There will never be a great superhero novel pt 3: Thoughts on Tigerman by Nick Harkaway

TigermanThere’s a slightly troubling element to the making of gritty realistic portrayals of superheroes, which Christopher Nolan’s Batman series just manages to steer clear off. Mostly down to the selection of the villains in those films. However, as soon as you think about the rest of the DC canon, especially the rest of the Justice League members (aliens, mystical princesses et al), a realistic Batman is ludicrous. Realism and superheroes just don’t mix. The concept is ridiculous. But then, how can you portray superheroes, at home in the visual medium of comics and on the big screen, in 300 or more pages of black and white; words in a book. I don’t think you can.

Nick Harkaway’s third novel, Tigerman, is the real deal. His first novels were interesting starters – full of flavour but with way too many ingredients and an uncertain and confusing final dish. Tigerman is a main course worthy of fine dining. A few high quality ideas executed with near perfection.

The title and the branding of the book suggests that we’re in the land of superheroes. While the novel is a fantasy, it could almost be real. Because it is the story of a man and a boy; an ex-soldier lost in the world and a child looking for friendship in a world dominated by American pop-culture – comics, music, film and YouTube. The boy speaks in brilliant hybrid dialogue: “Emote later. Right now: Voight-Kampff FTW”. The story is set on the island of Mancreu. Our hero is Lester Ferris. Mancreu is a fictional island in trouble. Located ‘somewhere’ it is a cocktail of African, Asian and Arab influence. The cocktail is about to blow: pollution from chemical companies have led to semi-regular ‘discharge clouds’ which have some interesting effects on the local wildlife (fish changing sex) and people (brain damage causing language and memory defects). The UN and other bodies have populated the island with various representatives, all of whom play a part in Lester’s life. The big one is coming and the island is to be evacuated. Officially, an ‘Interventional Sacrifice Zone’. Lester is the impotent yet dutiful British Brevet-consul. Single and childless, has befriended the comic-book literate boy (who has no name). He is serving his time as the friendly bobby-on-the-beat. Meanwhile, as Mancreu is effectively a non-place, lawless, there is a mysterious fleet of ships just beyond the horizon. All sorts of illegality might be found on the ships. From extraordinary rendition to whore-houses and more, anything is possible.

Lester wonders if there is a future for him and the boy. Maybe he could adopt him? There seems no sign of a family. They usually meet in a local bar where the boy talks of superheroes and comics. Until the day bar-owner, Shola, is murdered and our heroes are almost killed too. Lester begins an investigation which uncovers more about the island and the fleet than he expected. When visiting Shola’s grave, he has an encounter with a tiger. Later, he discovers that he must create something powerful and frightening (and to disguise his identity so he doesn’t get in trouble with the bosses back home in London) to get to the truth about Shola, and the boy. He takes his cue from the tiger and a superhero is born.

Except he’s not a real superhero. He’s not even Batman. He’s a skilled fighter who uses surprise and fear as a weapon. No real superpowers or billionaire’s playthings. No magic or science. There is a passage about half way through when Harkaway is discussing the philosophy of his hero (and one echoed by Nolan’s version of Batman) that Lester can’t fight the bad guys, but Tigerman can. He can do anything, because he isn’t real. Beautifully observed. There are many myths on the island, such as the eternal Bad Jack, so Lester and the boy create a demon. The international cast of supporting characters (Dirac, Lester’s French counterpart, the Japanese scientist Kaiko, Jed Kershaw from American intelligence, the Ukranian and others) all play their part in what is more like an empirical spy thriller, set in some darkest Africa. Of course, the set-up is pure superhero – the boy being Robin to Tigerman’s Batman.

The key to Harkaway’s writing is the textured depth and imaginative characterisation. It is one of those books who’s character are so rich than by the climax, you feel like they’ve penetrated your reality and you want to keep them close, even after the book is over. Many of the supporting cast are fairly one-dimensional but the two leads are so well-written you can empathise with Lester’s every emotion and smile at the boy’s cultural references. The writing is terrific and the plot is as complex as any novel: fantasy, superhero or familial drama. Which is what this really is. Tigerman might be magic realism dressed up in a 4-colour comic-book costume, but at its heart is story about a lonely middle-age man looking at his single, parentless life, and the boy who he hopes might think of him as a father. It is Lester’s flawed paternal desire that drives him to dress up as Tigerman, not a sense of heroism. There is plenty of that to come, mind – fights, rescues, plans and such-like.

