The Magicians by Lev Grossman

I stumbled across The Magicians by accident a couple of weeks ago. I’d not read any of Lev Grossman’s work before but there was something about The Magicians that grabbed my attention. It was partly the cover, a haunting image of a tree surrounded by fog, its leaves scattered like tears across a small lake, that caught my interest. Likewise, something about the description reminded me of a grown-up version of Narnia, an adult fantasy mixing the beloved worlds of Lewis with the sex, angst and conflict of real, everyday life. With The Magicians Grossman tries to reinvent modern fantasy for adults and it’s a novel unlike any I’ve read.

The Magicians begins with Quentin Coldwater, a teenager who’s just finished high school with his friends James and Julia. Unsure of what he wants to do with his life and pining for Julia, his unrequited love, Quentin lives in a near-constant melancholy; the only relief he finds is in a series of novels from his childhood about the magical world of Fillory. He dreams of living in Fillory and longs for it to be real, believing it would give purpose and meaning to his otherwise unremarkable life.

When Quentin discovers and is admitted to Brakebills, a college in upstate New York that teaches its students how to use and control magic, it seems that his dream is about to come true. But studying magic is nothing like he imagined. It’s tedious, arduous work and his fellow students are competitive and hostile. Suddenly Quentin is no longer the smartest in his class and finds himself struggling to understand his full potential. His depression returns even as he begins to fall in love with Alice, one of his few friends at Brakebills.

Eventually, after five long years, Quentin and Alice graduate from Brakebills. They move in with a few other graduates from Brakebills and Quentin soon falls into a familiar pattern, losing himself in a world of drugs, parties and alcohol. It begins to drive a wedge between them, with Quentin seemingly content to live a life of mediocrity, while Alice continues to learn about magic.

When another graduate of Brakebills reveals that he has found Fillory — a real place connected to a whole nexus of other worlds — Quentin’s listlessness lifts again. This is what he’s been waiting for; what he’s always wanted. Together the magicians journey to Fillory but soon find that everything is different. The real Fillory is nothing like the world they know from the stories, more nightmare than dream. Together they pledge to set things right in Fillory… but as their relationships begin to fall apart around them, they realise their quest will not only reveal the truth about Fillory but about themselves as well.

I’ve been thinking about The Magicians since I finished it last week and I’m still not completely sure how I feel about it. On the one hand there’s no doubt that it’s a brilliant, literate reimagining of modern fantasy. But on the other, there’s nothing about the novel that feels particularly magical or wondrous. That’s because, when you get to the heart of it, The Magicians isn’t a fantasy novel at all, not really, and it’s hard to know how to judge it.

Rather, The Magicians is a novel about fantasy. It’s an examination of the genre; it takes classic themes — like magic, strange creatures, fantastical worlds — and in dissecting them and putting them back together asks the question, what if magic were real? How would we use it? Would we value the gift or take it for granted? It’s a serious, adult novel that uses magic to explore the darker side of human nature and particularly the danger of apathy.

As such, what really stands out about the novel for me is the characters. It’s not a particularly long novel but all of the characters feel detailed and real. They’re real people, complete with hopes, dreams, flaws, jealousies… they’re magicians capable of great feats, yes, but they’re ordinary and imperfect and that’s what makes them compelling. Alice in particular fascinated me; brilliant yet shy, she seemed almost autistic at times, capable of great power but never really understanding it.

Quentin on the other hand is a study in contrasts. He is both a dreamer and a pessimist, a young man who finds himself with a gift he has always wanted, only to squander it when he realises it’s not what he thought it would be. His moods range wildly from joy to despair and he keeps making all of the wrong decisions again and again, so much so that as a reader you just want to grab him by the shoulders and shake some sense into him. But Quentin can’t help it. He’s our eyes into this world and represents our own expectations of magic; in a way we are Quentin and it’s hard to imagine that we’d react any differently.

Quentin is the main protagonist but it’s wrong to call him the hero of the story; there are no real heroes in The Magicians, just people. Everything Quentin does is because he longs to escape from his life but each time he just makes things worse and in the end that’s what The Magicians is really about — learning to accept reality, to make the most of what you have. It’s a lesson Quentin just can’t seem to learn and it costs him everything.

