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.

Score:

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.

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.

Site of the Week: Faqqly

faqqly.jpg

Site of the Week (17/9/07)
Faqqly

Rating: star4.jpg

Faqqly is a social networking site with a difference. Unlike other sites which focus more on how you present yourself than getting to know other users, Faqqly is all about creating your own questions page (FAQ) that people can comment on. Set up a list of topics and other users can drop by to ask questions about anything they want – your life, interests, what you’re reading, etc. It’s a bit like the reverse of Twitter; instead of you saying what you’re doing now, other people ask you, and the subjects are much broader. You can even strike up an ongoing dialogue about various issues and topics, exploring them in great depth.

Faqqly was founded by then 20-year-old UCLA senior David Liu, whose goal was to build a collaborative website based on real life community interaction. The social dynamic is definitely the strongest part of Faqqly, but its ease of use is also impressive. Setting up your questions page is as simple as editing your profile and adding the topics you’re interested in. People ask questions by typing in the ask box, and there are hourly questions of the moment to ensure updates are frequent.

Faqqly’s main drawback is the flipside of its being a community site; the level of interaction depends on the kinds of questions people ask. Questions like what are you doing? or what movie did you see? are a good introduction but won’t lead to much of an ongoing dialogue; questions revolving around social issues or specialist knowledge are more likely to form a dialogue but aren’t the kinds of questions most people are going to ask. Like anything, the conversation is only as interesting as what the users bring to it.

Whether Faqqly will be a long-term success is difficult to know, but it’s an interesting social experiment and one that’s definitely worth checking out.

Timescape by Gregory Benford

TimescapeGregory Benford’s Timescape was an important novel when it was published in 1980 as it was one of the first science fiction novels to accurately depict scientists as people. Praised by critics for its accessibility and mix of character development, interpersonal drama and SF themes, it received the 1980 Nebula and 1981 John W. Campbell Memorial awards. Benford has written some of my favourite novels in the past – notably Great Sky River -, so I’ve always felt a little guilty that I’ve not read Timescape. Well, I finally got round to it, and while it’s still a good read, it’s dated more than I thought it would have.

Timescape‘s story is an interesting one, topical in 1980 and it still is today. It’s told from two different viewpoints, both 18 years distant from the novel’s publication in 1980. The first storyline takes place in 1998, at a time when the Earth is falling apart due to human waste; ravaged by ecological experimentation, the climate has changed drastically, giving rise to algal blooms and threatening numerous species. In England a team of scientists connected to the University of Cambridge, headed by John Renfrew, begins a project to try and contact the past to warn them of the effects their experimentations shall have in the future. The second thread of the story involves Gordon Bernstein, a young scientist at the University of California, La Jolla, who in 1962 begins to notice interference in one of his experiments – a message he tries to unravel…

As the critics noted Timescape‘s strongest aspect is Benford’s depiction of his characters. They’re scientists and often deal with complicated equations, but the story rarely becomes bogged down by details because it’s about much more than science. The characters are complicated, textured; the intricacies of their scientific worlds are well sketched out, but likewise are their private lives portrayed with careful detail. Ian Peterson, who oversees Renfrew’s project, is a womanizing member of the World Council who becomes infatuated with Renfrew’s wife Marjorie; Renfrew’s reserved insecurities are played out throughout much of the novel; Bernstein’s growing obsession with deciphering the message begins to impact his relationship with girlfriend Penny. It’s a balance of science and believable drama that few writers achieve in SF.

The characterisations serve another purpose in the novel as well: they draw a parallel with Benford’s scientific worlds. There’s no way around the science in Timescape; it’s detailed and to make his ideas accessible, Benford uses the characters as a bridge. Bernstein’s storyline, for instance, revolves just as much around his interactions with Penny, showing a distinct collision between their different ideologies: the worlds of a Democrat and a Republican, a New York Jew and a Californian Gentile. If the reader can accept the collision of their worlds as reality, then accepting the collision between 1962 and 1998 seems more believable. Likewise with each metaphysical jump in the novel, a physical equivalent is created to reflect it; the shelves in Marjorie’s and Renfrew’s kitchen shift each time a new scientific idea is introduced, starting crooked, before straightening, and becoming aslant again. The literary elements work to support the scientific concepts, forming a rather unique hybrid where no element can exist without the other.

This is where Timescape started to date for me, though. At times it felt like Benford created his characters purely to draw those parallels; he reinforces them frequently and at times the characters slow the story more than the science. Perhaps that shows how much has changed since 1980, that we’re more accepting and understanding of hard science in a story now, not needing it to be meshed with endless characterization to be accessible. Still, given the amount of detail in the characters, it’s strange that several just disappear toward the end of the novel. Marjorie, after her affair, barely appears again; neither does Penny. It feels like they served their purpose and were just discarded at the end. Timescape has also dated with its technology; limited computers, no mobile phones… having lived through the differences, the 1998 storyline feels more foreign than 1962 (which is the point, in the end).