When the denouement arrives, I almost didn’t buy it. I couldn’t decide if Harkaway has been too clever or not clever enough. On reflection: Goldilocks. Just about right. To his credit. There are so many ideas to the novel, and like his previous novels, I kept expecting a stumble. It never came. For example, the island’s overseers are an organisation with a name shortened to NatProMan. I’m sure this is deliberate, hinting at an evil adversary for our hero. But it doesn’t descend into cliché. NatProMan is a red herring. Even the secret James Bond baddie-base isn’t hackneyed and is portrayed with affection.

Throughout the book I kept wondering if the goo-soup of a volcano that had doomed the island would somehow go off and turn Lester into a real unreal superhero with proper fantastical powers. I’m glad it didn’t. Tigerman isn’t really a superhero novel, and only just a novel about heroes, even though it has affections for comics. I never really equated to other superhero books I’ve read. I didn’t imagine Lester’s costume as a comic-book creation at any point (although I might have if my expressed fear had come true). Tigerman is an entire novel about how Peter Parker was bitten by the radioactive spider. Except it turns out that bite has no after-effects. It’s also a novel about the Gwen Stacey decision on the George Washington Bridge (Lester has to make a choice – be a hero or be a father). It is not a great superhero novel but a great novel about superheroes. Real ones.

 

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut.

Player PianoKurt Vonnegut had his debut novel, Player Piano, published in 1952. Much of western civilisation was still in a period of recovery following the devastation of World War II. Vonnegut was an active serviceman and was captured in Europe. Post war, he became a technical writer and worked in PR for General Electric before becoming a journalist. The post-war period directly informs what is a brilliantly written if flawed novel.

Upmost in Vonnegut’s mind could have been the result of the war. Was the life of the average American worth the fighting? Where do we go from here? And the classic staple of science fiction, where is man’s place now surrounded by machines that can do a job better than him? I say man, because Player Piano is set very much in the man’s world of the time. Men are managers and engineers – the ones who run America – and women are wives and secretaries. Our hero is high-flying Dr. Paul Proteus who is head of industry in New York. His wife, Anita, is a social climber who detests her roots. His secretary is Dr. Katharine Finch. Yep, the females need a doctorate to serve their masters.

The novel is set after a third world war with most Americans fighting abroad. In order to keep the country running, the managers and engineers made machines to replace the men in the factories. Unlike the reality of the WWII, in this fiction, women cannot even do the work of the missing men. Now, with the war over, most men have no work and those live in segregation away from the managers and engineers. As well as following Paul’s story – the main thread of the text – Vonnegut also presents the perspective of the visiting Shah of Bratpuhr, a spiritual leader of six million residents in a distant, underdeveloped nation. Via his translator, he struggles to understand the American life-style, even to the point of believing that a super-computer might be a deity, as it can answer any and all questions (although it cannot talk).

Paul begins the novel understanding his place in the world but soon, thanks to a few unrelated events, finds himself dissatisfied, despite his lofty position. He comes across an old friend, Ed Finnerty who has quit his own lofty position. Ed and Paul visit the Homestead, where the disenfranchised live. They go to a bar where some truths are spelled out to Paul. The Homesteaders have meaningless lives and a minister, Lasher, helps solidify Paul’s doubts in the system he manages. There is a rebellion on the cards and Ed joins up. Paul wants to but doesn’t have the courage. Initially. Paul’s superiors ask him to betray his old friend which spurs on his discontent. He buys a run-down farm hoping to persuade Anita into a simpler life but she rejects him.

As Paul has been groomed for a superior position it becomes clear that he wants to reject it, but he is still wary of the competition for it, and for his wife’s affections. It comes to a head in a corporate away-day scenario where Paul must chose the comfortable life or battle against the system where men are rendered pointless by machinery.

In the denouement, Vonnegut shows the reader that even after given a choice and a chance at a simpler life-style, mankind will condemn itself in the name of technological progress.

Remember that this was written and published pretty much before the computer age and you might think that Player Piano is remarkably prescient. The gadget of the title being a piano that plays itself it perhaps symptomatic of reliance we now have with technology. All our stuff no-longer relies on us users – other to change the occasional batter. I remember growing up in the 1970s and 1980s when car engines were tinkered with every Sunday morning, garages and sheds were a hive of activity with repairs and improvements, garments were sowed and jumpers knitted. Today, everything works or is replaced if it doesn’t. We throw things away rather than repairing. We have the society (albeit not as divided) that Vonnegut feared.

