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,...moreI 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 character...moreOne 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.(less)
A remarkably progressive book, but then Wells did like his politics. His constant observation that Europeans are no more civilized than the other race...moreA 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.(less)
Strange to think that this was the series that inspired Martin and Wolfe in their fantasy endeavors. Going from their gritty, mirthless rehashes of st...moreStrange 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 story...moreReading 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.(less)
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 or...moreHow 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 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, the 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, yet a character who knows what they know would also know how to solve those conflicts. It becomes a game of tic tac toe against the self--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 the 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 tall 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 poor 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 fools 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 shake of the next cup.
Yet there was something of Conrad's The Duel, 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.(less)
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 movi...moreColfer 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 process of 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.
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, he tried to make himself look well-informed and technical, and failed miserably. A good author doesn’t telegraph their ineptitude, they hide it, but a good author is also 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 he’s using myths which have their basis not in Ireland, but in Scandinavia (dwarves, elves, trolls). The original people of Ireland were short and dark haired. 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, he 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, 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 about the greatness of Irish magic if he's not going to bother 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 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 plot conflicts, or a macguffin to cause such conflicts. 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 the 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. But they often act stupidly or out-of-character, usually to move the plot. If the plot is streamlined and convenient, it should at least be exciting and unpredictable. Colfer does not deliver here, either. The 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 is a James Bond villain.
And if I get convenient plot-solving, cliché characters, and a standard story, I need something else. 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 actaully 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 that 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 gen...moreThe 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.(less)
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 unb...moreI 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.(less)
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 proble...moreSo 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.(less)
This book starts off promisingly enough, but as the character grows less sympathetic and the plot draws out predictably, much of the charm is lost. Pe...moreThis book starts off promisingly enough, but as the character grows less sympathetic and the plot draws out predictably, much of the charm is lost. Perhaps it was not unexpected that I would be drawn into the plight of a young, educated man thrust out alone into the world with no prospects, forced to work pointless jobs for frustratingly inept employers for subsistence. It mirrors not only my experiences, but that of most of my generation.
Unfortunately, our narrator becomes a rather stuck-up prig as the text goes on, which slowly killed off my sympathy. It wasn't merely that he conducted himself with pride and intelligence; it was his condescension and self-assuredness that soured the taste. He read into every word and expression, giving the reader an absurd amount of subtext about glances or pauses. He also professed that his certainty in psychology allowed him to manipulate others, by which he meant snide, callous remarks, a cold shoulder, and a childish inability to keep himself in check.
It was like people who write in their dating profile: "I'm interested in psychology, because I have always been really good at reading people" despite the fact that they are not good enough at psychology to recognize that this makes them sound naive and pretentious. So, there certainly was a comical aspect to his arrogant ineptitude, but conceited prigs rarely make for very good romantic interests.
Sure, Austen did it with Darcy, but she knew that the secret was to make his prickly exterior an embittered defense to the false, superficial world around him and give him a good heart despite it all. It's not that The Professor was a bad man, merely that he wasn't interesting enough to overcome his defects.
Bronte's messages were also a bit underwhelming. I found delight in the unintentional humor of her mistrust of Continental ways and those devilish Papists in particular, but this was hardly a mark in her favor. Likewise, the feminist aspects were a bit confused. One female character is strong, but only inasmuch as she is a heartless manipulator. The main love interest is also strong, occasionally moving to defend herself and her ideas, but she is mainly characterized as being our protagonist's devoted subservient--she never argues with him, of course.
Now some of this I must chalk up to the narrator's unreliability. The case that the first woman is heartless and the second woman subservient are things we mostly have to take his word for. Given the circumstances as they are given, it seems more like he makes groundless assumptions, seeing the world in stark black and white and revolving around him.
He also meets a friend on the way, a man who is equally as stuck up and sure of himself, and throughout their dialogues they seem constantly to sneer superiority at one another's faults. That neither is capable of recognizing in himself what he laments in authors.
If tackled with a more satirical style, this could have been a very effective book, lampooning a world of naive, short-sighted people lost in ungrounded assumptions and misunderstandings. As it was, Bronte kept the sentimental, romantic heart of the book. Since we could not take the characters entirely lightly, we had to take them somewhat seriously, which resulted in a story of dumb, somewhat dull characters living out a standard romance plot.(less)
Written in 1939, The Voyage of the Space Beagle reads like the prototype for Star Trek. A multinational crew of scientists and the military embark on...moreWritten in 1939, The Voyage of the Space Beagle reads like the prototype for Star Trek. A multinational crew of scientists and the military embark on a ten-year mission to explore the galaxy, seeking out new aliens and almost being killed by them (they even have 'shields).
