sequels of sequels are different animals from the singular novel-length story. When you spread a story out over this many pages, you no longer get the same set-up, build-up, denouement, and resolution in each book that you may expect from a stand-alone novel. These books, as long as they are, should be considered as chapters or episodes.
King took his time with the flashback at the heart of The Wizard and the Glass - he introduces his readers to an entirely new set of characters, a new geography, a new telos. He was right to, but I have grown impatient with it. I want gnarled and world-weary Roland back. I want his crew of motley friends back; his former-heroin-addict, multiple-personality-having-amputee, died-twice-time-travelling friends, of different ages, genders and colors. I am tired of the teenaged-boy story.
But most of all (and here's where I criticize the author), I am tired of teenaged-Roland's love interest, Susan Delgado. I think this disappoints me most because, by and large, I do not take issue with Stephen King's characterizations of women. He writes them in all shapes, sizes and temperaments, as protagonists, villains, heroes, and victims. They are no more or less stereotypical than his male characters - that is, their personalities usually revolve around a core of distinctness that only periodically veers into stereotyping. Moreover, he characterizes Susan as a competent, smart and daring young woman. So what's my beef?
Something about Susan's age has stymied King's ability to avoid veering toward, and eventually dwelling in, the most cloying stereotype of teenaged girls. I grant that, at some point or another, all teenaged girls giggle -- but a girl in the pickle in which Susan finds herself, a girl who has lost what she's lost, who faces the danger she faces and possesses the fortitude she does -- I just do not buy that at surreptitious midnight meetings in graveyards, this girl would be uncontrollably moved to giggles. This seems a small thing, but it represents a more general direction in which her character moves as the novel progresses. As she falls in love with Roland, she steadily cedes more and more responsibility to him. Roland falls too, and we see the consequences of his forgetting himself - he cedes some control to Susan as well - but she's the one who asks him to take care of her.
There are arguments of which I have already thought pertaining to how very young things truly do tend to fall in love - completely and unyieldingly - and how the gender mores of the pseudo-western world King has crafted requires Susan's reliance on Roland-as-savior. Perhaps I am simply not a part of the textual community for whom King writes (although I don't actually believe that for a second). Nevertheless, I see something more annoying and less plot-related in King's steady dismantling of Susan's gumption.
I hesitate to get personal on Stephen King, but I will anyway. Despite the fantasies of middle-aged men, who seem to view very young women as blank canvases upon which their egos can inscribe themselves, most teenaged girls lead very complex interior lives. And King established Susan as just such a complex character, so it is exceedingly disappointing when she slowly becomes one of these blank canvases upon which King (via Roland) can project his idea of feminine youth itself, instead of his idea of one specific young woman.
Girlhood, as King idealizes it, giggles and so of course this girl would do so, at the drop of a hat, no matter what's going on in the story or with her character. As a former teenaged girl, I can attest that they also smirk and guffaw and seethe quietly and, while I'm at it, they do not all have enticingly long, blond hair and a thing for horses. Additionally, I will throw in a quote for pure substantiation's sake. Susan has blurted out some unexpected information that she has every reason to know and to remember she knows. When questioned about it by Roland and his friends, she responds without sarcasm: "I don't know what I'm talking about. Brainless as Pinch and Jilly, I am..." (Signet 2003 paperback, page 453) Even though King has taken other pains to make sure we think of Susan as intelligent, she is not supposed to think herself so...or at least she is not supposed to show herself so and certainly not in the company of boys her age. Is that what I am to take from Susan's inane ejaculation?
