Posts Tagged ‘Terry Pratchett’

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s¬†shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole¬†series¬†in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings¬†singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss ¬†a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo¬†and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or ¬†George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series¬†A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively¬†consider nominating –¬†¬†if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.

After endless months – actually, years – of credit card repayments, saving plans and other such uncharacteristically adult behaviour, my husband and I are finally Out Of Debt. It is a glorious feeling, and what’s more, thanks to Toby’s taking on extra work this semester, we even have some savings. Not that we’ve lived an entirely abstemious existence since moving to Melbourne – which was when The Debt first reared its head, due to the necessities of truck rental, bond payments, airfares and so on, and which was then compounded at every attempt to decrease it by sudden vet bills, overseas travel and yet more moving/bond-related payments – but in recent times, we’ve certainly tried to rein things in a bit. When my most recent advance came in, for instance, every last cent went straight on the credit cards. 2010 has been a momentous year, and as it draws to a close, the sudden windfall of a tax rebate has made both our eyes light up like candles.

For the first time in four years, we can each afford to go a little bit nuts. There’s a wildness to this feeling: a sense of joy and possibility made all the sweeter by how long it’s been in coming and how rare it is regardless. Thus, on Saturday, some expenditure will occur. Toby is getting an iPad – something he’s been craving with puppyish hope for months now, and which will bring honour to our household.

I will be buying books.

That is to say, books, plural.

Here is the immediate list:

Secrets of the Fire Sea, by Stephen Hunt

Tongues of Serpents, by Naomi Novik

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

Dead and Gone, by Charlaine Harris

Curse of the Wolf Girl, by Martin Millar

Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Jealousy, by Lili St. Crow

Clockwork Angel, by Cassandra Clare

And that, my friends, is just the beginning.

Squee!

I have a theory.

Firstly: these are four little words which should strike fear into the hearts of men, especially when coming from me. You have been warned.

Consider, then,¬†the stereotype of hardcore science fiction: heavy on detail, short on character, long on nitty-gritty and emotionally ambivalent. A crude stereotype, but despite being far from universally accurate, there’s an argument to be made that hard SF is the traditional province of male geeks exactly because of the above descriptors. Which isn’t to say that women don’t or shouldn’t read it, or that¬†a given work¬†ceases to be hard SF if it invalidates any of the above categories, or even that the genre lacks female characters. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy, for instance, is both fabulously philosophical and supported by a wonderful knowledge of human nature, while Scott Westerfeld’s The Risen Empire is built on immaculate details of technology and society, with chapter time shared equally between vividly written male and female protagonists. But if you were of a mind to analyse the readership of hard SF, it still seems likely that most of them, regardless of other¬†demographic factors, would be male.

Of itself, that shouldn’t surprise us. Little boys have been raised for years¬†with rockets and trains and plastic guns, and for much of the¬† – still¬†relatively recent¬† – history of geekdom,¬†things like video games, Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer and¬†even straight fantasy¬†were deemed by normal society to be the sole province of dysfunctional, dateless nerds. The idea¬†of geekhood as an equal opportunities employer is¬†something which,¬†it seems, despite the long-established existence of female geeks, has only recently¬†occurred to¬†the mainstream world. There are various reasons fo this, and a great deal of iconic female sci-fi/fantasy at which to point the expostulating finger. For instance: Tamora Pierce, author of The Song of the Lioness quartet, grew up resenting the lack of female warrior heroes in fantasy novels and thereinafter set about writing some of her own, with brilliant results. Gene Roddenberry was prevented by¬†network politics¬†from making the first Star Trek captain female, but that didn’t stop Uhura and Janeway from getting their dues. Most obviously from the point of my generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer proved that popularity and geekdom weren’t like oil and water: not only was it possible to put a beautiful blonde in a horror setting¬†who didn’t get killed off in the first five minutes, but TV shows could be fantasy-based and still pull in the big ratings.