If there’s one problem I have with The Magicians, though, it’s that while all of the characters feel well developed, none of them are particularly likeable. With the possible exception of Alice they’re all bitter, competitive, narcissistic brats; Quentin in particular whines through most of the novel and it becomes tiring. None of the characters seem aware of the destruction they cause around them and while that’s the point, it makes it difficult to care what happens to them or to really relate to them.

Likewise, one of the other problems with The Magicians is that while it is a reinvention of modern fantasy, none of the ideas in the novel themselves are particularly original. Of course, they’re not meant to be; the story is meant to be reminiscent of classic fantasy motifs, making us look at them with new, adult eyes. For the most part that works and Grossman’s world succeeds in feeling familiar but different, but the setting still feels a little clichéd at times, particularly with some of the similarities between Narnia and Fillory.

At times I also felt that Grossman went a little too far in trying to make magic seem so ordinary in the story. Some of the scenes, particularly at Brakebills, feel like they’re included for no other reason than to show how hard it is to use magic in Grossman’s world (more like learning a science than a skill). I know that’s the point, to make it more realistic, but sometimes it just seems to take the magic out of, well, magic. On the other hand, some of the other magical scenes are captivating. There’s one scene in particular where Quentin watches the statue of a bird that a student had tried to bring to life; the spell had failed halfway through and the statue, thinking it’s alive, keeps trying to fly. But it’s too heavy and falls, only to get up and try again and again. It was little more than a paragraph but it’s haunting and stayed with me for the rest of the novel.

My only other real gripe with the novel is that while it’s well written, some of the dialogue feels a little stilted and unrealistic. Secondary characters like Eliot, meant to sound arrogant and supercilious, instead sound overly dramatic and some of the interaction between characters doesn’t ring true, particularly when they’re in larger groups. It’s a stark contrast to Grossman’s prose, which for the most part is excellent; there’s a subtle, rhythmic flow to much of his writing and some of his passages and descriptions are breathtaking.

Overall I’m still not really sure how I feel about The Magicians. I enjoyed it a great deal but at the same time I find it a difficult book to judge. As an idea and a reimagining of modern fantasy, it’s fascinating, but as a novel it’s not perfect by any means and is held back (ironically) by some rather mundane flaws.

Perhaps in the end The Magicians is a little too ambitious for its own good but in a market flooded with Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter rip-offs, it still feels refreshingly different. It’s a thoughtful, intelligent novel and as a novel that makes you think about the nature of fantasy and reality in our own lives as well, it’s a resounding success.

Fantasy fans and general readers wanting something a little different will love it. Highly recommended.

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August Reading List

I realised something this week: I’m so not a winter person. This has been one of the coldest winters in Sydney for years and I’m sitting here with a tea and four blankets as I’m writing this, trying to nurse a nasty cold. I don’t want to whine but I’m really looking forward to spring next month.

One of the things I like about winter, though, is that it’s perfect reading weather. It’s absolutely freezing at the moment but there’s nothing better than curling up in bed with a good book on a cold day and letting the story carry you somewhere far, far away. I think I’ve read more in the last two months than during the rest of the year combined.

Lately I’ve been working my way through the nominees for this year’s Hugo Awards. The awards are being held in Melbourne this year, which means I was able to vote for the first time. It’s a good list this year too. I voted for Robert Charles Wilson’s Julian Comstock in the end; I loved how fun and inventive it was but any of the nominees could win really. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl was the only one I couldn’t get to before the deadline; I’ll be reading that next.

I’m reading Nam Le’s The Boat at the moment and these are some of the other books I plan to read soon as well. The one I’m looking forward to the most is The Girl Who Played With Fire. I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and I finally managed to get the first sequel the other day. Can’t wait to get stuck into it. It seems like everyone’s reading Larsson’s trilogy at the moment; it’s like The Da Vinci Code all over again. Except Larsson’s books are well written. And, you know, good.

I’ll post some reviews once I’ve finished them. I’ve been wanting to try out my new camera as well, so who knows, I might even do a couple of video reviews.