Putting those details aside, though, Timescape holds up well. Its story is interesting, the science is still current, and its mix of science and characterisation is rare in a genre not often recognized for its depth. It remains accessible to people who might not normally read SF, as well as to fans of the genre, and is well worth reading for anyone interested in visiting (or revisiting) Benford’s worlds.

Natural History by Justina Robson

natural.jpgI’ve been wanting to read Justina Robson for a while. Through novels like Silver Screen (1999) and Mappa Mundi (2000), Robson has developed a reputation for writing cutting-edge SF while still paying attention to the characters and the idea that the future is based on our present. That’s why when I finally picked up Natural History (2003), I was a little disappointed.

Natural History begins with an incident in space. Voyager Lonestar Isol collides with debris, which she soon realises is really the remains of an alien ship. But there is something else here as well, an artifact left drifting for thousands of years. It is a jump engine and allows Isol to return home… only, it is not Earth it takes her to first, but another planet, a planet Isol has longed to find – a place that could become home for the Forged and the rest of her kind.

The Forged are another form of human, who have been engineered to serve the Unevolveds; the first Forged were given the forms of terraforming starships that brought life to Mars and other planets, and now their forms range from scout ships (like Isol) to animal-like Forged who perform menial tasks on Earth. Isol is one of the most senior Forged, and a heated debate is raging on whether the Forged should be granted independence from the rest of humanity. Isol wants the planet, called Idlewild, to become a homeplanet for the Forged if they secede, but the Unevolved (and several Forged) are uncertain… they don’t trust this engine technology Isol has found, and want to know that Idlewild is safe and devoid of life before making a decision. Isol reluctantly agrees to take an archeologist to Idlewild, to discover its secrets…

Robson is often described as the future of British SF and you can see why with Natural History. She paints a vivid landscape of a future far-removed from our own, tossing around theories about the essence of humanity and transcendence. So its being a bit of a mixed bag is disappointing. The premise for NH is solid, but I found that too much of the story becomes bogged down in politics and unnecessary detail for it to be truly engaging. It’s 200 pages before archaeologist Zephyr reaches Idlewild, the most interesting storyline; the rest is filled with the politics of the Forged and the Unevolved. Many of the character arcs feel largely underdeveloped as well; one character, Corvax, undertakes a journey of transformation in Uluru, an artificial universe only Forged can access, while another, Gritter, engages in petty crime and seems pointless. Robson utilises so many character perspectives that it seems to swamp the story; the most interesting characters are often neglected for long periods of time, particularly Zephyr, who has nothing to do until she reaches Idlewild.

Probably the biggest complaint I have with NH, though, is in not believing it. Robson goes to extreme lengths to convince the reader that her Forged are human, if unlike any kind of human we know… yet I didn’t find that convincing. They’re all supposed to be Forged, but Isol and Tatresi are so far removed from Corvax and Gritter as Forged that they could be different species, not different classes; they just don’t feel real. Also, while Robson tries to draw parallels with our own times to make her work accessible, in many ways that doesn’t work either; the idea that these giant human starships would use the same language, the very same expressions as we do now, seems ridiculous, thousands of years into the future – not to mention Corvax’s journey through Uluru, trying to be Unevolved and “normal”. And the ending is abrupt as well; for a person like Zephyr, who treasures being human so much, to give that away so willingly doesn’t seem like a natural conclusion, given her suspicion of the alien Stuff and Isol.

Still, it’s not a bad novel. Robson’s talent is there and the science is cutting-edge, particularly when dealing with 11-D and creating a decidedly alien race. And in many ways Natural History pays homage to vintage SF; a story of humans struggling to find themselves amidst a strange future and the mysteries of an alien world. It’s just a pity then that the rest of the novel is weighed down by its pace and characters, and ultimately feels hollow.

Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Springfield anymore…

chris_simp3.jpg Not sure about you, but I feel like I’ve been dodging spoilers all month. First there was Harry Potter, then The Simpsons MovieHP was easier as most people read it at once, so you just had to avoid anything online. The Simpsons has been harder. I meant to see it opening day but got sidetracked – and then of course everyone I know wanted to talk about it. Seriously, it was starting to feel like something from “The Charge of the Light Brigade”. Spoilers to right of me, spoilers to left of me, spoilers in front of me, volley’d and thunder’d…

Anyway, I finally managed to see it over the weekend. Really enjoyed it. I was a little dubious going in; I’ve been a fan of the series since it started (I’m getting old, lol) but I haven’t been watching it as much over the last few years. The stories have been more about putting The Simpsons into strange situations than having any real plot. The movie though is much more like what I remember; quirky, but more about the relationships between Homer and Marge, Homer as a father to Bart. It was nice seeing the writers get the formula right after such a long wait.