The fiction itself is almost excellent, let down only by a slightly weakened ending to the middle third that could have been a bit tighter in execution – my mind wandered a bit during the Meadows section as points were hammered home repeatedly. However the final act and coda more than made up for it. The last few pages are genius. I found the fluidity of narrative and writing style remarkable for a debut novel; but in reality of course, Vonnegut was a seasoned writer confident in his subject matter. The characterisation was interesting, watching Paul make choices that would seem to turn his world upside down – and not for the better in the world he lived in. His motivations were realistic and sympathetic. The plot never felt forced or unbelievable. The placement of both the female characters and the machines mean that the novel is a sharp satire even today. Women might do better in education but are still paid less and are massively under-represented in senior management (although I personally suspect this is because they aren’t as psychopathically egotistical as most high-achieving men – and probably through choice). Anita’s character is sadly a one-dimensional caricature but makes a valid point about position of the trophy wife, while Katharine shows to have some depth. Meanwhile, the Shah appears to have some black comic purpose, basically shouting at America that ‘you’re all stupid, can’t you see what you’re doing!’ Which I like.

As with all the best dystopian science fiction, Vonnegut presents a seemingly perfect utopia – a one that western nations are even now apparently striving for; the worship of technology – and tears it down with well-observed satire and effortless prose fiction. I’m surprised Player Piano isn’t regarded higher than it is, and should be spoken about in the same context as Brave New World and the like.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The War of the Worlds by HG Wells (1897)

War of the WorldsReading an old favourite that you’ve not read for years and believe you’re familiar with is potentially problematic. I hadn’t read The War of the Worlds for more than 20 years. This is the fourth or fifth time I’ve read it. Wells originally published the novel in serialised form in 1897, and the book made its appearance the following year. My copy is my old and dog-eared 1975 Pan edition which I’ve had since I was a child. There are no notes, introductions or comments in this edition.

The plot to The War of the Worlds is a familiar one to most: Martians land in Victorian England and slowly take over London, while our narrator fights to survive. You must acknowledge the classic status of such as novel. Throughout the book, sentences and descriptions fire the memory and bring a smile to my face. I had a shiver of excitement when I read the first few paragraphs. Later, when I read It was the beginning of rout of civilisation, of the massacre of mankind, I thought it might be the greatest sentence I’ve ever read. Probably not, but you take my meaning.

Of course, when you open the book and see the chapters listed, you know the eventual outcome of the so-called war. You read the book understanding that the narrator survives – this is no unreliable narration.

The narrator is unnamed and appears to be an expert in philosophy. After explosions are witnessed on Mars, an object lands at Horsell Common, close to the narrator’ house. At first, it is thought to be a meteorite, but when the lid screws off and aliens emerge, all hell breaks loose. Soon, death and destruction are reigned upon the watchers thanks to the famous heat-ray. Now, the narrator’s wife is sent away and the adventures ensue, while more alien craft from Mars land in the Home Counties. The descriptions of the devastating attack on London, and the intervention of the iron-clad warship Thunderchild are told through the reportage of the narrator’s brother. I’d completely forgotten about the brother’s perspective – probably tainted by other versions of the story. Again, the fact that the narrative is told in this way, and includes descriptions of Martian anatomy, gives the reader no-doubt about the eventual victor. History is always written by the victors: especially the history of war. Wells was clearly aware of this fact. He has plenty to say about real war and he uses this novel and others to highlight both its horrors and its impact. He believes it to be horrific. The Martians destroy everyone and everything. There is no room for negotiation or surrender. War is awful.

Wells also attacks religion in The War of the Worlds. One character, a curate, is shown to be weak under god. He questions the plans of the divine, which mirror the concerns of the time. How can a just creator inflict the pain of war? Even the curate questions his maker? His evangelical mania leads to his death.

The over-riding theme, however, is the Imperialism of England; shown in reflection to some extent. This invasion isn’t really about England but London. The Martians only land around London and move inward. Slowly. It amuses the reader in modern times that the initial landing and destruction takes place on a Friday and it isn’t until Sunday evening when most folks in London realise the implications. No instant communication channels at the end of the 19th century. So the island is invaded and the rest of the world continues as normal in a time after the real island had invaded huge chunks of the planet. And when the hordes panic through the streets of London, it is described as the end of civilisation. Book 2 is even called The Earth Under the Martians when in reality it was London and the Home Counties under the Martians, and nothing more. It is curious to know that while this horror falls down on London, most of the rest of the planet was oblivious. Maybe Wells thought London was the centre of the world or maybe he was satirising those others who did.

