I came to a strange realization while reading this book: that practically every instance I can think of where an author used an unreliable narrator, iI came to a strange realization while reading this book: that practically every instance I can think of where an author used an unreliable narrator, it's always the same character: he's an intelligent, introspective guy with a slight cynical mean streak, a man with a fairly high opinion of himself (which is constantly reaffirmed by the world around him)--he succeeds without trying too hard, usually in a number of fields, though the success never lasts (because where would the plot go if it did?), he gets into fights and scraps due to his pride, yet always wins out in the end--and of course his life is full of a succession of lovely women who flit in and out, flirting, desiring him, ultimately discarded.
It's such an overt, laughably transparent fantasy of the life of a writer that it's simply not possible to take it seriously--which means of course that no serious author would condescend to write something so blatantly adolescent. But, if you take that concept as the base of your story, and then place a veneer of deniability over it, then you can suddenly claim complexity and depth without actually having to write a more unique and intriguing protagonist--you can have your cake, and eat it too.
And yet, I don't quite buy the excuse--it's too convenient to simply say that anything in the book that is stupid or insulting should be taken as sarcasm, while all the good parts were on purpose. It can work in a book like Flashman, where the character is so obviously execrable, and the story so obviously a farce--but the more subtle it becomes, the more it is mixed with realism and genuine sympathy, the more character thoughts and motivations become vague, the less pointed it is.
Just as with satire, in order to capture the unreliable narrator properly, you have to do the hard work of separating the object from the subject it is mocking or commenting on, otherwise, all you have done is recreated the subject, nearly whole--creating a supposed satire that is hardly distinguishable from the original. Just because an author did something on purpose is not an excuse--they still have to do it well.
I've known compulsive liars and they simply aren't that interesting. Their lies are petty, and a bit sad. Their ideas of what will impress are always lacking, and remarkably telling. They are trying to fill a certain void in themselves, and the more they speak, the more conspicuous that void becomes.
In this way an honest person ironically ends up being more strange and mysterious to us than a liar--because the liar is always speaking circles around their insecurities and fears, and so by their speech you come to know precisely what it is that haunts them. But an honest man does not reveal himself in this way, his plain speech does not reveal by ellipsis the shape and depth of his weaknesses.
Compulsive lies become absurd, they contradict one another, they place vital importance on the most vapid and pointless details. But in writing a book, very few authors are willing to write something that is not clever, that is not engaging and witty--and so they end up with these unreliable narrators whose lies are witty and attractive and engaging. This is why such narrators rarely work: they fail to get at the deep insecurity that necessitates the lie, the foolish hamartia of trying to lie to one's self.
The genuine egomaniac doesn't lie, because he believes himself to be interesting already. That is his delusion, and so he would see no reason to lie. Perhaps this is why authors have such a hard time with such characters, because to be an author means being unsure and self-loathing (at least, the kind of author who writes avant garde fiction)--why else go to such great lengths to prove one's self through clever words?
So they create these 'perfect liars', who tell extravagant, desirable lies to pointlessly cover up their extravagant, desirable lives. But without genuine feeling, real sadness and dread at the heart of it, there's nothing substantial to tie the lies to. There is no heart to reveal, just a great deal of clever flash: a gilt box lacking anything worthy to be held within it.
And it's not just the main character, Van, who feels like an escapist ideal of the intelligentsia, it's the whole structure--one that should be recognizable to any fan of Wes Anderson movies. It's all so aspirational, yet carefully calibrated so as not to trigger simple jealousy from the moderately sophisticated reader, who feels insulted at being openly pandered to, but will take all the slightly-obscured pandering he can get.
So, we have the wealthy family of good blood--but of course, they've fallen on hard times, they're a bit out of favor, a bit worn down. Money is never really a problem, but neither is their wealth outrageous. The children are all brilliant and charming, well-dressed and good-looking, knowledgeable and full of clever banter. They're good at everything, but they never really pursue any of it (like good idle aristos), and so just have the occasional success, here or there--the sort of thing the average literary person would kill for: a successful book, a following, an appointment to a major academic post--but these are always downplayed by the characters as not really important to them, not really as great as you'd imagine them to be. And of course they have oodles of free time to waste in little projects, or bits of melodrama--can't be rushed, darling.
All these pretty people who are just fucked up enough to avoid being totally perfect--though even their flaws are desirable, the sorts of things romanticized in Victorian poetry: they don’t fit in, they are biting and cruel, they are careless, they take too many risks, they're prideful--any ostensibly negative trait that falls neatly under the auspices of being ‘cool’, and doesn't really end up being problematic. It's just so fucking precious I can hardly stand it.
The whole section about Van's supposedly transformative theory of time was just so dull and long-winded. Some authors are able to present a fascinating philosophical or scientific digression in their works, but the long pages outlining Van’s thoughts didn’t feel profound or intriguing, they didn’t confront assumptions, they just seemed vague and half-cooked. The whole final section, about how great the book is and how Van’s thoughts on time changed everything felt entirely contrived. Clearly, this is Nabokov, so we’re supposed to assume that it’s ironic and tongue-in-cheek, but I simply don't see how that reading makes it any more interesting.
The fantastical elements were a fun twist, but used too sparingly--they weren’t pervasive as in a work of Borges, or Gogol, or Conrad and Ford’s mostly forgotten The Inheritors. I find such experiments are most effective when they are allowed to change the very texture of the book, to rush through it and alter its meaning and interpretation, as in Harrison’s Viriconium. Here, they ended up feeling too much like interludes, not really integrating with the downright quotidian everyday of the very light plot.
The plot really doesn’t move, aside from a few more frantic chapters, such as the picaresque series of failed duels a la Dumas père--indeed, even the inner lives of the character remain mostly static, so that they are the same people at the end, in their nineties, as they were in the beginning, in their young teens. Of course, this is all meant to relate to the ‘illusion of time’ as Van explores it, but since the theory itself isn't particularly interesting, it doesn't do much to improve the experience of watching a few unchanging people pass through rather everyday events. Indeed, they don’t even same to be creating the sort of false melodrama that we all make of our lives, making coherent stories out of unconnected events and coincidences.
The unreliable narrator shtick also means that we we don’t really get Ada’s side of the romance. We’re constantly being given all the little things Van finds attractive, what excites him about her, physically, but we don’t get to see any of her attraction, how it progresses, what she sees in him, what excites her. It all becomes rather blandly male-gaze, where the charms of the woman are described over and over, yet the man’s physical presence is largely ignored. I mean, we do get Ada's voice peeking through, here and there in notes, but it's never quite enough to tear through Van's veil and let the reader inside some deeper story. Plus there’s the fact that Nabokov had already tackled that dynamic with greater ironic force in Lolita, so it’s rather unfortunate that a supposedly transgressive author like Nabokov would just end up revisiting the same territory over again.
Then there's the prose itself--the first thirty pages are famously overstylized--with the wit jangling and clanking along so conspicuously that it doesn’t leave much room for subtlety or naturalism, for genuine emotion and connection. It’s all such an obviously indulgent performance, like that of a precocious child who must be interrupted: ‘Yes yes, you’re very clever--now was there something you wanted to tell me?’.