So I guess the crux of my annoyance is this: Roland of Gilead is a compelling character, so why is his first love something out of a bad romance novel? Strong-willed, but ultimately pliant. Baby-wanting at 15. Independent enough to seem challenging but, in the end, a clinging vine. Beautiful in the least interesting and over-represented way imaginable (sorry, tall slender blonds with boobs). Smart, but not too smart and never smarter than Roland. *long disappointed sigh*
But! And there is a but - The Wizard and the Glass has some outstanding villains in it, especially Eldred Jonas. And one of my favorite characters, the onetime ne'er-do-well, turned gunslinger Eddie, gets a satisfying moment of glory toward the book's beginning. I have yet to see what the end has in store, but I had to go ahead and write this entry because unless Susan dies, and soon, I have no idea how long it will take me to get there....more
I came to my reading of Watchmen with pretty high expectations. I steered clear of the film until I could take in the book, having heard what an origiI came to my reading of Watchmen with pretty high expectations. I steered clear of the film until I could take in the book, having heard what an original, complex and downright groovy graphic novel this is. I guess I would call Watchmen original and complex, and for that matter groovy. And yet, I didn't love it the way I wanted to love it. It did not seem immediate or very relevant. I disliked the female characters and the book's handling of gender. Every once in a while the over-earnest writing (especially for Rorschach) elicited an eye roll from me. And then it struck me Watchmen was published over 20 years ago.
I tried to cut it some slack and decided I would probably most effectively understand and appreciate the book within its context. That is, within the context of the historical moment of its publication, as well as within the context of the tradition of graphic novels and what was expected of them when Watchmen was published. Essentially, I got the feeling that so many tropes of modern superhero literature had been introduced and even created by Watchmen, that if one didn't take care to remember this, one might fall into the error of thinking it hackneyed. Like believing Shakespeare wrote in clichés, when in fact he originated language that would become, through acceptance and use, clichéd.
The main plot line of Watchmen unfolds against and becomes intertwined with the eruption of a nuclear scare between the United States and the Soviet Union. The U. S. President at the time of this occurrence (1985ish) is still Richard Nixon. We learn that he ushered through a constitutional amendment to allow him to run for more than two terms. Even though nuclear armament, and the threat of its use in an alternate historical 80s, comprise the very specific atmosphere within which the larger questions of heroism and altruism develop, these questions still resonate today. We no longer fear all out nuclear war (even though we probably should), now we fear terrorism. In any event, there still exists a phantom-like hostility out there, which leads us to gauge the balance of our safety with our freedom and to imagine heroes capable of offering us the former while protecting the latter. Perhaps because Moore envisions superheros as real personalities, because he questions vigilante justice and what would draw an individual to pursuing it, do we today portray superheros the way we do - as flawed and somewhat frightening humans who exercise power many of us wish for, many of us distrust, but few of us would truly want. Just as with contemporary superhero films, Watchmen maintains interest in both the effect of vigilante justice on the psyche of the superhero/vigilante and its effects on the public those superheroes/vigilantes purport to protect.
In addition to this theme of moral ambiguity, Watchmen achieves complexity with its interesting structure. The main narrative (and illustration, in this case) alternates both with different formats, news clippings, book excerpts, etc., and with a parallel narrative or story-within-a-story of "The Black Freighter". (Aside: The Brecht fan in me really appreciated this homage.)
Altogether a work of ambitious scope and intellectually interesting questions, I ultimately appreciated Watchmen mentally much more than I did emotionally or aesthetically. I think that for its emotional and aesthetic impact to reach me, I would have had to read it in the 80s, when it all seemed fresh. But that's my failing, I think, and not really the book's.