So what are you reading at the moment?

The Windup Girl
Paolo Bacigalupi

First Impressions: Bacigalupi’s short fiction has taken the SF world by storm in recent years. This is his first novel, about genetic engineering and a post-oil future where global corporations vie for the world’s remaining resources. Looks very promising.

The Girl Who Played with Fire
Stieg Larsson

First Impressions: Lisbeth Salander finds herself accused of murder and goes on the run while Mikael Blomkvist tries to clear her of the crime. Dragon Tattoo was the best thriller I’ve read in years; if this one’s even half as good as the first, I’ll be very happy.

The Forgotten Garden
Kate Morton

First Impressions: A young woman’s journey to find the truth about her grandmother’s life. It seems a little too reminiscent of The Secret Garden at times for me, at least in tone. I loved Morton’s The Shifting Fog, though, so maybe it’ll surprise me.

The Book of Illusions
Paul Auster

First Impressions: I’m not that familiar with Paul Auster, although he seems to really divide readers. Illusions is about a man who investigates the life of a silent movie star who disappeared in the 1920s, only to find similarities with his own life. Sounds interesting.

The Art of Travel
Alain de Botton

First Impressions: I’ve not read de Botton before but a friend recommended this to me recently. de Botton explores the nature of travel (why we travel, what we get out of it, etc.) through philosophy, art and other musings. Sounds like just my cup of tea.

The Copper Bracelet
Jeffrey Deaver (et al)

First Impressions: A sequel to The Chopin Manuscript, this is a collaborative audionovel written by 16 writers including Jeffrey Deaver, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child. The Chopin Manuscript didn’t quite work but I like the idea of a collaborative novel. Hopefully this is more successful.

The Temple of Learning

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Do you have a favourite past-time? Something you love to do at the end of the day to unwind? Perhaps you’re a movie buff or enjoy exercising at the gym. For me it’s reading. I don’t think there’s anything better than curling up with a good book at the end of a long day to unwind.

Some of my earliest memories are of books, of my parents reading to me while I lay in bed and looked at the pictures. I often think that without those experiences I wouldn’t be who I am today. Reading is such a large part of a writer’s life; if you don’t take the time to read, you can’t develop the skills to write. But reading has never felt like a chore to me, largely because all of those stories when I was younger made me dream of my own.

If someone had told me when I was first learning to read that I’d become a writer later, though, I’m not sure I would have believed them; at the time I probably wanted to be a palaeontologist as Jurassic Park had just come out. At that stage I found reading difficult. I loved books but like many children – boys in particular – my literacy skills developed late and it frustrated me.

Generally the average age a child learns to read is 6; some learn earlier, others a little later. I was 7  & a ½ when I could finally read and write competently. Perhaps that’s not unusual for some children but it was extremely frustrating for me; my teachers said that I’d pick it up on the way, but the curriculum – at least 18 years ago – made few allowances for those who didn’t develop as quickly or were ill. Subsequently I kept falling behind.

Finally my parents, who’d gone against their instincts on my teachers’ advice, taught me themselves. They bought a range of reading aids to teach me phonics and they read with me, particularly my mother, for hours every night; I can still remember the Bangers & Mash series, about two mischievous chimpanzees who kept getting themselves into all kinds of trouble. They made learning fun!

Before long I had moved on to the Berenstain Bears series and Dr Seuss, particularly The Butter Battle Book. Soon I was analysing and sounding out difficult words on my own, associating words with different meanings, and my reading speed improved greatly. I devoured everything, hungry to learn, and within a month I’d leapt ahead and was reading books my parents had read to me like Matilda, The BFG and finally Narnia by myself.

My writing skills improved at the same time; my spelling was awful but my grammar and punctuation had come a long way. And before long I decided to write my first story. It was a Batman story, probably inspired by Tim Burton’s Batman film which I saw on TV. I didn’t like the ending, so I changed it; I killed Batman – so even then I had a thing for macabre endings.

Within six months I was reading and writing at an advanced level. I’d moved past most of the children in my class and within three years I was comfortably reading Dickens and Conan Doyle, which showed how far I’d been held back. I was writing poetry and short stories regularly and English became my best subject. I’d turned my weakness into my strength; that’s something I’m still proud of today.