Grosvenor, our protagonist, is in many ways reminiscent of Mr. Spock: both are awkward, intelligent men mistrusted by their emotional shipmates because of their cool rationality. He also shares the standard characteristics of Van Vogt's heroes: he is a master of a superscience unknown to other men, capable of predicting them and controlling them through crystals and hypnotism.
As in Slan, Van Vogt is not above resolving plot conflicts through convenient introductions of supertech, but here, those resolutions are often secondary to the protagonist's interpersonal relationships and moral quandries. While in Slan, the hero lives an isolated life, working against invisible enemies, Grosvenor is constantly embroiled in social interaction.
At first, I found the character intriguing, a portrait of a strange, off-putting man trying to survive in close quarters on the long mission. Early on, we see him making many small, manipulative moves, reading and weighing those around him.
Eventually, Van Vogt gives in to the sci fi author's vice of overexplaining, and reveals that Grosvenor is acting this way because he is a student of a new, unproven science, a superscience that combines all the other sciences and relies on hypnotic sleep-learning. Soon, the majority of his thoughts revolve around philosophical discussions of how this science came about and what its purpose is, and his actions are chiefly to promote it (when he isn't saving the stubborn crew from certain death).
No matter how many times Grosvenor's new science proves him right, he always finds himself struggling to convince anyone around him to believe him. There are some amusing asides about how this happens, psychologically, since no man aboard is in a position to double-check Grosvenor's unique methods, and his assuredness makes others resentful.
But he still manages to overcome (did we ever doubt?) a series of unconnected episodes, again, evoking Star Trek or other 'monster of the week' serials. The first plot parallels the film Alien, and so does the third; the others are familiar to any sci fi fan.
Though this series of related short stories means that the book has less of a grand arc, it also allows the author to explore a number of different themes and styles, while the less differentiated Slan tends to drag on a bit. I've noticed that, for a lot of authors, especially pulp authors, their short story collections are much more thoughtful and complex than their novels.
That being said, it also often makes for a rather swift, neat ending, and we have the same here. For all that the final story builds, its resolution is rather abrupt. It seems that Van Vogt was able to produce greater depth by relying on psychological interaction, but once the interpersonal conflicts are resolved, the huge, galaxy-threatening problems that caused them are mere afterthoughts.
Van Vogt hardly overcomes his limitations, but he is able to mitigate them with deeper character exploration and more variance in plotting. As usual, he demonstrates a vivid, creative mind, combining many concepts to create his stories, but his science is shaky, his writing sometimes inelegant, and so he can't be said to outstrip earlier authors like Verne or Huxley.(less)
In Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and in...moreIn Slan, Van Vogt (say: 'vote') combines a number of popular sci fi themes, some intriguing, others silly, to create a work that is interesting and influential, if sometimes ill-conceived.
The political tone of the work, focused on dictators, secret police, and shadowy struggles for power mark this as one of the earlier Dystopian works. Slan is a decade before 1984, though Brave New World and It Can't Happen Here are earlier.
Van Vogt's Dystopia is much more fantastical than most of the genre, relying heavily on telepathy and 'Tom Swift' gadgeteering. The use of super-gadgets is so pervasive that there are few situations our protagonist can't get out of with the use of lovingly-described technology.
There are some twists of the plot that are beyond the powers of his machines, but happily, all of these are solved by coincidence. The author has no trouble placing his protagonist in sticky situations, but can't get him out again without contrivance or Clarke Magic. Despite being told of our hero's brilliance and will, he remains passive, drifting where the plot carries him.
The writing itself is alright, but not impressive. Occasionally, Van Vogt tries for a flowery passage, and these do not serve him well. Likewise, his technobabble serves only to justify things that we, as sci fi readers, have already taken for granted. We understand that his use of Atomic Power allows him to make impenetrable steel, we don't need a speech about 'super bonding'.
Van Vogt is lost somewhere between the overt fantasies of pulp sci fi and the more reasonable predictions of harder science, like Heinlein's. When an author tries to justify a fantasy, all it does is cause the reader to question his own disbelief.
This especially evident in Van Vogt's explanation for telepathy, where he drags out that old gernsbackian chestnut about the evolution of the Future Man. Van Vogt demonstrates ably that the chief difference between hard and soft sci fi is whether the author has the least grasp of the science he's attempting to predict.