I have heard so very much about Kim Stanley Robinson's work, I was really looking forward to this read (listen in this case). With a few notable excepI have heard so very much about Kim Stanley Robinson's work, I was really looking forward to this read (listen in this case). With a few notable exceptions (e.g., the lengthy scene involving Henry's harrowing swim back to shore after diving from a Japanese submarine near Catalina Island), I found the pacing and descriptive language in this book unflaggingly dull. Additionally, Robinson may have done a fine job of accurately depicting the interior life of a teenage boy, but if he did I guess I find the thoughts and emotional motivations of teenage boys unenlightening and vaguely unsympathetic. My own memories of high school lead me to think this is probably true. In any event, though I haven't written him off completely, I will probably not be picking up another Robinson book anytime soon....more
In order to really dissect my reaction to The Gunslinger, or really to any Stephen King book, I find it useful to distinguish a writer from a storytelIn order to really dissect my reaction to The Gunslinger, or really to any Stephen King book, I find it useful to distinguish a writer from a storyteller. The former can be the latter and the latter the former, but these two aspects of authorship often appear separately in that much maligned category of book, popular fiction. Certainly, a multitude of simply unimaginative formula authors populate the booklists of popular fiction. And every once in a while a writer, a true wordsmith, appears in their ranks - someone who, in 100 years, will be considered lit-ruh-chuh or is considered so already. Toni Morrison has been a bestseller (thanks Oprah) and she, without doubt, is a literary writer of the utmost skill. I think more often, however, the authors of popular fiction, when not hacks, could be most accurately described as storytellers. Fiddling with language or challenging the reader's expectations for fiction do not comprise the project of a storyteller. They use their medium competently, but not particularly daringly, and mostly focus on weaving a fine tale. Unlike Morrison, these authors tend not to teach writing at universities. These are the authors who, in oral cultures, would have been bards, would have drawn crowds of listeners, and would have told the stories whence grow myths. Stephen King is such an author.
It took me a long time to realize Stephen King was no hack. His popularity and prolificness (as well as some of his readership) relegated him, in my mind, to the legion of formula genre authors who manage to sell book after book of the same story because your average reader craves formula and only likes what they already know. But Stephen King does not write formulas. As with any author of a great number of books, I imagine his quality can be uneven, but I have read some of his best and they are great. Stephen King won't change the way you think about the written word. He won't challenge your preconceptions about writing and what a novel is or should do. But he will tell you a story that you just sink right into, usually that frightens you, and that keeps you glued to the pages at every available opportunity. I read The Gunslinger in two days and these were fulltime-job work days, and I can't wait to start Book II.
So I extend my apologies into the cosmos and promise to remember that popularity does not make a novel or an author bad. Sometimes an author is popular, not because he's simplistic and your average reader is a dunce, but because his books are that good, that thrilling, that fun to read and accessible. And there's nothing bad about that. ...more
I have no problem with dated things. I do not hold against a past time its inability to miraculously speak to my present. I enjoy trying to crawl intoI have no problem with dated things. I do not hold against a past time its inability to miraculously speak to my present. I enjoy trying to crawl into the context of a different reader who may have lived decades or centuries ago and to imagine their responses to what I am reading...or to imagine what rules the author tried to follow or break, as the case may be. I seek this kind of exercise in books, art, film, music...it's one of the many reasons why I dig old stuff.
So, regarding The Puppet Masters, I feel compelled to observe that it is not its dated quality that specifically irks me. As a work of early science fiction, this novel earns a high rank for introducing about a thousand tropes that became par for the course in later scifi novels and films. It must have seemed strikingly original to contemporary readers and the story stands up today. It has much to recommend it. But I will forget, for a moment, The Puppet Masters' status as a science fiction novel and consider it in light of another genre to which it relates.
The Puppet Masters begs comparison, not just with other scifi novels, but with the pulp novels that inspired film noir. Heinlein portrays the Titanian slug invasion as a mystery to be solved and his characters as the confrontational, go-to (hardboiled even?) individuals who will get to the bottom of the problem and resolve it, come hell or high water. It's got the wisecracks, the unadorned yet coy dialogue, the hero's ethical (if not moral) ambiguity, and it's got a purportedly dangerous female protagonist…and in the "purportedly" lies my beef with The Puppet Masters. "Mary", its female protagonist seems more subservient than dangerous, and not even subservient in that spoiled-brat, woman-child, I'm-just-doing-this-to-get-my-way sort of way. Though no more forward-thinking in terms of rewriting the hackneyed gender map, at least this latter behavior has some spirit in it, for crying out loud.