That’s why literacy is so important to me, not just as a writer but as a person; I know how frustrating it is to feel like you’re being left behind, and the joy when all those hours of hard work finally pay off.

It saddens me when I hear of the falling literacy standards in Australia, of a growing gap between boys and girls in English and language skills. Officially Australia has a 99.0% rate of adult literacy, one of the highest in the world, but that doesn’t take into account the widening gap between genders, nor the differences in various socio-economic and cultural groups, nor the retention rate for school students (particularly among older boys, whish is rising). Many people are aware of these problems but we hear few solutions, other than the government’s “education revolution” which no one understands.

The situation with Indigenous literacy is becoming even more serious. It’s believed that by the age of 15 more than a third of Indigenous students don’t have adequate literacy skills and are disadvantaged, while in remote areas it is even worse, with only 15% of year 7 students achieving the benchmark in literacy tests. Coupled with high unemployment and mortality rates among many Indigenous communities, it’s a serious problem and something no one should consider acceptable. Yet for the most part the same policies continue to be implemented, only now under the intervention.

Likewise the fact that there are 776 million adults in the world lacking basic literacy skills (66% of them women) and 75 million children out of school is a statistic I find staggering. Surely in a modern society those kind of figures are unacceptable? Surely we can do more to help? Of course we do what we can, giving money to governments and helping to build schools and libraries, providing new equipment… but sometimes I wonder if even a fraction of the money spent on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan went towards addressing illiteracy and poverty instead, would the world be any different?

I suppose I just wish that we’d be a little more responsible, that instead of giving money to corrupt regimes we’d give it directly to the agencies that are trying to help. If we made a serious dent in illiteracy and poverty in the world, it would help us as well. One of the biggest factors in poverty, terrorism and AIDS is a lack of education. The only responsible way out of poverty is to learn, to educate yourself and learn not to make the same mistakes again. If that education begins early, with literacy and other skills, then children can learn and see ways of improving their lives and they’re less likely to fall under the influence of extremism.

That’s why I like the work many of the smaller organisations and charities are doing around the world. Working at grass roots level they can have more success and make a difference in peoples’ lives. Projects like Books for Cameroon, which is aiming to establish a library in 25 schools and help 20,000 students, or the 100 Mothers Literacy Program which funds a basic literacy program for mothers in Afghanistan. These kind of projects provide a greater level of transparency and average people can support them, trying to help in their own way.

Overall, though, I think if we’re to improve literacy standards we have to change our approach. Days like this International Literacy Day help to raise awareness but it’s by building new schools and libraries and training teachers in new methods that we might succeed overall, methods that make learning fun again. We need to move away from whole language methods, towards systematic phonics. Most importantly we need to take a larger role in our children’s education as parents and role models and help them; if we read to and teach our children, they’ll want to learn.

I don’t know if I will be a father one day but I know if a child asks me for help to read or write, I’ll always try to help them. I know what it was like to struggle with reading and it’s never too early to teach a child to read, to love books – if you do then you’ll give them skills for life.

The rest will take care of itself.

“The library is the temple of learning, and learning has
liberated more people than all the wars in history.”
~ Carl Rowan

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Image Credit: Reading Books At Home ~ hortongroup

September Reading List

Water for Elephantsborn_standing_upcurse_of_chalionvalentines_castleend_of_timerestless

These are some of the books I plan to read over the next month. I like buying most of my books second-hand if I can and I’ve had a lucky run on eBay during the last few weeks; all of the auctions I’ve bid on I’ve won and I even found a couple of hardcovers I’d been trying to find all year.

The two books I’m looking forward to reading most are Water for Elephants and Restless; I’ve heard good things about both Gruen and Boyd but haven’t read them before. I’ve also had Greg Bear’s City at the End of Time since last year and haven’t read it yet; Bear is one of my favourite authors and this seems like a return to his best science fiction.

I probably won’t be able to read all of them due to my health but if I can read two or three in the month, I’ll be happy. I’ll post some reviews when I’ve finished them as well.