The thing which surprised me was the number of families seeing the movie. The cinema was about 3/4 full and a lot of them were fathers and sons seeing it together. I’d not really thought about it before but The Simpsons has been around long enough to transcend 3 generations; if you were 14 when it started, it’s possible that your parents liked it and now you could have a child yourself who’s grown up with the show. And everyone seemed to get something different from it; the kids found the gags funny, while the parents sympathized with Homer trying to do the right thing (and failing).

My favourite parts were Bart’s nude debut (I almost choked at Flanders’ “Thank you, Lord, for this bountiful… penis!”) and Cargill’s manipulation of President Schwarzenegger, but I really enjoyed the scenes with Bart and Homer as well. The writers walk a fine line with Homer; make him too stupid and he just seems retarded, but by exploring Homer through Bart, we see him differently – we see he’s not perfect, but he’s trying, and that’s really the heart of the story. I also thought Hans Zimmer did a good job with the music. He captured the spirit of the show very well, something I thought only Danny Elfman could do.

My only real criticism is the length; 87 minutes is okay, but they cut out material with characters like Sideshow Bob which could have made it longer. Perhaps the scenes just didn’t work, we won’t know until the DVD’s out. Other than that I thought it was great fun, one of the few films this year which hasn’t disappointed. If there’s anyone else who hasn’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth it. Just make sure you bring donuts. And yes, that’s a Simpsonized picture of me; click it if you want to do one of your own. 😉

Air by Geoff Ryman

air.jpgThis is the first review I’ve posted for awhile, mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read as much recently as I’d have liked. But I’ve been looking forward to reading Geoff Ryman’s Air. It comes with extremely good recommendations and has swept most of the major SF awards; it won the British SF, James Tiptree Jr. and Arthur C. Clarke Awards and was on the short-list for the 2006 Nebula. Perhaps more importantly, it’s regarded as one of the few recent SF novels which is highly literate – beautifully written and as much about character as science. So with these recommendations, I was curious to read Air. Unfortunately I didn’t have the reaction I expected.

The premise of Air is that in the near-future, a new information technology is developed. Called Air, it promises to link everyone around the world without concern of power or social status. When the world decides that Air will go live on a set date, it’s up to Chung Mae, the fashion expert of her tiny village in Karzistan, to try and ready the villagers for the immense changes approaching. But during a testing of Air, Mae is accidentally trapped inside Air… changed by the accident, and turning against the traditions of her village, it’s feared Mae may destroy the village before Air even reaches them…

There’s no doubt that Air is a beautiful novel. Geoff Ryman is a gifted writer; his prose is elegant, understated in the way it reflects the changes in Mae’s village – the novel begins with brief, sporadic sentences, the way an illiterate villager might speak, but changes as Air comes to the village, the dialogue and prose becoming more esoteric with new-found knowledge. It’s also a beautifully structured novel. Every part of the novel is multifaceted and, much like the prose, reflects the changes happening within their society; Mae’s pregnancy represents the new children to be born after Air, the Flood wipes away the last vestige of opposition, the poor in the Third World become equal through knowledge…. it’s a mirror of change, and there’s no doubting the strength of Ryman’s commentary on developed nations and their exploitation of the Third World. My problem with Air, though, is that a lot of it seems exploitative as well.

I’m referring in particular to Mae’s pregnancy. The first 150 pages or so of the novel are interesting, but past that, once her pregnancy starts to become more apparent, the tone of the novel shifts. The pregnancy is just not believable. The whole idea that a person could sustain a pregnancy outside of their uterus (bringing a foetus to term in their stomach) is a stretch to say the least – but that someone would give birth through their mouth is simply hideous. It’s not physically possible… and so the only explanation we’re left with is that it happens because it’s simply meant to happen; it’s a metaphor for the new age Air is ushering in. Even on that level I object to it. During the course of the novel, as Mae’s mind is trapped within Air and bonds with her dead neighbour, she becomes half insane and her village begins to disown her. She goes against their traditions, and this mythic pregnancy should serve to further ostracise her from them… but it doesn’t. They’re unsettled, yes, but they don’t turn against Mae; if anything, the women seem to accept her even more, and that just doesn’t feel right. Getting away from the believability of the pregnancy, the symbolism of it just feels too heavy-handed. Mae says to her child on page 389 “You are blind, but you will not need to see, for we can all see for you, and sights and sounds will pass through to you from us. You have no hands, but you will not need hands, for your mind will control the machines, and they will be as hands. Your ears also burned away, but you will hear more in one hour than we heard in all our lifetimes.” There’s nothing subtle about this; I found it extremely exploitative, and it left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

My other problem is that at times Air seems at odds with its own ideas. What starts as a clash between worlds, the ideals of the old and new, descends into a cleansing. Half the novel is spent with Mae trying to convince the villagers of the benefits of Air… but it doesn’t matter. In the end the people who don’t believe are washed away, and the others are scared into opening their eyes. I also didn’t quite grasp the idea of how Air is supposed to be spread. It’s this idea of the Internet in your head, making everyone equal… but it’s not something people can choose. Air is forced upon everyone whether they would choose it or not, and I can’t see the Western world promoting that, or the UN implementing it.