I like a good detective novel and I love noir films, genres which are riddled with female stereotypes, so it's not the sexism of the novel per se that gets me. I expect sexism from a novel straight from the 50s - whence also many pulp novels and films - and so try not to let it overly determine my feel for the work as a whole. So it's not the sexism in The Puppet Masters that annoys me…it's the kind of sexism.
What's upsetting about Mary is that Heinlein describes her for the reader, through the mouths of his other characters, as a deadly assassin, a smart cookie, a femme fatal. He leads us to expect a character of this ilk…and then he offers us, not Barbara Stanwyck, but Donna Reed with an upsetting past. Ok, she's not quite that bad, at least not in the beginning, but by the novel's end she makes Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice look like a woman of independent spirit. The "yes dear"s and "whatever you say dear"s made me pray Mary would get, and stay, "hagridden", as people who play host to a Titanian parasite are called.
One of the characteristics of pulp and noir that makes the genre so compelling is the juxtaposing of the male protagonist with a female who actually challenges him. She's often evil. He usually has to kill her. And of course those stories perpetuate the whore/virgin dichotomous view of the female gender that is no friend to women, but at least these female characters possess agency and independent will. They function as foils to the heroes and flesh out those male characters. The more spirited the female protagonist, the stronger the hero. That's how this equation works. But, despite Heinlein's early hints and implications that this is the kind of dynamic he's cultivating, Mary does none of the above for "Sam", the hero of The Puppet Masters. And consequently, her shortcomings become his. He seems less formidable precisely because he finds no rival of any consequence in her. Heinlein promises this rivalry the first time he introduces her character, but he never delivers. Mary doesn't need to become host to an alien parasite, because she's already hagridden by Sam. ...more
With its pacing and readability, The Forge of God reminded me of a Michael Crichton novel - the kind of science fiction story where scientific plausibWith its pacing and readability, The Forge of God reminded me of a Michael Crichton novel - the kind of science fiction story where scientific plausibility reigns and the narrative structure keeps you reading. This is a good novel. I enjoyed the heck out of it. Reading this book, however, incited musings on the various incarnations of science fiction, its characteristics and purposes. Musings follow.
The Forge of God was recommended to me by the kind of reader who dismisses Ray Bradbury and Phillip K. Dick because the science in their stories ranges from unconvincing to non-existent. This reader would not consider Vonnegut a science fiction writer. I suppose, if pressed, he'd call these authors fantasy writers. Basically, this fellow has no use for your so-called science fiction unless the "science" determines the "fiction". Now, I appreciate the heck out of a science-heavy science fiction story. I value plausibility, to an extent, and my brain definitely revels in some technical scientific information - about physics, astronomy, geology - bring it on! But the science fiction that makes my mind bend does not necessarily possess this characteristic.
I have a special and abiding affection for science fiction that lets the science work in service of the story instead of making the story revolve around the science. Authors like Bradbury, Dick and Vonnegut do not spend loads of time trying to convince their readers of the scientific plausibility of the worlds they've created. I suppose they assume their genre allows for this kind of suspension of disbelief. Science does not comprise the soul of these author's novels anyway - it is merely the precondition of the action. It is the agar in the petri dish, not the culture that develops on it. The preoccupation of this kind of author's story comes principally in human interaction and the examination of what it means to be human, especially when human limits and capabilities are challenged. Science fiction premises present wonderful observation grounds for this kind of question because, so often, they involve artificial intelligence, alien intelligence, or human beings in non-terrestrial environments. For my taste, what authors like Bradbury and Dick lack in scientific rigor, they more than make up for in the keenness of their psychological insights into human behavior and the depth of their ontological inquiries regarding humans.