I wonder what you’re reading at the moment?

Water for Elephants
Sara Gruen

First Impressions: Unusual and beautiful. A dark, romantic story set primarily in a circus during the Great Depression; Rosie is a beautiful, sympathetic character as real as any of the human performers. Excellent so far.

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life
Steve Martin

First Impressions: Steve Martin’s memoir. Martin is one of my favourite comedians and a gifted writer. Should be a fascinating, insightful and funny look at his life and inspirations.

The Curse of Chalion
Lois McMaster Bujold

First Impressions: The first in Bujold’s Chalion series. Bujold is one author I’m not that familiar with, although she’s well respected in SF and fantasy. I thought I’d try this before her Vorkosigan novels.

Lord Valentine’s Castle
Robert Silverberg

First Impressions: Silverberg is one of my favourite authors and this is supposed to be among his best novels. In tone it feels a little like Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. I’ll be interested to see if I like it as much as The Book of Skulls, my favourite of Silverberg’s.

City at the End of Time
Greg Bear

First Impressions: Bear’s latest and his return to hard science fiction. Bear is one of the few highly literate writers in SF and so far this looks very good, although I’m not sure I understand the concept yet. But that’s not unusual with Bear. I’ll read it next.

Restless
William Boyd

First Impressions: I know almost nothing about Boyd, although this is actually his ninth novel. He strikes me a little like John le Carré and Graham Greene, at least in tone. Looks excellent; an absorbing historical spy novel.

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Just a quick note as well: next Tuesday is International Literacy Day and bloggers are being asked to write a post to highlight the falling standards of literacy in the world. It’s estimated that one in five adults around the world is illiterate, with more than 65% being women, and more than 75 million children are out of school.

As a writer literacy is very important to me, particularly indigenous literacy in Australia, and this is something I would have done even if it wasn’t being organised. If you’d like to take part as well, you can sign up here.

Are audiobooks the same as reading?

I’ve just been checking out an interesting project over at Audible.com. It’s an audiobook called The Chopin Manuscript and is being billed as the first-ever audio serial book. It’s written by 15 successful thriller writers; Jeffery Deaver conceived of the characters, story and wrote the first chapter, with 14 other writers including David Hewson, Lisa Scottoline and Lee Child contributing chapters and Deaver bringing it to its conclusion. It’s narrated by Alfred Molina and proved to be one of the fastest-selling audio titles of 2007.

I had heard of the book when it was first released in September but wanted to wait until all the chapters were available. Then I forgot about it until I was looking around Audible earlier. So far I’m enjoying it; I’ve just about finished Deaver’s chapter and the story is interesting, even if it does sound a little like The Da Vinci Code. Alfred Molina’s narration is excellent as well.

What’s interesting about the project is seeing so many writers not just embracing audiobooks but using them as a medium. So far there’s no printed version of The Chopin Manuscript and it feels very visual compared to other audiobooks. I’ve grown to like audiobooks over the last few years… I’m a fast reader but I enjoy listening to books as well and they’ve been very useful while I’ve been having trouble sleeping.

A lot of people don’t like audiobooks. I can understand that; they think it takes away from the reading experience, from the conversation between author and reader. Of those people, a number are very dismissive of listeners; I’ve offered audiobooks to people who haven’t been able to find the printed version, only to have it refused as it’s not “real reading”… I have a problem with that. I agree that audiobooks are not the same experience but to say they’re a lesser experience bugs me. What you get out of them is different, yes, but they both have value.

To me reading isn’t about interpreting words visually as much as understanding language. If someone’s telling a story then it doesn’t matter if I’m reading the words off the page or hearing them inside my head, that’s still reading. It provides a different experience, an auditory experience, but I’m still getting the same story. For certain books it can actually be an advantage, particularly if it’s a book that’s difficult to read. And if you think about it, listening to a story long predates the written word. When we’re listening to an audiobook we’re really tapping into our ancestors sitting by the campfire, listening to a storyteller weave his magic.