After the initial bombast, it settles down and the style almost completely changes for the rest of the book. The change is jarring, and didn't seem to have any purpose, or reason behind it--though it's not as if Nabokov lays off the wordplay at that point, it just settles out a bit. Indeed, it started to make me tired of puns--which is odd, since I’ve been a longtime proponent. It began to feel like too much work for too little payoff, that puns simply work better in conversation than in books, because a book is so carefully crafted, one can afford to take one's time and perfect it, polish it up--while a rough pun's strength is in its suddenness, its extemporaneous quality. But then, with Nabokov, the sheer amount of work seems to be the point: that all the glitter and movement on the surface is worth all the trouble it takes, that we’re not meant to appreciate the joke itself, or the punchline, but all the circuitous labor the author went to to set it up in the first place.
I began to feel a funny parallel between Nabokov’s style and the chapter about the fellow who cheats at cards with mirrors, surrounding himself with all of these ostentatious, flashy bits that he’s constantly tweaking and nudging to get them to work--and we’re supposed to think of him as pitiful, watching as he’s easily dispatched by the ‘true’ sharpery of Van, who instead manipulates the cards without it ever being obvious, due to his sheer mastery (well, until he’s unable to hold it in and flashes one from his sleeve at the end)--yet one begins to think that if Nabokov were at the table, he wouldn't be able to resist flashing his sleeve every hand, and thereby ruining the effect from the outset.
And such a style can work for a farce, because it is so overblown, and the characters and plot aren't really central, but act as set pieces for absurd situations and wry commentary on the nature of life. It can also be effective in works like Sartor Resartus, or Moby Dick, or Gormenghast, where the language is inextricable from the characters, where an almost overbearing style is used as a tool to delve deeply into their minds, their point of view, to force the reader into the thoughts and senses of a person that is completely different, a world with colors and textures and relationships that pierce through its very fabric, through the land itself, the characters' flesh and hearts and minds, then drag the reader back through that hole on the baited hook.
But Nabokov's voice is not pervasive enough, it spends its time flitting along the surface, and so fails to enmesh wholly with his world and characters. It begins to feel more like a compulsion for wordplay than a deliberate construction--a love of words just spilling out onto the page because Nabokov is fascinated with language. The fact that the book spends a chunk of time discussing how to play Scrabble should tell you all you need to know. After all, he was a man who grew up a multilinguist, suspended between various languages and dialects and forms of communication--who wrote the English version of Lolita himself.
Of course, it should be noted that my own skills in languages outside of English are fairly pathetic--my years of Italian and Latin were some time ago, and so I unquestionably missed innumerable little asides and jokes. Yet, the jokes I did get, even the more obscure ones (like a veiled reference to an old name for Tasmania which I only got because I happened to reference in my book) weren't especially amusing to begin with--and so it simply didn't seem worth the time to go through and decode the rest of it--just another case of more time spent for insufficient reward.
And yet conceptually, it has its strengths--it is an interesting and unusual book, clearly a case of an author throwing himself into a wild experiment, which certainly takes courage, and if he didn't always succeed, at least he was always moving, always probing and doing something. It wasn't an insulting work, it wasn't simplistic or flat, and that was what kept me reading through to the end, that even if I don't think all the pieces quite came together to make it work, it was something curious, something worth experiencing and rolling around in my mind....more
Found this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it iFound this by searching for 'airship' on Project Gutenberg, where the full text is available for download. Written in the midst of The Great War, it is a fairly standard example of Invasion Literature, featuring a dashing young aviator and inventor, his girlfriend, and his best mate trying to single-handedly fight off the dastardly German menace nightly loosing bombs over London....more
Indeed, many of our most cherished fantasies tend to relate to the place we were born--when we find ourselves defending it, or singing its praises. It's not that the details we give aren't true, it's that we have a sort of rosy-quartz view about the place that made us. It also comes out in what we dislike about our home, what tired and frustrated us--there is a whole mythology within us of what exactly we believe our provenance to be like, and it is more the truth of us than the truth of that place.
Kipling's Kim is often considered his greatest work, and as Said's introduction notes, it is one of his only works that profits from close reading. His others are certainly enjoyable, and have certain themes, but tend to wear these on the chest, while Kim presents a rather more complex relationship.
Of course, there was an uproar when it was announced that the Penguin edition would feature an introduction from Said, but as someone who has actually read his work, I was not concerned he would do Kipling wrong. Indeed, his treatment is even-handed, noting both the strengths and flaws of the text, and bringing together many interesting observations from other sources.
It is a boys' club book, about the doings of men in their 'Great Game' of death and deceit. Of women there are two: a whore and a mother figure, and neither one strays beyond the bounds of her given role. Indeed, this book was one of the inspirations for the creation of the Boy Scouts, after the romantic adventure of Kipling's young fellow.
It's also certainly a tale of privilege, as of course, that is the role Kipling himself was born into: of being free from social constraints, on the top of the heap, able to go where and when he liked, and in whatever guise, for there was none to gainsay him.
But beyond these bounds, it is certainly a wondrous and vivid tale, full of color and character, all those little details and curious turns of phrase that make a good adventure. Indeed, there is much more of the fantastical in this than in many adventure books--magic and mysticism have central roles, as do cultural dissonance, even if Kipling ultimately ignores the great and central conflict which first showed itself in the Sepoy Uprising, and grew to eventual fruition in Gandhi and at last, independence.
Rarely have I seen the Other and the defamiliarization of ideas portrayed so wholly, particularly in a colonial work--and if Kipling had used these strengths to tackle the great central conflict that looms over all, the work would have been truly profound.
The relationship between Kim and the Lama is the crux here, the deep and genuine friendship between stereotypically Eastern and Western figures, which crosses boundaries of faith, philosophy, race, and language, seeking ever for mutual ground and further understanding. Yet that the old man is a fool, and that Kim ultimately tricks him, secretly committing himself to the colonial role while paying outward respect is unfortunate.
There is a conflict between the two, but it is never allowed to come to the surface, it is never confronted and dealt with. Instead, the hope seems to be that if two disparate people can agree on the surface, that the fundamental contention between them is not worth exploring--when indeed, its usually the only thing that is, especially for a novelist, whose work is to drive to the heart of the matter.
But then, as Said points out, it was a conflict that Kipling did not see, or did not want to see, and in the end, it weakens the tale. Kim is not really answerable to the people he claims to serve, and as he tries to work for them in secret, he really serves himself. The condescension of 'knowing better' and with that excuse, keeping others in the dark is perhaps The Great Sin of governance.
But for that, it is an exciting tale, a thorough and palpable exploration of India and its people, as Kipling saw them, and brings to mind many important questions of the colonial role, Indiamania vs. Indiaphobia, and what it means to find yourself between cultures. If only Kipling had delved a bit more....more
The East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and feThe East is a fantasy--it does not exist, save in the minds of Westerners. As Said points out, they make it up, out of their own hopes, dreams, and fears. They will create it even where it doesn’t exist, and they will believe in it despite evidence to the contrary. When a lawyer in London convinces them with words, they will call him ‘shrewd’--when a Hakim in Delhi does the same, they lay it to ‘mesmerism’. When a young thing with a bare shoulder in Paris turns their head, it is because she is a pretty coquette, no more--when a musk-scented daughter of Persia does the same, it is laid to some ancient magic.