In fact, if you look at the past fifteen years of film, books and broadcasting, you’ll see a meteoric rise in mainstream awareness of fantasy. Commensurate with the rise in special effects technology, there have been¬†innumerable film adaptations of classic sci-fi/fantasy novels – not to mention TV shows –¬†once computer processing power made the concept seem¬†more viable and less cheesy. Even before the advent of J.K. Rowling in 1997, the mantle of World’s Best-Selling Author belonged to Terry Pratchett. Throw in a diverse range of sci-fi fantasy programming – The X-Files, Roswell, Charmed, Firefly, Stargate, Sliders, Farscape, True Blood, Heroes, Supernatural – and it’s plain to see that public awareness of the geeky sphere is bound to have skyrocketed since the mid-nineties, if only by dint of a casual glance at the TV guide or ticket office.

All of which has helped to¬†take social notions of geekdom away from the hard SF, lone-nerds-in-basements days of yore and instead present something friendlier, more gender-neutural. Women, of course, have been reading fantasy alongside men for as long as it’s been a separate genre, but with the patina of mass-appeal thus gained, publishers have seemingly¬†felt able to try something new, with the consequence that previously well-established genre boundaries in the world of sci-fi fantasy have started to fall by the wayside. Ever since¬†the established stereotypes of Who Buys¬†What went flying out the window – and¬†though¬†this has undoubtably occurred, it’s still debateable as to when – geeks en masse have proven to be such a diverse demographic that the¬†blurring¬†of¬†genre lines, far from deterring¬†potential readers,¬†has acutally become an individual draw.

Which brings me to the current trend in paranormal romance and urban fantasy, and that¬†particular proliferation of vampires. While there’s a case to be made that fanged fiction is the literary equivalent of a dot com bubble – certainly, no trend goes upwards forever – I’m sceptical of the notion that it will all come to nothing. Urban fantasy, apart from anything else, has always been the gateway drug of make-believe: particularly on television, viewers who might otherwise be put off by fantastic elements are comforted by the simltaneous presence of what is real and familiar, while others of us get our kicks from seeing the norm subverted. The fact that Harry Potter and Edward Cullen have helped move this phenomenon from screen to page seems overdue, and not in the least bit faddish. Which isn’t to say that public opinion won’t steadily turn elsewhere until the Next Big Thing – that’s only human nature. But for all that vampires are the current flavour of the month, the idea that they’ll vannish between airings is absurd – Stephenie Meyer no more invented the oeurve than did¬†Anne Rice.

Both¬†despite¬†and because of this broadening of geekishness to new and wonderful realms, hard SF¬†remains a beloved, male-dominated genre in its own right.¬†But¬†if one were interested in drawing conclusions about the varying ends of a given spectrum, paranormal romance would seem to be as feminine and popular a fantastic subsidiary as hard SF is masculine. Which is why,¬†to reach a long-awaited point, I don’t think it’s going anywhere: because for the first time, fantasy has found a foothold which isn’t mainly male or gender-neutural by virtue of diversity, but expressly, purposefully¬†feminine – and proud of it.¬†More than anything else, the current boom in paranormal romance¬†feels like the response of¬†a¬†market which has hitherto existed, but remained largely untapped, populated by the kind of intelligent,¬†imaginative women who might shy away from picking up a Harlequin romance novel, but who still – often without realising it¬†– have been hankering for a little bit of literary lust.¬†

Ironically, it’s taken¬†a surge in YA fantasy for this to become apparent, assuming the legions of¬†grown women¬†lining up to buy Twilight are anything to go by. But if there’s one thing the sexual revolution and the mainstreaming of fantasy have taught us, it’s that guilty pleasures – even when they’re not so much guilty as wildly,¬†passionately longed-for pleasures – are nothing to be ashamed of.

Best. Book. Ever.

That’s the short review. The long review, in which I mention not only the author (Nick Harkaway) but somewhat of the content, has just started. Thus:

The Gone-Away World is set in a post-apocalyptic, not-too-distant-but-slightly-parallel Earth. It is not exactly sci-fi, nor is it quite fantasy. Rather, it is speculative fiction in the fullest sense of the phrase: it speculates. Grandly. And it is fiction.

To say I enjoyed this book is an understatement of gross proportions, somewhat akin to describing Hiroshima as a power outage. Among other things, reading it by the photocopier contributed to my recent firing from a government bureaucracy Рa pleasant irony, given what Chapter 1 has to say on the subject of pencilnecks. Having turned the last page less than an hour ago, I am therefore ideally placed to confirm that this is a book well worth getting fired over.