The other reason Air has been talked about recently is that it’s one of the more high-profile Mundane SF novels. Mundane SF is a sub-genre of science fiction which attempts to focus on stories featuring a believable level of technology and science. I’m not knocking Mundane SF, but Air to me actually doesn’t represent its tenets in a lot of ways. The pregnancy is not based in any science I know of, and the cleansing is symbolic; while it follows the manifesto in some ways (Air itself), there’s still more of a fantastical or mythical feel to Air than I expected.

Still, I can see why many people have received Air so well. It’s beautifully written and structured, and the concept of the novel is intriguing. If you can accept the pregnancy, then you’ll probably really enjoy Air. The literate nature of the novel may even make it accessible to people who wouldn’t normally read science fiction. For me, it didn’t work, but it’s definitely a book you should read for yourself and make up your own mind.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

demolished.jpgI’d heard a lot about Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, but I’d never had a chance to read it before now. It’s a classic of science fiction, the winner of the first Hugo Award and the novel that inspired a generation of young writers into science fiction. But it’s been 50 years since TDM was first published; does it still hold up today? I found that it both does and doesn’t, for different reasons.

At its heart The Demolished Man is a science fiction mystery – only it isn’t a mystery in any conventional sense. The reader knows the identity of the murderer from the beginning; the twist is that Ben Reich lives in a society which has made murder virtually impossible due to powerful telepaths. So when Reich decides to murder business rival D’Courtney, the mystery is more how he can perform the murder and why he would want to. When Reich finally commits the murder, police prefect Lincoln Powell begins to investigate. If Reich gets away with murder, it will irreversibly change their society, and perhaps the universe itself…

I must admit, I had a strange reaction reading TDM. The novel itself I didn’t like much. Maybe a part of that was because I hadn’t read it previously and now it feels dated, but the concept of the novel seemed flawed to me. Reich has obvious motive, the most to benefit from killing his rival, and he was in the same place as D’Courtney when he was killed; the idea of him having this supposed anonymity for the crime just isn’t believable. And his later distractions for the police (opening charities, launching competitions, sending people offworld), likewise seem juvenile. But one thing which really troubled me was Bester’s depiction of women in TDM. The women are caricatures, depictions of male feminine ideals; socialites, clairvoyants, prostitutes, timid girls. I’d always thought TDM was an advanced novel, but in its attitude towards women, at least, it didn’t feel that way.

Perhaps I’m looking at TDM too much from a 21st century perspective, but I just didn’t find the story convincing. Nor could I grasp its Freudian undertones. Bester suggests that their society is unhealthy because they’ve stamped out the killer instinct, something they should learn from; but if you take this idea at face value, then how can you completely ignore that Powell is in love with Barbara as a perverse father/daughter relationship? He’s a man in love with a child, not a woman; but it’s never mentioned. In many ways TDM is a reverse morality play, but anything meaningful it says is overshadowed by the tone of the novel.

What I did find interesting, though, was seeing how much TDM has been used as a template for other works. I can see how at the time it was written that The Demolished Man would have influenced many writers with its blend of pulp fiction and ideas; its combination of low-life characters and run-down locations undoubtedly played a part in inspiring cyberpunk, and Bester’s use of italics and his structuring of psychic conversation (“basket weave”, etc.) was one of the earliest uses of graphologic layouts in science fiction. Bester’s influence is apparent in writers as diverse as John Brunner, Robert Silverberg and John C. Wright, due to the thematic diversity of his work, and it was that sense of experimentation that I found interesting in TDM; its blend of styles, Bester’s obvious love of language. That’s why I had a strange reaction; while not enjoying the novel, I appreciated the impact it had had and found following that more interesting than the story itself.

Overall, The Demolished Man is a mixed read. I don’t think it holds up as well as other novels from its time (Earth Abides, Childhood’s End, The Man in the High Castle), but the impact it’s had on the genre is unparalleled. If you’ve never read The Demolished Man before, maybe now is a good time to check it out; or if you have read it, maybe it’s time to revisit TDM and see for yourself how it stands up today.