Tales of colonial adventure in the East, with few exceptions, are fantasies--true fantasies, of magic and impossible things, of notions which spring from the mind and come to life in the world. Indeed, that is part of the charm of such narratives: that in reading Burton, we learn more of Burton than we do of ‘The East’, as his sometimes questionable translations demonstrate--but even biased as he may be, to read of a man as large and queer and self-made as he is an amusing thing.
Of course, it is also makes the narratives false, and invites us to believe that the East is real, and not merely a fantasy. Hesse writes of the tenets of German Protestantism--but because he writes of them under the guise of Eastern wisdom, they are gobbled up as if they were new. In the fascinating (and sometimes uncomfortable) documentary Kumaré, a man born in New Jersey grows a long beard and imitates his grandmother’s accent, and easily fools everyone into thinking he is some wise guru, even when his words make no sense. It is the fantasy of the East, and while it can make for an entertaining story, we must not be fooled into thinking, as Kumaré's students are, that their own notion is the real story of a real people.
Mundy’s is a better fantasy than most, relying as it does upon all those little bits of oddness, verisimilitude, and turns of phrase that gradually build into a wondrous and strange realm. But then, Mundy lived during his youth in Africa, India, and elsewhere, making his way as a con man and petty criminal, which experiences certainly give his tales an excellent flavor. It is hardly surprising that his work was an influence on authors of Sword & Sorcery Adventure, inspiring Robert E. Howard’s Conan and Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar--and both construct their fantastical worlds along the same lines as Mundy's.
In Howard, it is the story of the foreign man in the mystical East, amongst the arched temples, the scent of incense, the dancing girls, the wicked viziers, the brutal yet righteous warriors, debauchery, savagery, and ancient magics unearthed. For Leiber, it is the thousand-fold minarets of the eternal City of Brass: the old houses and old feuds, the corruption and tyranny of the priests, the bustling marketplace where the spoils of a hundred far-fetched lands are priced and weighed.
But then, of course, these are all traits of the great European cities, as well, which are no less ancient, no less strange and bustling--but somehow, a twisting alley in London is thought of differently to a twisting alley in Marrakesh. It is the process of showing us something old, but in a way that makes us think of it freshly, without preconceptions--a process known in literary criticism as ‘defamiliarization’. The Myth of the East is a sort of automatic defamiliarization, in that we are always primed to see its ways as strange and different, even when they are not.
This was how the Theosophists used it, to lend a sense of newness and authenticity to their own lives. Without that, they were merely eccentrics with loose morals and a dislike of honest labor, but shroud it all in a veil of pseudo-religious phrases and symbols, and it starts to read in quite a different way, altogether. It’s still how many New Agers live their lives: they do not sacrifice in order to practice a faith, they sacrifice the faith in order to practice themselves. It is just an exercise in self-prejudice.
Mundy himself was a known Theosophist, which is not hard to detect in his work. He has made of the East something like a fairyland, and espouses the same old philosophy of the stagnation of the Abrahamic faiths giving way before the more ancient (and hence ‘true’) and more infinite variety of the Eastern Gods.
In his bright and curious characters, his poetic bent, and his turns at spiritualism, he resembles that group of colonial authors whose works aspired to greatness: Conrad, Kipling, Doyle, Melville, H.G. Wells--but he never quite philosophizes the way they do. His action is planted too firmly on the ground, and his mysticism is too undefined and undifferentiated to reach the profundity of those authors. Thus he is relegated to the lesser tier of adventure writers, whose works sparkle and delight, but rarely challenge.
In style, Mundy possesses a cleverness and a passion that outstrips Haggard, though one will recognize in King--of the Khyber Rifles a story that very nearly parallels the Quatermain tale She--yet I found that Mundy’s take was more subtle, owing more to Realism than Pulp, and with greater sophistication and charm. The beginning, slowly playing out, is the superior part, introducing us to Captain Athelstan King of the Secret Service--a kind of early secret agent working for the Raj. He is an immediately recognizable type, that self-possessed, competent man who wins his way through life by wit and daring, of which the Colonial Period gave us numerous examples in the likes of Lawrence of Arabia, Sir Richard Francis Burton, or 'Chinese' Gordon.
Though in detail and subtlety, Mundy outdoes Haggard, there are some slower patches, particularly in a lengthy section of exposition about the middle which should have been the climax to the mystery that led us along the first third of the book. He begins to get bogged down in his plot, and then to make of his characters mouthpieces for his own Theosophical notions about true religion and ancient divinity.
Yet, after this stint, we're on our way again, towards the somewhat predictable climax. There is a rather delightful twist in the story that I happened to guess about the middle, due to the phrasing in a particular scene--and when I realized it, I was embarrassed not to have seen it sooner, as should be the case with a good twist. Yet, I think that without that one scene, I might not have realized it until quite a bit later, though it does grow increasingly obvious.
But, for all its inevitability and a few slow sections, it is overall a delightful adventure, and reminds me once more that as a fantasist, it is important that I study not only the blatant fantasies--the fantasies that call themselves fantasies--but also those fantasies that masquerade as truth, the ones that we use as convenient shortcuts to represent the world, and to confirm our own biases, that are true only in the mind, only as symbols, and which by habit we overlay upon a world that we can never fully understand.
For you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through maFor you poor folks who have never heard of the Flashman series, they tell the story of your classic Victorian adventurer, a man who travels through many lands, making his way by his wits and his skill and always being drawn into the dangers of politics, secret plots, and local politics. But the hero of these stories comes with a twist: he's an awful cad who lies, cheats, and steals his way through the world, a coward who only survives by the skin of his teeth, but who pretends the role of the brave, bluff Brit.
The books are well-researched, full of delightful details and references for anyone interested in the period, as well as a vivid reconstruction of archaic slang. However, I find I liked the first book much better than the second one. For one, the character of Flash is much more of a rascal there--many of the things he does make you dislike the character greatly, despite his forthright charm. In this one, I wondered if MacDonald might have been making him a little more heroic, a little more sympathetic.
Along the same line, most of the difficulties he gets embroiled in throughout the course of this book--the very things that drive the plot--are thrust upon him, leaving him a much less active character. He's kidnaped, blackmailed, and forced at gunpoint to take part in various plots, instead of being trapped into them by his own faults and greed, as he was in the first volume.
But then, that's part of the problem of a cowardly character: how do you make him an active agent in his own story without forcing his hand? How do you ensure that the mess he's in really is his own fault, and not merely a contrived circumstance that forces him to act against his own nature?
Without that culpability, he begins to become a victim, a lowly and sympathetic figure instead of the brash, bold personality which he is meant to be. We do get him taking a risk here or there for the sake of lucre, but pure greed isn't the most complex or intriguing of character motivations.
Hopefully in future volumes, I'll get to see him return to his old form--because other than that, this book is a delightful bit of adventure fiction....more
This one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much ofThis one didn't hold up very well for me. Moorcock's update of the idea is a much more enjoyable read. Griffith's approach is just so juvenile much of the time--which isn't to say childish, it's more of a young man's immaturity.
The whole premise: that a powerful terrorist force is trying to destroy all world governments is somewhat uncomfortable for a modern reader--and the fact that the terrorists are meant to be the heroes brings it to another level. However, their rebellion is a vague, nonsensical thing. The idea seems to be to destroy society, and not to worry about what the next step is until later.