The main disadvantage with audiobooks is that the feeling can be quite different. I don’t know if you’ve listened to a book you’ve read previously but it feels different. The reason is because the narrator is interpreting the story rather than you; he or she places the emphasis on certain words differently than you might, so it’s never exactly the same. And sometimes dialogue which sounds right on the page doesn’t seem believable when read aloud. That’s why personally I’ll always prefer the printed page; I just like the feel and smell of paper, hearing the words in my own voice. But that doesn’t mean that I think audiobooks aren’t the same, just that I get something different from them. Usually the kind of audiobooks I listen to are classics or thrillers, which are more visual anyway, and I listen to quite a few short stories as well. I listen to them the same way I’d read normal books: on my own, unwinding with a good story.

If you’re interested in audiobooks, they can be a bit pricey, but Audible is great; they give you discounts and the subscription works out to a half-price book each month. They’ve also just been bought by Amazon so there’s a chance the prices might drop. And there’s Lit2Go as well, a great service on iTunes. It provides free audiobooks for download and the narration is excellent. You don’t need an iPod, just iTunes, and it’s well worth checking out.

What do you think of audiobooks, though? Do you listen to them? Is listening really the same as reading or does it make the experience lesser? Would you listen to The Chopin Manuscript or other audio-only titles? Maybe you could try the sample over at Audible and let me know what you think.

Startide Rising by David Brin

startide.jpgDavid Brin’s Uplift series is one of the most beloved of science fiction series. The Uplift Saga is populated by an array of strange aliens, characters and worlds, set in a future universe where no species can reach full sentience without the help of a patron race.

The sequence began in 1979 with Sundiver, but it was Startide Rising which cemented Brin’s reputation as a writer. Startide was published in 1983 and won both Hugo and Nebula Awards. It was everything people wanted SF to be at that time: epic in scope, with lots of ideas, aliens, and a pace that propelled it forward.

Reading it now the most striking thing about Startide is that it hasn’t dated that much. Perhaps some of the technology doesn’t seem that different to what we have today (or especially alien), but everything in Startide Rising has a feeling of a history, a past, and that makes it work for the story. The characters also stand out. Creideki, the dolphin captain of Streaker, feels distinctly alien, while Tom Orley and Gillian’s romance is at the heart of their world. The story is very human, set in a strange universe – a level science fiction doesn’t often reach.

Startide begins with the ship Streaker, which has crashed on the world Kithrup and is being pursued by armadas of fierce alien races. Before it crashed Streaker had discovered a fleet of vessels, believed to be the remains of the famed Progenitors who began the Uplift process millennia ago. The Galactics want the location of the fleet and will stop at nothing to get it, leaving Streaker’s mix of human and dolphin crew to fend off their assaults (and a mutiny) as they try to make their escape.

I’d not read Startide previously, though I had read Sundiver, and the first thing that impressed me was how Brin goes straight into his story. He wastes no time with Streaker discovering the alien fleet, or even its crash on Kithrup; he uses this as a backdrop, while other authors might have made another novel out of it. I also liked the depictions of the aliens in the novel. The Galactics are primarily humanoid and their strangeness comes more from their rituals and culture than their physical appearance. In their own way it is the dolphins that are the true aliens; Brin describes them (their movements, battles, rescue fever) almost as another race, and their language of Trinary is unique, a haiku language which is both beautiful and sad. The overall sense I got from Startide Rising was, again, of a very human story, as much about the characters as the science… I found that refreshing compared to more contemporary space opera.

There were a couple of things I didn’t like as much. First, I didn’t think the pace was as full-on as other people have said; certainly the novel has a good pace, but there were sections where I found it dragged for 20 pages or so. Some of Streaker’s politics also weigh the story down from time to time. And for as well as Brin writes his characters, one of the more interesting characters, Dennie, is largely neglected during the novel. At times I would have like to have seen more of her point of view, rather than Toshio’s.

Still, these are fairly minor details. Startide Rising is space opera at its best and still holds up well so many years after it was first published. Highly recommended. Just don’t be put off by the fact that it’s book 2 in the series; Startide Rising is where the Uplift Saga truly begins.