Which brings me back to Greg Bear. His story is neat, as in tidy and as in cool. It's clever, built like a page-turner (short chapters, frequently-shifting points of view), and especially fine are the chapters where his scientific-minded characters dissect the central quandaries of the novel. But (slight spoiler follows), once the protagonists figure out the situation and the earth is pretty much doomed, I kept waiting for the ponderings on human behavior, worth, and ability. This book has all the scientific agar - aliens, artificial intelligence, impending destruction of the primary human habitat - but it grew very little by way of psychological culture. There are lots of references to narrowly-controlled panic, lots of discussion of how Bear's characters really just hope they're having sex when the sh*& hits the fan, and some retreat into nature to say goodbye to the mother about to be destroyed. And that's it. Once the science is explored, once military responses to the invaders fail, there's very little to bring the characters of this novel out of the superficiality in which they were drawn. Science certainly can't do it. ...more
I hesitate to say this book disappointed me because it actually delighted me in a number of ways - its inventive first person/third person narrative vI hesitate to say this book disappointed me because it actually delighted me in a number of ways - its inventive first person/third person narrative voice, its delving into Gnostic philosophy, the funereal humor especially at play among the Rhipidon Society members. Phillip K. Dick gives his readers plenty to chew on, as usual, and the pseudo-autobiographical tone is intriguing. However, in this case I found his plot on the thin side.
Now, I like idea-driven novels. I require no literary equivalent of car chases and explosions to keep me interested. I relish the mind games Phillip K. Dick plays with his reader and himself in exploring Horselover Fat's descent into (a perfectly sane, as it turns out) insanity. Perhaps what I missed in this novel, then, is not the dearth of plot, although I still stand by that assessment - it is thin the way an Aldous Huxley plot can be thin - built to convey philosophy and little else. And the plot-heavier portions of the novel, toward the end especially, seem only modestly thought-out, almost tacked on when the author realized he was almost done with his book and hadn't really told much of a story. That opinion notwithstanding, what I missed most was being taken into one of Phillip K. Dick's wonderfully crafted future worlds full of excellent detail - new powers-that-be, new slang, new drugs, old hangups.
So perhaps a foiled expectation has disappointed me more than anything the author did or did not do, but I won't rate this book any higher than I already have. Expectations or no, I found VALIS far less compelling than I am used to finding Phillip K. Dick's novels. I think this, perversely, has to do with the fact that it purports to depict events from the author's own mental life. That should be fascinating, but in the case of VALIS it's like listening to someone describe a half-remembered dream in confused generalities that function as detail. You wish he would just stop. You've already gotten the idea as well as you ever will, but the description goes on. The nature of dreams is that they cannot be described well. Especially half-remembered ones. Dreams are experiential events. And so is Horselover Fat's insanity. So is faith. And so are human relationships, for that matter. Not that we shouldn't attempt to describe these things, but if one does so in the form of a novel, it is kinder to the reader to provide her some tangibles along with the intangibles, some details to sink her teeth into while she ponders the deeper meanings of all of the philosophy. Communicating through metaphor? Perhaps that's what I'm getting at. Otherwise, write a treatise, an essay, something meant to educate and not necessarily entertain. Phillip K. Dick usually excels in this department.
All of this said, I will still surely read The Divine Invasion.
This is such a clever and well-crafted book. Brilliant and philosophically rich for anyone who loves sci-fi, especially post-apocalyptic dystopian sciThis is such a clever and well-crafted book. Brilliant and philosophically rich for anyone who loves sci-fi, especially post-apocalyptic dystopian sci-fi, medieval history (strangely enough), and history in general (in an academic sense - the preservation and intergenerational communication of knowledge and epistemology as a whole, the march of time and the accidents of cultural transmission). The premise hypothesizes a nuclear holocaust and a subsequent anti-intellectual fervor which decimates the literacy rate (through a "reign of terror"-like wholesale slaughter of first, intellectuals and later, any literate person) and drives scholars and any purloined documents/books/etc. underground. The church becomes the receptacle of this remnant knowledge while technology reverts back to pre-industrial levels (there's the medieval part) and governments all over the world break down into warlord/petty prince-run kingdoms. Technologies like electricity are rediscovered over the course of the book and the reader gets to observe the accompanying debates over the limits of human knowledge, the rightful owners/exploiters of said knowledge, the nature of the past and what we can know about it, the often awkward link between religion and learning, and man's responsibility for his own curiosity and its products. In sum, I couldn't get enough of this book and was sorry when it ended. The blend of medieval and sci-fi is a stroke of genius. I've never read anything like it. ...more
Critics have repeatedly pointed out the imperfections of this novel. Curiously, The Night Land's critics are frequently its fans as well. That ought tCritics have repeatedly pointed out the imperfections of this novel. Curiously, The Night Land's critics are frequently its fans as well. That ought to tell you something about how strong its strong points are. That these critic-fans also offer the novel's originality as one of its primary assets, ought to tell you something about how unusual it really is.