I guess they've never heard of the 'baby with the bathwater' problem. I mean sure, society has lots of problems, but if you don't have something better to put in its place, then tearing it down is not going to solve anything--it's probably going to make things pretty shitty in the meantime. But then, it strikes one as being typical of a man in young adulthood: irate with the horrors and inequalities of the world, rebelling against anything society has to offer without really understanding why things are the way they are.
But conveniently, everyone just signs up and agrees that this is a great plan. There are no ideological disagreements or concerns about where this whole thing is going--everyone is stalwartly devoted to the undefined cause, and willing to die for it (whatever it might be).
There are actually a few members who betray the cause, but they always do it out of mere greed, not because this whole 'terrorism' things seems kinda shaky. They also rebel despite the fact that the terrorists have an infallible network of assassins, the only airships in the world, and a leader who can literally control men's minds with a thought. All betrayers die the same chapter in which they commit their betrayal.
I mean, I understand that this was a serial, but the fact that every problem gets solved as soon as it's introduced means that the whole thing doesn't have as much continuity as it might. Indeed, for the whole first half, they're just hanging around, waiting for things to happen, not even putting their plan into action.
Now, if this had been juvenile in a sort of fun, adventure way, that could have been enjoyable, but it's clear that Griffith is taking it a bit more seriously than is warranted. It's never a battle with a fleet of ships, it's always two destroyers, five torpedo boats, a complement of three thousand men, &c. Then there are all the wire telegrams and news stories that repeat information we already know, or just talk about various battles and parts of the war that don's seem to matter much to the story.
Then, of course, there is the titular 'Angel of the Revolution' herself, a totally gorgeous teen girl who all the terrorists want to marry, but whom they respect too much to romance overtly. She's also a crack shot, and utterly loyal to the cause, even if it means (horror of horrors) marrying someone she doesn't love. Our superscience hero, of course, does everything he can to get her, until she finally tells him that the best way to get into her pants is to destroy society and create eternal peace. Sexy.
Once again, what could have been a passable adventure story is ruined by the author's inane attempts to make it 'realistic' and fill it with all sort of unrelated details. It doesn't take much seriousness to ruin the guileless charm of a pulp romp....more
In 1913, Tagore became the first non-Western writer--and to date the only Indian or Bengali--to with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading his work,In 1913, Tagore became the first non-Western writer--and to date the only Indian or Bengali--to with the Nobel Prize for Literature. Reading his work, it isn't very difficult to imagine why, since they possess a Chekhovian focus on the lives, thoughts, and struggles of small people in a large world, all laid against the changing politics of the time.
Yet the structure left something to be desired: Tagore writes in the first person, but switches characters every few chapters. this could have been interesting and effective, perhaps giving a Rashomon-type view that shows how different people view the same events differently--but that isn't what we get. Rather, between descriptions of the action, we are given these internal soliloquies that explain each character's thoughts, motivations, and desires.
A big part of what made Chekhov so impressive as an author was the way he showed the internal lives of his characters through their actions. Though it was rare for them to openly express what they felt or thought, you always understood from how they presented themselves, or what the didn't say, what was on their mind. Of course, that is a technique available only to master writers, but perhaps that is the sort of writer who should be receiving a Nobel Prize.
There are some quite lovely passages, and a number of effective metaphors and symbols throughout which demonstrated that Tagore is insightful and imaginative, but the blatant way ideas and characters were explained to the audience made the story much less intriguing, for me. It was something akin to being cornered at a party by a number of dull, selfish people and then listening to them explain their lives, thoughts, and relationships at length. It left me feeling that a naturalistic story deserves a more naturalistic approach....more
I just remembered that I read this, back when I was hugely into big, fat fantasy books. However, I don't think I can recall a single character, event,I just remembered that I read this, back when I was hugely into big, fat fantasy books. However, I don't think I can recall a single character, event, or scene from the whole thing--which is particularly odd for me, since with every other book I've ever read, I at least remember the basic plot and a few choice moments. Clearly this one, beyond all others, was entirely unremarkable.
One of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characterOne of the most pleasant aspects about reading adventures like those of Doyle, Wells, Kipling, and Haggard is the particular presence of the characters, their little joys and quarrels and concerns. There's this humorous self-awareness throughout the story that makes the whole thing read as if its being told, given over to the reader in a particular voice.
Certainly, this can be carried too far and made condescending, as with C.S. Lewis, but it goes to show what a winking authorial presence can lend to a work, especially to a melodrama adventure. Too often among the lesser class of 'thrilling' books, we get flat characters who are so profoundly competent and neutral that they lose any chance of possessing a personality.
It just goes to show that a good story, be it action or horror or what have you, still requires some humor, some wryness to inject suitable depth and humanity, just as a good comedy can profit from a bit of pathos and tension. Of course there are some rather insensitive colonial notions woven into it, which some readers are quick to forgive as being a 'symptom of the time', but a perusal of Wells shows that it was not an inextricable part of the Victorian man's mind.
The story's notions are delightful, made up of the sort of thing that can still fire up a young man's imagination today, and it's hardly surprising to see that they were picked up and elaborated upon by numerous later authors, most prominently in Burroughs' 'Tarzan' and 'The Land That Time Forgot'.
The latter book I actually read as a child and mistook for Doyle's work, and it was only recently that I realized and rectified my error, and I'm glad I did....more
A remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other raceA remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other races of man, and no less prone to violent, dominant, cruel behavior is refreshing amongst the variety of Victorian sci fi and adventure stories I've been taking in.
However, it is rather disappointing that these comments and insights are rarely tied into the warp and woof of the narrative, but are added on as little observational essays in the voice of the abstracted narrator. It would have been much more effective if he'd found a way to demonstrate these ideas in his story--otherwise, what's the point of writing a bit of fiction in the first place when he could easily have made it into a tract?
But then, even those elements which he does manage to get into the story can be rather shoe-horned, as our main character is such an example of type that he barely possesses individuality outside of what he's meant to represent (and there can be no question of what that is, since the narrative voice reminds us with regularity); and then, after switching back and forth between essays and our representative story, he breaks off and ends the thing with an unrelated short story--the structure of the work is its greatest weakness.
However, the book has many clever spots, points of wit, insights, and a rather visceral, desperate tone maintained throughout much of the story. I admit that I was surprised that the story ends up resolving itself in a post-apocalyptic 'Dark Age' reversion right out of DeFoe's 'Journal of the Plague Year', but this outcome was just Wells' way of doom preaching that the invention of the airplane would destroy all modern society across the whole world (which might not be a bad thing, apparently).
It's always unfortunate when novelists start to turn into pamphleteers, for there was never a book that was improved by adding a digressive essay to the middle of it at the expense of a narrative-driven story about actual characters and events. Indeed, it confuses me that authors so often mistake books for pulpits, since books are, on the whole, not as tall....more
Strange to think that this was the series that inspired Martin and Wolfe in their fantasy endeavors. Going from their gritty, mirthless rehashes of stStrange to think that this was the series that inspired Martin and Wolfe in their fantasy endeavors. Going from their gritty, mirthless rehashes of standard fantasy badassery to Vance's wild, ironic, flowery style was jarring--going directly from Anderson's grim, tragic Broken Sword to this was tonal whiplash.