Now this is how to accept an award

Here’s a question for you. You’ve just been told that you’ve won one of the most prestigious awards in the world. How do you react? Are you overwhelmed? Are you gracious? Is it one of the most amazing moments in your life? Or is your first thought, “Oh Christ…”?

That was Doris Lessing’s reaction when she was told she’d just won the Nobel Prize for literature. It’s one of those classic moments. The media are waiting for her and can’t even let the poor woman get out of the taxi before they start asking her questions. As it turns out, the Nobel committee hadn’t told Lessing she’d won; in this day and age you’d expect an email or a text to get through first – hell, even FedEx or a pigeon – but no, Doris Lessing is left to hear about it from the media.

And I love her reaction. It’s not just that she doesn’t want a fuss, or her obvious contempt for literary prizes; it’s the audacity of the media to show up uninvited on her doorstep. She’s been out with her son and all she wants is to get back home and they can’t even wait to let her get out of the taxi properly? And just when you think it couldn’t get any stranger, what on Earth is going on with her son? Is he wearing a vegetable as a sling?

But isn’t this the way we all wish we could act sometimes? To have that old-fashioned arrogance and contempt for what your peers think of you? Sure, there’s a lot to be said for accepting an award with grace… but it’s not as much fun. I remember when I was 1st in English and was given a few other awards in school, my first thought was “Oh wow”; my second was “Fuck, I’ve got to climb all those stairs”. I didn’t say it and I smiled and said my thank yous… but believe me, there were a lot of stairs. 😉

What’s really interesting is how the media have used her comments and made them sound completely different. This from news.com.au: “I’ve won all the prizes in Europe, every bloody one,” she said as she stepped out of a taxi carrying groceries. “I’m delighted to win them all, the whole lot. It’s a royal flush.” Wait – is this the same Doris Lessing? Is this even the same interview? At least the beginning of it is, but you wouldn’t know it.

I like Doris Lessing’s works but I must admit I was a little surprised she won. She was awarded it for her life’s work; as the Nobel committee put it, Lessing is “that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny”. My problem isn’t that she doesn’t deserve the prize, she does; it’s that strictly speaking the prize isn’t meant to be awarded for a life’s work. It’s stipulated in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prizes are meant to be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. The preceding year. Nothing there about a life’s work.

To me the best novel of the last year is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Nothing else comes close to it; it’s one of the most harrowing, painful and beautiful novels I’ve ever read. It would get my vote for the best novel of the last thirty years, not just the last year. And McCarthy’s life work is impressive as well; his work always speaks to the depths of humanity and darkness, life and death, and The Orchard Keeper, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses and The Road make a very powerful reading list.

But Lessing has achieved so much in her career that she definitely deserves the recognition; it would be a shame to think she’d be another to never win the prize like Graham Greene. But there’s one thing that isn’t being talked about much regarding Doris Lessing. It’s the risks she’s always taken with her work, none more so than with Shikasta. For one of the most notable literary talents to go from writing classics like The Grass is Singing and The Golden Notebook to a space opera like Shikasta and the whole Canopus in Argus series was incredibly gutsy; in the 1970s mainstream fiction deplored science fiction (still does) and SF itself was a heavily male-dominated field. But Lessing didn’t care; she told the story she wanted to tell and along with Octavia Butler, Alice B. Sheldon (aka James Tiptree Jr.) and Ursula K. le Guin, transformed science fiction.

Now thirty years later Shikasta is considered every bit the classic it is. And Lessing still doesn’t seem to care. And that’s how she accepted her prize; on the street, with every bit the contempt she’s always exhibited. I can’t help but laugh. Isn’t it fabulous? 🙂

Quantico by Greg Bear

Quantico Greg BearGreg Bear has written some of my favourite SF novels in the past but for the last few years has been moving more into the mainstream with his fiction. That’s fine with me as I’ll read anything I can get my hands on and Bear’s thrillers are different to most, but I admit I’m looking forward to his return to science fiction as well with his next novel; that’s where he really excels.