In the opening pages Wells acknowledges the story concerns the vanity of man. The topics are evolution and technological progress. This is a warning text. Wells suggests several times that the science of the age might be beyond man at the time. The recovered artefacts from the invasion are not able to be reverse engineered. And yet man is described as a curious beast. Of course, the topic of evolution was hotly debated through Victorian times and Wells had plenty to say on matter too (having been taught by Huxley); suggesting that human evolution might eventually lead to creatures similar in intellect but emotionless as the invaders. Is evolution a good thing? It is undeniable, but we must take care. The narrator only survives through several moments of luck and chance, and he acknowledges as much throughout. Does fortune favour the brave or is luck indiscriminate? Despite his education, he is an everyman, a decent ordinary citizen. How are we to read this juxtaposition of the ordinary and extraordinary in context with scientific advancement?

Public Domain

There a lots of lovely nuances in the text, reflecting Wells’ time. It is important to mention the fact that a man’s appearance was significant, even though his unkempt appearance was because a hat had fallen in the Martian’s initial pit. But Wells also uses poetic description (I had the sunset in my eyes) for its own sake. The horrors he describes are imaginative and not like anything written before. The way the Martians feed is brilliantly simply. As usual in novels from this time, the female characters receive short-shrift. Indeed, other than a few brief appearances of the narrator’s wife and some women his brother must save, there are none. Wells wasn’t telling a story about people however, perhaps highlighted by the fact none of the main characters has a name in the story.

As the book concludes, all the narrative and thematic strands are tied up as the Martians are defeated not by man’s ingenuity or guile, but by micro-organisms and disease. Man isn’t the victor despite regaining his home.

The War of the Worlds is the first mainstream science fiction book to feature an alien invasion, allowing the author to comment on the social topics of the time: religion, scientific advancement, imperialism and war. Wells does an exceptional job in such as short text. Not only does it address political and social concerns of the times in a proper science fiction setting, it is simply a great read. No wonder it is one of the most significant science fiction novels of all time.

Favourite re-reads: Listening to Lethe

Lethe Favourite novels can often reflect a particular stage in life. When I first read Lethe (1995) by Tricia Sullivan I was in the process of deliberately hunting out female science fiction authors. I’d recently read and loved Ammonite (1993) by Nicola Griffith and wanted more. I was also a member of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society. My time at university had awaked me to some social issues which I was following.

I recently decided to listen to Lethe rather than re-read it. I played the unabridged version narrated – or rather acted – by Imogen Church.

Lethe is set in 2166 after a long period of recuperation for Earth, following the Gene Wars. Human-kind genetically altered viruses and experimented on fellow humans. The result was nuclear war, the decimation of Earth and the creation of new humanoid species. A planet-wide governance by an oligarchy of once-human brains in permanent computer interface allowed so-called “pure” humans to survive in rezzes, protected my mirror-fields. An off-shoot of humans, known as altermoders (who have gills and develop a skin for underwater swimming), can telepathically communicate and network with dolphins. Meanwhile, an astronomical body called Underkohling is found on the outer rim of the solar system which contains gates to other parts of the universe.

Our story features Jenae, an Australian altermoder, who is trying to make sense of the discoveries the dolphins show her, and Daire, who slips through the ‘fourth gate’ while on a mission of exploration, and what he finds on the planet he wakes up on. Jenae learns the truth of what has happened in the past, while experiencing bigotry and grief. She finds out that power corrupts but not everything is black and white when it comes to identity. The planet’s masters are not who they seem. Meanwhile, Daire finds the supposed descendants of the criminals involved with the Gene Wars and learns about love and responsibility. He also discovers what appears to be sentient trees. The leader of the descendants, an impossible girl called Tsering, must come to terms with a terrible fate, brought about by the corporations during the Gene Wars back in Earth’s past. The plot strands come together as Colin – a forth key character and scientist and colleague of Daire – meets Jenae. They escape Earth to find themselves on this new and viable planet.