At first I didn't know what to make of it: the lurid, purple prose, the silly characters, the story which jumped from idea to idea with abandon. I mistook it at once for the unbridled pulp style of early century genre authors like A. Merrit or Van Vogt, but soon it became clear that there was something more complex at work.
Vance is rushing from one idea to the next, heedless of contradiction or pace, but it is not merely an unbridled mind on a romp. It is a style recognizable to any scholar of Fairy Tales, or of the Thousand and One Nights, where absurd characters and situations are paraded before the reader as wry commentaries--subversions of social mores and preconceptions. Vance's characters are not psychological studies, not realistic, but archetypal and foolish, traipsing from one peril to the next and then back out again, in the vein of Lewis Carroll.
Yet Vance is not as wild as Carroll or Peake, not as unpredictable or insightful. He has some shining moments, but I did not find that they entirely excused the broken pacing and shallow characters. The tongue-in-cheek reversals were simply not constant enough to make the world suitably subversive.
Yet there still remains an original voice and vision here which has been very influential--though not always fruitfully. As someone who grew up in basements playing old Dungeons & Dragons modules (and even designed a parody of them), it became immediately clear to me where Gygax had taken his inspiration. From the endless series of strange wizards vying for power to the nonsensical dungeons where one might face a giant demon head, a talking crayfish, an Aztec vampire, and an evil chest one after the next, I was immediately stricken with an uncomfortable nostalgia.
Yet Gygax--like Wolfe and Martin--was unable to reproduce any of the wit or joy of Vance's creation, though whether they didn't recognize it or were merely incapable of recreating it I cannot say. In any case, I find it disappointing that so few authors have tried to mimick the sheer, ironic pleasure with which Vance comported himself. I know Pratchett tried to do something similar in his work, but sadly, I've never found his writing funny.
Then again, many fantasy authors are desperate to prove themselves 'mature authors in a mature genre', but as C.S. Lewis knew, the rejection of childlike mirth is the sign of adolescence, not adulthood.
Somewhat problematic in Vance's work, though not as bad as many later genre authors, is the secondary roles he gives to women. It seemed particularly glaring at first, since it opens with male wizards creating and chasing around beautiful, naive women, and the only strong woman is an aberrant creation who is easily talked down and made to change her mind. Yet the men are also often fools and simply swayed, as is the nature of a Fairy Tale, so there is some more equality there.
Beyond that, the descriptions of men versus women are often treated differently, with women being described physically and in terms of their beauty and while a man is rarely described as a physical presence at all. This is only Class I gender inequality, and nearly ubiquitous in genre writers, but a part of me hoped that Vance might let his unfettered exploration of concepts spill over and subvert the characterization of women, but it was not to be.
In many ways, Vance can be seen to represent a middle ground between the unhinged visions of Carroll and Peake and the more straightforward authors of the genre, but as it went on, I began to wish that Vance would distinguish his work more--either by making it more wild and hallucinogenic, or by making it more structured and purposeful. As it was, I felt he too often inhabited a middle ground which was easily muddied by imprecision.
Reading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling storyReading Scaramouche is one of those odd experiences where a genre book really surprises you with its depth and complexity. It's a swashbuckling story with only two swordfights, where political theory, masked theater forms, and the science of fencing all take center stage, and where the hero is strangely shy, introverted, and reluctant. But Captain Blood never strays as far from its genre boundaries.
We still have a somewhat quiet, humble, over-educated hero (Scarmouche is the lawyer-turned-actor, Blood the doctor-turned-pirate), but Blood is less complex, less conflicted. His depressive brooding is not as interesting as Scaramouche's wry frustration, in part because it's less active.
In both stories, the movements of the plot are dictated by misunderstandings, things left unsaid, assumptions made too quickly. For the audience, it's more satisfying to see a hero who is angered by these misunderstandings, and who wants to change them, rather than one who simply accepts them and gives into his woe, being saved in the end only by chance. It's more interesting to see a character win his love than to stumble upon it after a sufficient length of hardship.
The plot is made up of the expected parts: mutiny, sea battles, daring raids, swordfights, and rescues. The book is well-researched, and the pacing isn't bad, but it lacks a certain depth. The world is not complete, it is a single view, with few insights or surprises, which is the danger of any genre piece that never strays from the bare bones of its form.
It's an exciting enough bit of adventure, with some thoughtfulness and characters who are not simple cardboard cliches, but in the end, there isn't much to it....more
How do we distinguish between the author and the characters he writes? There are readers who assume that if a main character does something racist orHow do we distinguish between the author and the characters he writes? There are readers who assume that if a main character does something racist or sexist, that means the author is, too. But then, characters can also transform into cockroaches, commit interplanetary genocide, and die gloriously in a hail of bullets without the author having to undergo those experiences, himself.
Even in an autobiography, the author still isn't writing himself--he's writing one biased version, crafting coherent stories and meanings out of the messy aggregate of daily life. But even in works of pure, fantastical fiction, some authors reveal more of themselves than others.
For the most inexperienced author, their main character will be a reflection of how they view themselves. They know what the author knows, like what they like, and have the same faults an strengths--or more precisely, the character will have the traits the author imagines they possess (plus a few they wish they had).
On one hand, this is an easy character to write, because all the author has to do is place themselves in the situation and imagine what they would do. Unfortunately, this creates a fundamental problem for the author, since they have to create all the conflicts--how do you create a problem that you don't know how to solve? It becomes a game of tic tac toe against yourself--the only way either side could win is by accident. In such books, you can predict that any problem that crops up will be solved within the same chapter.
In stories like this, it's common for authors to simply put their own opinions into the mouths of the main characters, and to put opposing opinions into the mouths of the 'bad guys', a la Ayn Rand. This is a silly, unconvincing technique, because the implications drawn are completely false. You can't say 'the villain kills babies and is socialst, therefore socialism is evil', because that doesn't actually demonstrate any connection between the two activities.
A slightly more sophisticated author will intentionally create a character who is more naive than them (at least, to start out with). Then they can have the character make the same mistakes the author used to make when they were younger, before they figured things out. Part of the popularity of the bildunsroman ('growing up story') is that it's easy to think up conflicts and solutions for adolescent characters.
Authors who operate on this level can't just put their lengthy monologues in the mouth of the hero, because the hero is too naive to have everything figured out. Instead, they leave the speeches to a wise mentor figure, who stands in for all that is good, and who may be recognized in the unremitting slurry of kindly, ironical wizards in much modern fantasy.
But if a writer is self-aware and pays attention to the world, they will eventually realize that what makes people interesting is that they are flawed, troubled, and struggle through life. They will start exploring different sorts of people, people who are very unlike them, people who might disagree with them fundamentally, but who are still interesting and sympathetic.
But there's still a steep hill to climb for authors who want to write characters unlike themselves. Few authors have the grasp of psychology necessary to write a realistic character who is fundamentally different from them, so most authors just cobble together some strong character cliches and play them up. But even if he is capable of sticking to the personality he chooses, he risks giving himself away in other ways.
An author might create a sexist character, who constantly says and does sexist things, but that isn't damning--authors often explore deeply-flawed characters. The real problem is if the narration and structure begin to support those same conclusions. If a character calls someone a 'slut', that could just be an expression of how real people sometimes speak. If the narration actually refers to a character by that slur, we have a problem--where is that judgment coming from, if not the author?