The use of evolution as 'magic plot fixer' is always laughable, and it's no wonder the layman has no conception of what the Theory of Evolution actually refers to (it has nothing to do with Nietzsche's 'Superman', and neither does eugenics).
His use of telepathy also highlights another of Van Vogt's authorial weaknesses. We often get long description of how characters feel, of how they are reacting, and of what they are thinking, which is usually a sign that the author feels a need to tell us what he is incapable of demonstrating with plot, character, scene, and dialogue.
At first, I thought that it made sense to live in the heads of telepathic characters, and was looking forward to seeing how Van Vogt would use telepathy to give us different insights into the characters and their interactions. Unfortunately, he rarely uses it this way. Indeed, most of the people have 'mind shields' which prevent the protagonists from having any such insights.
What I appreciate about sci fi is the greater scope and variability the author has to explore humanity and possibility. When a sci fi author fails to find all the interesting nooks that his alien world suggests, it is all the more disappointing.
I can also appreciate sci fi as a pure, tightly-plotted adventure, taking science as magic. Unfortunately, Van Vogt is stuck between these extremes, neither as psychologically interesting as Huxley nor as imaginative and unpredictable as Burroughs.
He does a fair enough job holding up both ends at once, but combines not only the strengths but also the weaknesses of both styles. He hits a lot of promising points here, and there is something unique about how he hybridizes ideas, but he never takes advantage the possibilities lying everywhere beneath the surface.(less)
'Surprisingly good for a TV novelization' is praise too faint to serve this book. This is not merely a good tie-in, it's good Speculative fiction. Per...more'Surprisingly good for a TV novelization' is praise too faint to serve this book. This is not merely a good tie-in, it's good Speculative fiction. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised: Disch is acclaimed as an inventive author who didn't succumb to the limits of his genre.
Then again, such acclaim is all too common, thrown at any author who deviates from the most predictable forms. Disch is more than this. His literary aspirations shine through in both form and content.
His dialogue is snappy and referential, replete with wry insight and involved psychology. His style is somewhat contrived, but that is difficult to avoid with an author who deploys such a deliberate and controlled hand.
And this contrivance, this self-aware, clever style is in no way out of place in the Prisoner universe. Like McGoohan, Disch is twisting and playing with the tropes of spy literature, including its trite dialogue, and mixing them with post-modern counterculture deconstruction.
Perhaps the most surprising part is how well his voice in this novel matches with the television series, itself. The inscrutable layers are there, as is the unyielding heart of six, the crushing weight which at every turn you feel must finally overcome him, and all the multivariate allusions to how his predicament parallels the sum of human experience, imagined as a struggle between the individual and communal urges.
I don't usually include examples from the books in question, but there is one which I feel illustrates perfectly how Disch's writing meshes with what made the series great. Feel free to skip it if you'd rather read it for yourself, though it's a momentary insight, not a plot point:
At one point, Number Six has again escaped to London, and is trying there to make contacts, to tell his story, and to seek allies to protect him from return. He rushes about the city in a furor, contacting anyone, trying to decode stolen tapes, calling offices, trying to set up appointments.
At every turn, he is met by difficulty. His calls are not returned, appointments are put off, and no one can find a machine to play the stolen tapes. Six is wracked by paranoia, seeing everywhere the hand intent to snatch him back, infiltrating everyone and everything.
Then he realizes that, being trapped so long in The village, he had grown used to it, to its constraints but also its convenience, its minuteness. He realizes that he had merely forgotten that the world is a difficult, confused, maddening place that seems to set upon you at every turn to inconvenience you and drive you back.
The poignancy of this simple insight, to me, shows all the strength of Disch's storytelling skill and grasp of psychology; and more than that, unveils a new and fundamental truism about the world of The Prisoner and the changes it has wrought in Number Six.
I have a great ardor for the original series, but this has hardly made me ready to accept all interpretations. I found the most recent televised reimagining to be sadly lacking, but not so this book. It extends itself, exploring the mythology, not limiting itself to the content of the show. But then, how could any author hope to capture the tone of such an unpredictable, ever-changing creature without being similarly bold and unfettered?
Some hardliners may resent the direction the book takes, but I appreciated that Disch was not content to wrest McGoohan's laurels, preferring to draw high his aim in hopes of winning his own. In my purview, he succeeded.
Then, some months later, I was in a comic shop in midtown Manhattan and came across a book which listed and rated books which were tie-ins to films and television series. Curious, I thumbed through it to see if there was an entry on this book. To my edification, there was, and it read:
"This is the single best tie in novel ever written."(less)