The¬†chronology is interesting, and also highly effective. Imagine a linear narrative, its¬†scenes labelled A to Z. Were you to pick up Scene¬†R and¬†place it carefully in front of Scene A, you’d have the right idea, as this is what Nick Harkaway has, in fact, done. In this respect, the structure is reminiscent of Memento: from an unconventional starting point, we travel back through the preceeding narrative in an orderly fashion, thence to discover the pivotal¬†reason for said starting point. And this we do, with a hefty whack of¬†brilliant, witty, outrageous, absurd, intriguing and above all entertaining sidenotes thrown in.

How, without ruining the book (and The Gone-Away World is not to be ruined lightly, or, for preference, at all) does one describe Wu Shenyang, Master of the Voiceless Dragon gong fu? Note – and this is important: Master Wu is not a ninja. Nor does Ronnie Cheung, foul-mouthed spirtual guardian and professional asshole, train ninjas. I will say no more. But read, and you will learn why.

I, geekily, am wont to describe the extreme cleverness of Harkaway’s writing in terms of other authors and their works – which is indulgent, as the man is clearly no mimic. Nonetheless: think Neil Stephenson and Cryptonomicon. Think Neil Gaiman and American Gods. Think Terry Pratchett and Night Watch. Think Jeeves and Wooster. Think the place between profundity and laughter. Think moments of awesome nerdity, heart-wrenching power and ripsnorting absurdity. Think lines, and the blurring of them. Think beauty.

By the photocopier, I cried. At home, I phoned my mother interstate to read her a passage, and laugh. It’s that kind of book. It’s hard to include my favourite moments here, although I’m sorely tempted. But like the gong fu of Wu Shenyang – and ultimately, the book itself – it’s about how you react. Sufficed to say that if a dialouge on exploding sheep, the Matahuxee Mime Combine, the ultimate in ninjas vs pirates and a man called Gonzo Lubitsch don’t whet your appetite, nothing will.

Trust me on this: just buy the damn book. Read it. Love it.¬†Reccomend¬†it¬†to friends, relatives, co-workers and people you met at the pub. Then read it again. And so one day, when the list of Modern Classics is reappraised, there will be at least one book near the top that you read voluntarily, and loved, and get why it’s listed.

Really. It’s that sort of book.

At my Long-Suffering Husband’s insistance, we rented The Invasion last night. I’d read more than one dud review and was therefore sceptical, but the end product, if not blindingly original, was at least well-executed and entertaining. Based on¬†Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, the premise is¬†classic sci-fi horror: humans infected by an alien host become little more than emotionless copies of their former selves, spreading malaise through the populace while a few savvy¬†protagonists fight back. Morally, the film queries the fundamental nature of humanity,¬†asking whether our innate predeliction for violence could ever be removed without rendering us a different species. In this respect, the¬†execution is strongly reminiscent of¬†the main plot-arc of Angel, Season Four,¬†which culminates, in the penultimate episode Peace Out, in an almost identical scenario:¬†a declaration of world peace after an alien, assimilatory force takes control on a global scale, followed by the¬†successful¬†application of a vanquishing panacea. In both instances,¬†our heroes are left with uncertainty as to whether restoring the human race was actually the right choice; and in both instances, this¬†uncertainty is validated by the fact that the¬†invading¬†force was comparatively benign, leaving the memories and personalities of the populace intact, but removing all¬†aggression.

It’s worth taking the comparison further. Jasmine, the assimilatory power in Angel, requires¬†the¬†loss of two human lives to enter the world. While manifest, she consumes¬†approximately ten lives every few days, but these are willing victims whose deaths involve a painless, beatified moment of transcendence. In The Invasion, the only alien violence is¬†towards those who are immune or still human; it is implied,¬†but not¬†demonstrated, that the former are¬†killed, while the latter are purposefully rounded up and infected. Similarly, Jasmine’s acolytes seek to kill the¬†few who resist; the remainder are peaceably converted.

Within the context of both narratives, the heroes are justified for several reasons: there is no freedom to reject the change; hostility is shown to outsiders; deaths are accepted as part of the process; and in each instance, the alien/assimilatory claim that those changed are still fundamentally human is challenged by the emergence of a hive-mind, not quite on par with, say, the Borg, but nonetheless profoundly different to the usual human experience. On the other hand, Jasmine and the Invaders also seek justification: any deaths they cause as part of assimilation are minimal compared to the daily injury humanity wreaks upon itself, and are in any case a one-off; human personalities remain; all religious differences are eradicated; and global violence has, effectively, ceased. Post-victory, it is these arguments which cause our protagonists to doubt the wisdom of their choice.