It's often a problem with genre authors, who try their hardest to make strong female characters, making other characters speak self-consciously about the power and strength of women, but then completely undermining all of that by never actually having the women do anything active or make any important decisions. Narrative descriptions of women are lengthy, in florid, sexualized terms--even when there is no male present in the story to appreciate them. Men, contrarily, may never have their face or eye color mentioned.
In the case of Flashman, we have another complexity at play. Our main character is often despicable, unsympathetic, sexist, racist, and rarely deserves the victories he gets. But the entire story is from his perspective--there is no all-seeing narrator voice to tell us what's going on. All the views, all the descriptions come from Flashman, himself.
Whenever an author completely veils himself behind the character, we must decide what to believe--this technique is called the 'unreliable narrator', for obvious reasons. Sure, Flashy is a selfish coward who beats his servants, but does that mean Fraser is for cowardice? Is he arguing for toadyism and self-promotion over all?
Certainly, Flashman recognizes that, according to social ideals, he is not a good man, nor a deserving one--but then, he is surrounded by important, influential men who are even worse than he is. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that unpleasant people often end up on top of the totem pole, and never get their comeuppance, but that can be a rather depressing message.
Luckily, in this tale of rollicking adventure, the message is delivered with thick humor and irony, not dour nihilism. If money and fame are doled out regularly to the most foolish and detestable of our race, perhaps it is because only the foolish and detestable desire them enough to keep seeking them. Most worthwhile people will end up too distracted by positive human relationships and personal growth to continue self-possessed social climbing for long enough.
Happily, our dear Flashy has no such hangups. Throughout the ceaseless, rousing, ridiculous tale of Victorian colonial mishaps, he rarely fails to disappoint. Yet I kept finding myself sympathizing with him--at times guiltily. I knew he deserved punishment, but I didn't actually want to watch it administered. I didn't want the ol' chap to suffer.
It just goes to show that we'll always feel more attached to the rascal we know well than to the saint we've never met. And while he's not apologetic, at least he doesn't suffer from the terrible mental disability of the average internet commentator, who cannot critique stupidity and hypocrisy without being a stupid hypocrite, himself. Flashman may be many unsavory things, but he's no hypocrite. He not only accepts his cowardice, he clings to it like a lifeline--which in fact it often is. He is not, like all the men he serves under, a fool with grand pretensions--he is merely a fool, and glad enough to remain one as long as life's grip holds.
Fraser's Victorian is meticulously researched, and his footnotes are often funnier than his witty banter--mostly because all the most absurd parts of his stories are completely true. Overall, he reminded me of the experience of reading The Three Musketeers--a nonstop adventure full of odd characters and occurrences, with life and death always at the next shake of the cup.
Yet there was something of Conrad's The Duel, too--with humor and absurdity often rubbing shoulders with dire consequences and the horrors of war. The return march of the army through the snowy crags of Afghanistan brought me back to Conrad's harrowing depiction of the French invasion of Russia--and the dwindling return of that broken army, immortalized starkly in Minard's famous image.
Creating a sympathetic antihero is a difficult task--particularly when they aren't of the violent, ass-kicking variety--but Fraser displays why flawed, unusual characters will always trump a flat romantic hero. Like The Virginian or The Moonstone, this is another exciting, surprisingly touching piece of fun which easily outstrips the limitations of its genre....more
Colfer has described this series as “Die Hard, with fairies”, which is a reference to an old Hollywood joke. After the phenomenal success of that moviColfer has described this series as “Die Hard, with fairies”, which is a reference to an old Hollywood joke. After the phenomenal success of that movie, a lot of writers started pitching their scripts as ‘Die Hard, with [blank]”, such as Speed: “Die Hard on a Bus”, or Air Force One: “Die Hard, on Air Force One”, or, as the joke goes, the unfortunate who wanted to make "Die Hard, in a building".
If you have actually seen Die Hard, you might recall Hans Gruber, the wealthy, cunning, erudite, European villain (played by Alan ‘Not-Just-Snape’ Rickman). But in this book, the European criminal is the main character, suggesting Colfer views the movie in the same light as Barney Stinson of How I Met Your Mother:
”Hans Gruber. Charming international bandit. In the end, he dies hard. He's the title character.”
So, already, we have some interesting choices going on, but many’s the good idea buried by poor execution.
In some ways, telling a good story is like telling an effective lie: you have to know your limits. Like the old writer's adage from Faulker: you've got to kill your darlings. Those overly clever ideas and indulgences have to go, if they don't fit, which they usually don't.
If an author gives in to the urge over-explain or get too fancy, he's going to trip himself up, and Colfer often does. He throws around a lot of terminology, trying to seem knowledgeable to lend credibility to his little fantasy story, but he usually gets it wrong.
He talks about an impact hitting with ‘a ton of G force’, which is nonsense. ‘G Force’ already has a built-in unit of measurement, which is 'Gs', not mass. The process of acceleration can be described in mass, but it would have to be compared to the acceleration of gravity on Earth, or 'Gs', which Colfer fails to do. It would be like describing the speed of a car as ‘fourteen feet'.
He also describes a character as rocketing down a hallway at Mach 1, which is the speed of sound (768 mph). Moving at this speed for a tenth of a second—the amount of time it takes for our brain to react enough to blink—a person would travel 112’, more than the length of the hallway described. Yet he still has his character looking back, adjusting his visor, and fretting about whether he will make it through the door. Not to mention that someone accelerating to Mach 1 within the length of such a hallway would squash them like a bug (at 350 Gs).
He also describes a seasoned bodyguard who refers to the spin kick as pointless and flashy. While jumping spinning kicks may fall into this category, a simple spinning back kick is both an effective and basic tool for a martial artist, and one which is often used in competition in many full-contact disciplines.
Early in the book, he goes to great lengths to describe the computer translation of an unknown language. The entire process is extremely simplified, which is fine, but then, when the translation comes out, not only is it grammatically perfect, it’s all in rhyming couplets!
I always feel frustrated by authors who see the 'Young Adult' label as an excuse to write a thoughtless, cliche book full of simple mistakes. I don't think giving kids badly-researched misinformation is going to turn them into better readers.
And these are all details that could have been easily glossed over. Anyone who knew what the terms meant would have seen they were wrong, and anyone who didn't know them would find them meaningless. One of the benefits of writing Science Fiction or Fantasy is not having to explain yourself, not having to be an expert in everything you talk about. You can just wave your hand and give some mumbo-jumbo and that’s fine, we can suspend our disbelief as long as your story's good.
Which is why, when an author writing a fantastical story tries to inject realism, it's important for them to know what they are talking about, otherwise, they’ll just make themselves look foolish for no good reason. Instead of leaving well enough alone, Colfer tried to come off as well-informed and technical, and failed miserably. A good author doesn’t telegraph their ineptitude, they hide it--but that means a good author must be aware of their limits.
He also goes on a rather condescending diatribe about how Ireland is the most magical place, and Irish mythology is superior to all other myths, because Ireland is the birthplace of all magic. Not only is this a rather insensitive view, it’s also short-sighted, since the book is full of myths which have their basis not in Ireland, but in Scandinavia (dwarves, elves, and trolls). The original people of Ireland were short and dark-haired, with their own complex mythologies. All the redheads of Ireland are descendants of Scandinavian invaders, who brought their myths with them.