In the meantime Bear’s latest is Quantico, a novel based heavily on the fear of extremism. His story is set in a near-future where the Terror War is in its second decade and not progressing well. The Dome of the Rock has been destroyed by terrorists and a second attack of the scale of 9/11 has rocked the US; the threat of terrorists obtaining chemical and biological weapons has never been higher. In this atmosphere, three young FBI agents have recently graduated from Quantico; it is believed they could be among the last to graduate as critics seek to shut down the FBI for good. But when rumours of an immense planned terrorist attack begin to emerge, the agents find themselves in a race against time to stop it.

The first thing which struck me about Quantico was its tone; it’s dark and pervasive. There’s little optimism in the novel and not much humour, something which is unusual for one of Bear’s novels. Quantico represents the fears we all have in a post 9/11 world and at times is very confronting. Some people might find it too confronting but that tone is necessary for the novel to convey its message. Bio-terror, extremism and global politics form the backdrop for the world we live in and I found Bear’s depiction of a believable direction for the War on Terror both troubling and resonant.

Quantico works primarily on a suspense level as the FBI agents try to unravel who is behind the threat of passing a deadly strain of anthrax to religious fanatics; we’ve all thought about the idea of a chemical or biological weapon being used but here Bear takes it a step further – what if that weapon could be keyed to target a specific race? Suddenly the Holocaust doesn’t seem so distant and Bear’s science makes the premise scarily plausible. The characterisations in Quantico are also strong. The characters come across as flawed and believable, reacting realistically to the situation they find themselves in; Rebecca Rose, for instance, shows the impact of living with terror for 20 years, obsessed with cleanliness and her job, so much so that she has no other life.

The focus on Fouad Al-Husam (one of the agents) also gives the novel an interesting dynamic, contrasting modern Islam with fundamentalism and allowing Bear to explore the extent of profiling within the FBI. Another interesting aspect is that Islamic extremism is not the larger enemy in Bear’s work; rather much of it focuses on a domestic form of terrorism instead which makes the threat even more immediate, showing how fanaticism can arise anywhere, and the circumstances which might lead someone to committing such an act.

That said, a few things didn’t work as well as I might have liked. The main problem is that the ending, though bringing about a resolution, feels slightly abrupt; after a lengthy lead-in I would have liked to have seen the consequences followed though a bit more, to see the full impact on the characters. Also the internal politics of the FBI play a large and necessary role in the novel, but in certain scenes seem to weigh the story down more than in others, and more than any of the science. Likewise you could say that some of the government infighting seems slightly forced after a second 9/11 (although it might be accurate given the current partisanship).

But those are fairly minor points and the unnerving story arc is more than enough to pull the reader through from beginning to end. The pace is sharp and Quantico presents a compelling and intelligent examination of the War on Terror and our world as it might become. If you’re interested in a science-thriller based on current world events, I’d highly recommend it.

5 famous misquotes from literature

I love quotes, particularly ones which have entered the English language; but what I love even more are misquotes. You learn a lot about history and language, and it’s fun finding out where they’ve come from. I did a post before on famous movie misquotes, so these are some of my favourites from literature.

5) “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.”
William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar).

Actual quote: The quote from Shakespeare’s play is correct, but it’s often incorrectly attributed to Julius Caesar; it’s Mark Antony who says it, delivering his eulogy after Caesar’s assassination by Brutus and the conspirators.

4) “I must go down to the sea again.”
John Masefield (Sea Fever).
Actual quote: The original version of Sea Fever read “I must down to the seas again” but in later editions was changed to either “go” or “sea” or both.

3) “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
William Congreve (The Mourning Bride).
Actual quote: The quote comes from the closing line of Act III: “Heav’n has no rage, like love to hatred turn’d/Nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn’d.” The first line of Act I is also often misquoted: “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast” (not beast).

2) “Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner).
Actual quote: The line from Coleridge’s poem should read “Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” It is also apparently one of the most plagiarised lines, in one competition alone featuring in more than 200 submissions.

1) “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes).
Actual quote: Although Holmes often used “elementary“, the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” doesn’t appear in any of Conan Doyle’s stories; the closest is an exchange in The Adventure Of The Crooked Man: “Excellent!” I cried “Elementary.” said he. Its first appearance is at the end of the 1929 film, The Return of Sherlock Holmes.