Objectively, it’s an interesting moral dilemma. As a species, we prize personal freedoms even when they grant individual licence to be unpleasant, vindictive and ignorant, because we struggle to¬†find a workable moral basis from which¬†to allow positive freedoms while disallowing¬†their negative counterparts. This is further compounded by the fact that, particularly as regards culture and religion, we’re far from a universal definition of ‘positive’ freedoms – sexuality is a particular sticking point, both in terms of orientation and practice. Even more challenging is the fact that¬†freedom of and from religion becomes innately problematic if sublimated to a set of universal human rights: as things stand, and as they are likely to remain standing, it is impossible¬†that¬†any such code not infringe on individual belief, which opens a whole new can of worms. Inevitably, our greed for¬†personal freedom denies the idea that, as part of the bargain, we might have to change our minds; and yet, day¬†to day, this is exactly how the world works. It’s a system we simultaneously laud and resent, finding balance in the margins and grey areas: small wonder, then, that the idea of some powerful, all-encompassing assimilatory force sweeping in and wiping the slate clean both lures and terrifies.

Historically speaking, we’re rightly mistrustful of any human agency attempting what Jasmine¬†and the Invaders almost succeed at, Hitler, Stalin and¬†Robespierre having demonstrated what atrocities such plans necessitate in the hands of our own¬†kind. But when we put an alien or¬†external agency in charge, the hypothetical becomes more serious: not only are we removing the possibility of the new order being destabilised by human malcontents, as such dissention cannot actually¬†exist, but we’re voiding ourselves¬†of blame.¬†Proportionally,¬†our main fear is a kind of technical genocide: if none of the social, cultural or behavioural hallmarks of humanity remain – or at least, if lack of violence and passion¬†irrevocably alters their application – then has humanity been destroyed? It’s an uneasy thought, as well as¬†discomforting: that our¬†innate selves are fundamentally tied to our aggression. Even if this is one factor among many, to lose it would be to absent a¬†crucial aspect of ourselves. Which begs the (much harder) question: in a world where, potentially, we can be a less-violent other species, is being human for the sake of¬†being human¬†actually a defensible choice?

The problem, as with all hypotheticals, is that we have no test scenario: along with violence, we don’t know what else we’d lose. Anecdotally and, to a certain extent, culturally, there’s a belief that our aggression stems from the same place as our creativity and passion: that without anger, we couldn’t love, or dream, or hope. Emotionally – and we are emotional creatures – it’s a compelling fear, and one which, on an intuitive level, is hard to combat. In an odd way,¬†it’s a bit like the dilemma of the criminal justice system: let a guilty man walk to save innocents, or condemn innocents to be sure of incarcerating the guilty? Ultimately, I’d opt for the former: for better or worse,¬†I’d rather keep our flaws than lose our virtues, and so – I believe – would most of us.

Narratively, however, we still need reassurance on this point: which is why both Jasmine and the Invaders are selected against by subtle, but deeply intuitive, markers. Beneath her human face, Jasmine has the appearance of a monster: only those with immunity to her powers can see it. The metaphor is one of rottenness, internal corruption; if she isn’t truly beautiful and¬†conceals the fact, then she cannot be¬†trusted, and¬†so – horrifically, in one sense –¬†we feel better about her destruction. Similarly, dogs don’t like the Invaders: they bark, whine, growl, attack and are subsequently killed for their trouble.¬†After tens of thousands of years¬†of co-evolution, it’s deeply ingrained in the human psyche to trust the intuition of dogs: as part of our family pack, they warn us of threats. You’d be hard-pressed to find a story in which¬†our canine companions¬†happily lick the hands of attacking aliens; and so, because we¬†trust the wordless sense of dogs, we know the enemy are Bad.

In the end, we justify our species by providing a pro for each con: love for anger, passion¬†for rage, creativity¬†for cruelty. But that, to¬†paraphrase Terry Pratchett, is the fundamental essence of humanity: where the falling angel meets the rising ape, we are what’ve always been.¬†

Half angel. Half devil. All human.