But even after this bit of out-of-place nationalism, Colfer never actually ends up using any Irish myth in the story. It’s all very generic stuff. Except for a few place-names, there is nothing uniquely Irish here. His depictions of fairy creatures do not demonstrate any Gaelic origin--indeed, the only thing mythic about them are their names and pointed ears.
I’m not saying Colfer should be tied to old traditions, or that he shouldn’t create his own versions of myth, but it hardly makes sense for him to go on and on about the greatness of Irish magic if he's not going to bother actually using any of it. The statement is also incongruous with the fact that his protagonist is named after a character of Greek myth--and a female one, at that, but my annoyance with the misappropriation of the name ‘Artemis’ is my own onus to bear.
There’s also some eco propaganda, mainly in the form of attacking human beings for ruining everything, which once again, is condescending, over-simplified, and adds nothing to the book.
The characters are unremarkable, just clichés taken from buddy cop movies and played straight: no surprising depth, no twists, no masterful strokes of characterization, just what you’d expect from a techno-spy thriller. Which is somewhat unusual, since this is nominally a fantastical book, but the fantasy elements are rarely touched upon. Mostly, the fairies operate with military commando squads and superior technology. There is nothing particularly magical about them.
When magic is used, it tends to be either to be a simple solution to patch over plot conflicts, or a macguffin to cause conflicts in the first place. As I’ve mentioned before, using a magic as a systematic problem-solver tends to make it feel a lot less magical and a lot more like an author’s crutch. This is especially apparent when the magic is portrayed aside equally fantastical technologies that serve roughly the same purpose.
If an author is going to use a lot of convenient bits of magic and technology so they don't have to think much about the plot, I’m going to expect them to provide some sparkling, unusual characters. If they act stupidly or out-of-character in order to move the plot move along conveniently, then that plot should at least be exciting and unpredictable. Colfer's plot is standard. We do get the villain’s point-of-view more often than in many stories, but that just reminds us how Fowl has little more depth than a James Bond villain.
And if I get convenient plot-solving, cliché characters, and a standard story, I need something else to make it worth reading. I had heard that, in this book, the special element was supposed to be humor, but I did not find this book humorous in any way. I’m not saying that it tried to be funny and failed, I’m not saying it was full of bad jokes which I rolled my eyes at. This book did not even attempt to be funny. There was no clever observation, and nothing surprising. Without the ability to surprise you, no author will be able to deliver any humor.
There is a quite long series of repeated descriptions of a dwarf pooping rock explosively, but this was not presented in a humorous or surprising way, it was rather matter-of-fact, but not wry enough to qualify as ‘deadpan’. The entire book is suffused with a tone of irreverence, but the tone never achieves anything. There are no moments of punctuation where the irreverence boils over, it is just a constant, even presence in every scene, description, and bit of dialogue.
It rather reminds me of a common problem of fan-fic authors: instead of being funny, or exciting, or having interesting characters, or surprising plot-twists, they will instead imply that they are doing those things through character reactions and overstated narration. Colfer constantly implies that eventually, he will just pop out and—Bam! Be funny!—but luckily, it proves to be an empty threat.
The problem is, if you spend all your time promising to be funny or exciting, it just makes it more clear that you aren't actually delivering on that promise. It was easy to see what Colfer wanted this book to be (or more delusionally, thought it was), but it was also to see how often and predictably it failed.
The cover is also ugly and cheap, and I came across some errors in the text, but I won’t blame those on the author.
All in all a straightforward, cliche little story. It's a fast read and not insultingly bad, just poorly-structured, predictable, and forgettable. There are some promising concepts there, but they all end up buried under pointless asides, misused jargon, and the constant promises of an interesting story that never arrives.
* * *
And as I wrote this review, I discovered something disturbing: Colfer has been hired to continue the Hitchhiker’s Guide series. I find this terribly confusing: Douglas Adams was one of the most insightful, clever, unpredictable, philosophically sound, satirically acerbic, and all-around-nice-guy writers that I have ever read. Yet here is Colfer: in no regard funny, with no insights to give, characters unremarkable, dialogue predictable, plot convenient, philosophical outlook insulting, unable to capitalize on an interesting concept, and enough of a self-absorbed jerk that he ruins even simple stories by trying to impress people with references to things he knows nothing about.
Mr. Gaiman, I know you are a Goodreads author, and one of Adams’ fondest fans, so I must ask you: how could you let this happen to me? If there is anyone who should be continuing Adam’s series, it’s Stewart Lee—and if there were any two people who should continue it, it’s two Stewart Lees.
But you are also a great and talented author, and surprisingly enough, capable of being tremendously funny. No one appreciates more than I do the subtle and shocking wit of not writing a very funny book until six novels in, but I love the swerve of building up a career as a serious-minded, somewhat disturbing author of heavily-allusive horror and then suddenly kicking out something really funny.
But I’m losing my train of thought. Dear Mr. Gaiman, this year for Christmas, please use your magical authorial powers to remove Mr. Colfer from any relation to Mr. Adams’ lovely work. If he wants to write his own dull crime fiction with some fairies thrown in to snag people who are waiting for better fantasy books to be published, that’s his business, but the thought that someone would allow him to besmirch one of the great sci fi series of all time makes me want to snatch him up—along with L. Sprague deCamp and August Derleth—and make them all live in a world like the ones they created: a world which is a pale shadow of what it should be, where every conversation is stilted, every person dull, every jest flaccid—where fire is merely lukewarm, spattered blood pepto-pink, sunsets an overwrought cacophony by Thomas Kincaid, where food is ash in your mouth, where every story starts in a 'white room', and where loving a beautiful woman just feels like clutching your own calloused hand in the dark as you play out the long-faded fantasies of a false-nostalgic youth.
The term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi genThe term 'Speculative Fiction' was developed out of a desire by some authors to separate themselves from the more pejorative aspects of the Sci Fi genre. Harlan Ellison famously hated the term 'sci fi', scorning the implication that his stories had anything in common with Flash Gordon or Lost in Space.
In Speculative Fiction, technology is not there to facilitate the plot, or to dazzle readers with fantasy, but to provide the author with an opportunity to explore the human mind in unexpected, innovative ways. The heart of the genre is an introspective exploration of the nature of reality.
Much of sci fi acts metaphorically: elements in the world act as symbols for things we recognize: the conflict between the human government and alien settlers represents the immigration issue, the planet-destroying laser shows how we feel about nuclear weapons, the super computer controls and organizes people like a cult.
Speculative fiction also acts symbolically, but it is not allegorical--there is not a one-to-one relationship between the symbols of fiction and the reality we know. Instead, the authors use thematic symbols whose meanings can change, drawing us in with an odd familiarity, a presque vu, and then dropping away, leaving us with that most fundamental of human motivations: the need for a closure we cannot seem to find.
It is the evocation of this need to discover--to know--ourselves, and thus, our world, which drives the speculative; and this is what LeGuin gives us: a thoughtful, introspective tale--a tale almost obsessively isolated, narrated from deep within the characters. We always feel their presence, we hear their observations and weigh them, and there is necessarily a constant separation between the reader and the voice on the page, a gap which exists in every story, but which we often forget is there.