This novel is a strange animal. When it was published, in 1912, the ghost story was alive and well at that time, perhaps already starting to look a bit hackneyed; vampire stories not unheard of; science fiction, though perhaps not yet called 'science fiction', also beginning to get regular shrift. And while gleaning atmosphere and substance from all of these genres, The Night Land mimics none of them. Often called a 'horror' novel, that moniker also seems to suit it only partly.
One obvious strangeness in The Night Land involves Hodgson's archaism. The frame narrative occurs in some indistinct past time - a number of commentators specify the 17th century, so I'll roll with that. The 17th-century narrator, after the death of his love, indeed seemingly due to grief itself, receives sudden insight into a man, himself (think reincarnation), living in a period unimaginably far in the future, long after the sun has died. He begins telling of this future life, in the Night Land, and his quest to find the future-self of his dead 17th-century love. Owing to this 17th-century character stuck narrating a futuristic story, Hodgson wrote the tale in a faux archaic language that can be difficult to get into, but flows after a couple of pages. Many of Hodgson's critic-fans number this faux archaism among the book's flaws. I disagree. The language lends the story an ingenuousness that's both appealing and suitable to the storyline which does, after all, hinge upon a love that outlives millennia. This is legendary, grand, heady stuff and the language suits it.
Critics also dismiss the love story as trite or sentimental, but I adhere to the camp who does not use 'sentimental' as a dirty word. The love story is sentimental, but so is love when it's not callous, and every kind of love story has its place. Besides, spitting out 'sentimental' as a pejorative equates to belittling genuineness and earnestness. I may not want to constantly read about these qualities, but I value them when I find them and I think the world a little meaner of a place without them, so I'm quite comfortable with sentimental.
What I am not comfortable with is repetition and that, by my estimation, is the worst sin of The Night Land. This novel could have been cut almost in half and, in fact, Hodgson released his own abridged version. We read how our hero stops and seeks shelter for the night, every night, how and when he eats his rations, over and over again. On one hand, including these quotidian details gives the reader a good sense of the interminability of a voyage on foot, always walking day after day, where sleeping and eating would both comprise the high points of one's day and serve to break the journey up into mentally manageable components. On the other hand, enough already! Few exciting altercations (with giant slugs and other beasties) punctuate this mundanity and it's simply asking a lot of a reader's patience to get through every last word of this lengthy book if we feel like we've read half of it before. As a matter of fact, I skipped through large chunks of the second half and skimmed many more. But this is my only real beef with what, otherwise, is an atmospheric, strange and beautiful story.
Hodgson well imagines his future world. He vividly portrays the bleakness and horror of the sunless darkened earth, lit by volcanic fissures belching noxious gases, terrors waiting at every turn. He creates vile and gruesome beasties to inhabit this place. Lovecraft-style, he tells you just enough about the monsters to make you shiver and never enough to make you scoff. I think of JAWS and its notoriously malfunctioning shark. Spielberg knew it was better to show half a scary-looking shark than all of a broken, fake-looking one - a little detail will never blow the illusion the way too much detail will. Hodgson nails this and, indeed, Lovecraft numbers among his critic-fans. I guess I do, too. I've really never read anything like it. ...more