The trope of the 'unreliable narrator' is a fraught trap for authors, and I recall in Gene Wolfe's 'New Sun' it became a morass where reader, narrator, and author all intermingled--and the voice was lost. In order for the method to be effective, it must be clear to the reader where the narrator falters, and where he is likely to falter.
It need not be deliberately misleading, and indeed it shouldn't be: characters who feel most confident talking about themselves usually end up giving themselves away guilelessly. I admit that I am uncertain how much of the narrator's philosophizing was LeGuin's, and I won't be until I have read more of her work, but even if the assumptions are hers, she managed to capably keep them separate from her world.
But that is her constant theme, and her story is stark: events are harsh and uncertain, and so the narrative is always driven back into the mind, into rumination, into patterns and cycles which consider the same ideas from many sides without simply repeating the same conflicts over and over.
Yet the work is not remote or brooding--it has action, it has a plot, and it has emotional character interactions. The story always moves, and it shifts, giving the occasional outside view of another character, or some piece of alien myth, which were particularly unusual and well-constructed. It is not a heavy, weary tome, but it is certainly thoughtful, and we do not get lost in the story, because we are actively interested in it, and in its outcomes, because they are made personally important.
The book held some disappointments for me--chiefly, I wished that the contemplations had delved a bit deeper, had been a bit more shocking, a bit more insightful, as the myths often were; but the narrator was stolid, in his way. I sometimes became annoyed at how thick-headed he was, how he failed to find solutions, but I sympathized in the fact that the solutions he sought were never easy to find, and that the central theme of the book was that it didn't matter if we found answers, because we so rarely ask the right questions, anyways.
The pseudo-scientific elements often felt superfluous, especially in such a character-driven story. The implications of technology and telepathy are only as interesting as their impact on society and thought. She would sometimes bring in such notions, but they were always abortive, and added little to the story. They did provide a bit of wonder, but LeGuin was too ready to analyze them, to structure them, which made them quotidian without enmeshing them meaningfully into the world she had built.
Also central was the exploration of gender, which was truly alien and speculative, but felt somewhat plodding and small. It feel true to the character, which I appreciate, but I would not have minded him breaking out of his shell, now and then, to hit on something that was a bit beyond him to really comprehend. I cannot say if the shallowness was the character's, or the author's, which means the writing was good enough to avoid transparency.
But I was left with a sense of being unsatisfied, a desire for more introspection, a deeper plunge, if only to dredge up unexpected questions. Yet the structure, the character, the world, and the tone were all so carefully, specifically laid that I felt duly impressed. This book is a work, and it is a success, and if it does not reach too high, at least it does not fall to pretension, which is the danger of any redefinition which seeks to uplift entertainment to Art.
But this is only my first LeGuin, and she deserves a second look. If she can deliver another vision, as carefully made as this one, but on a different theme, with a different sort of character, than I will be extremely impressed. If, however, she is only capable of one mode, one character, one theme--like Vonnegut--it is still a style worth experiencing at least once, and probably a handful of times....more
I always find myself frustrated when authors can't seem to think of anything bad for their characters to overcome, and so they have to create some unbI always find myself frustrated when authors can't seem to think of anything bad for their characters to overcome, and so they have to create some unbelievably vindictive and amoral villain just so there is some central conflict. The main character gets along with everyone and always finds satisfying solutions to any momentary setback.
The only problems such super-protagonists can't solve are those which they don't yet know the details of, so Pullman gives us a faux-mystery to keep the character in the dark, but requires too many leaps for the reader to be able to puzzle things out. Then, he has one of the secondary characters wrap the entire thing up offstage near the climax.
This was especially bothersome because he just threw out all of the lead-up (i.e., the mystery), and instead gave us a climax which had little to do with anything previous in the book.
Pullman's writing was just as raw as his plotting, and you could see him struggling to use figurative language. In the end, he never finds a solid voice, and most of his characters end up as rather predictable placeholders.
It wasn't a bad book, and it had its moments, here and there, but it lifted its plot from the seminal mystery story, The Moonstone, and in all other regards seemed to be aping Kipling and Conrad.
Not that those are bad sources from which to take inspiration, but Pullman isn't doing anything new here, nor does he demonstrate the florid voice and sense of character which made those authors stand out. He tries to overcome this by giving us of little details about Victorian London, but most of them are just bits of geography, and one never gets a sense of the amazing, alien place evoked by Mayhew's London Poor....more
So the premise of this book (as the narrator keeps helpfully reminding us) is that this group of three children will continue to have difficult probleSo the premise of this book (as the narrator keeps helpfully reminding us) is that this group of three children will continue to have difficult problems to overcome, and every time they succeed in dealing with one problem, another will crop up. In the writing business, this is what's known as 'a plot'.
But then he takes it one step further: in addition to all the difficulties along the way, he assures us that the characters will never break this pattern, and there will be no 'happy ending'. I think this is a good idea, especially in a children's book, because we, as a culture, don't have enough role models for failure.
We have lots of role models for how to behave when we win, but this isn't really very useful--it's not when we win that we most need guidance and aid. We need more examples of how to maintain, how to persevere, in the face of failure.
At this point, our only role models for what to do when we fail are villains, who tend to get angry, yell, whine, take it out on subordinates, and then develop vengeful plans to make everyone feel as bad as they do. The unfortunate result is that people often begin to act like villains when things don't go well, an effect which can be observed most easily by holding a job where you have a boss.
So I'm all for 'no easy wrap ups' at the end of the story, but unfortunately, Snicket is unable to develop a conclusion without this easy route. It takes a very skilled writer to eschew convention and still write something interesting, and his reasons for avoiding standard practices should not be merely to differentiate himself, but to achieve some alternative goal for his story.
There are authors who have achieved this, even in children's fiction--Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl being the preeminent examples. When Snicket laid out the premise of his books, I began to look for something along the lines of those two authors, who, despite creating stories of children suffering constantly and unfairly, managed to write entertaining, enjoyable stories.
But then those stories were wild and vivid, even when they were dark. Dahl's ability to create grotesque, powerful characters made for dynamic, engrossing stories, while Carroll's quick, fertile mind kept us always guessing, and often laughing, despite Alice's constant frustrations.
Though Snicket is trying for a witty style, he rarely gets there. After the second chapter, all his jokes have already been established, the rest are only minor variations on the same themes. There are no surprising insights to back up his humor, nothing unexpected, just a continuance of the same tone: dry, but not acerbic.
The characters, likewise, show little variance. The vocabulary and speech patterns are all very similar, whether adults, children, villains, or heroes. We are often told of differences in character by the narrator, but these never actually make it into the characters' mouths.
Since the characters are fairly cliche and undifferentiated, Snicket cannot hang the plot on them, like Dahl would. They cannot provide the vibrant impetus for the plot, so Snicket's plot instead becomes a series of convenient (or conveniently inconvenient) events.
The writing itself is not bad, it's mostly just a case of Snicket not being clever or dark enough to buoy his premise. In the end, not much stands out, not the characters, nor the humor.
I applaud his attempt to address difficult and painful issues in his books, and without resorting to basic melodrama, but tragedy is measured by the subject's capacity for pain, so characters must be vivid and deep in order for events to feel truly unfortunate; otherwise, it just becomes the same array of problems common to every plot....more