I remember being really excited to read a story where the heroine not only swam with dolphins, but became like them and could communicate with them. I remember being impressed that science over-comes politics and corporations and has the potential to save humanity. I was also impressed by the small details in the writing. I remember at the time, thinking that a male science fiction writer wouldn’t have mentioned insects so many times. I was probably wrong.

Listening to Lethe was probably a mistake. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, but the story wasn’t as personal to me as I recalled. I’ve changed a lot. Sullivan’s world is interesting enough and has some nice ideas (how the corporate criminals tried to get away with their crimes, and the bigotry between sub-species for example), but it has dated badly in light of the modern communication age. Computers are clunky and they still use discs to transport information. Her writing is great, however. Her world-building is by discovery for the most part, and not exposition.

The cast of characters is impressive and mostly cliché-free. Jenae and Tsering aren’t the only strong women, but in the end I thought that Lethe should have been more about Jenae. Her story almost fades out as the conclusion arrives and Colin’s character takes over the story. Sullivan presents a scenario which provides Jenae with a potential release to her situation but then fails to explore it.

The details that Sullivan includes in her story are what takes it above a standard SF tale. The mention of the aforementioned insects, the way Jenae’s twin falls for a ‘wrong-un’, the lives of the dolphins, and more aren’t features you’d come across in most genre fiction. Many other passages too. The over-riding theme appears to be that humanity is reliant on nature and not separate from it. Meddle or destroy nature and it will destroy you. The other is identity. Jenae’s twin doesn’t have her altermode ability. The people running the planet are nameless brains. The sentient trees can show you ghosts of your past. What makes you, you? A question all good science fiction should ask. However, I was torn between being interested in the characters, themes and the future Sullivan created and being disappointed by Colin’s growing influence in the story. It was almost as if the author lost faith in her female leads.

Also, I found Church’s narration distracting. The cast of characters from around the world and of different ages meant that Church put on a range of accents and tones. Colin was a pompous Englishman. Janae a headstrong Aussie. There were children and middle-aged Asian men. Not that she couldn’t do accents, but they distracted from what they were saying. I’d have preferred it if all the characters had spoken in Church’s own voice.

I’m more analytically minded now than I was in 1995, despite not long being out of university where I’d completed an MSc. I think that if I’d read (and not listened) to Lethe for the first time today I’d have enjoyed it thoroughly, but it wouldn’t have impacted me personally as much as it did back in the day. There are some cracking science fiction themes here and plenty of interesting characters. Lethe is a great book by a great author, although this audio version is a tad mis-judged.

Some stuff I enjoyed during the last bit and what I’m looking forward to in the next bit

The time period known in the west as 2014 was a fairly unremarkable one forThe Year of Reading Dangerously me. I read a whole bunch of books, short stories and graphic novels. One book which was experimental poetry. Quite a few comics. I also took to audio-books, listening to all of the Dark Tower series amongst others.

In a break from the normal annual review, may I present to you, dear reader, some top lists.

Top 5 non-fiction books:

  1. The Year of Reading Dangerously by Andy Miller (no, the other one)
  2. This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
  3. The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling
  4. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright
  5. An Atheist’s History of Belief by Matthew Kneale

Top 10 fiction:

  1. The Humans by Matt HaigHumans
  2. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
  3. The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker
  4. Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  5. Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith
  6. The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce
  7. The Language of Dying by Sarah Pinborough
  8. The Three by Sarah Lotz
  9. Red Rising by Pierce Brown
  10. The Anxiety of Kalix the Werewolf by Martin Millar

It seems that the first half of the year was better than the second in my reading choices. Only 2 proper science fiction in my top 10. Interesting. An honourable mention to Whitstable by Stephen Volk; a novella set in the town where I call home.

The comic series I’ve enjoyed reading in 2014 included:

  1. Trees
  2. Supreme: Blue Rose
  3. The Wake
  4. Ms Marvel
  5. The Wicked + The Divine
  6. Wytches

Oh what the hell. Some films too:

  1. Godzilla
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. The Babadook
  4. Guardians of the Galaxy
  5. Edge of Tomorrow
  6. Under the Skin
  7. Inside Llewyn Davis
  8. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  9. Only Lovers Left Alive
  10. Her

So there you go. Tell me I’m wrong.

Slaughterhouse 5What about 2015? Well, plans and such like are never set in stone but I’m looking forward to reading The Death House by Sarah Pinborough, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North, most of novels of Kurt Vonnegut, some gothic fiction including The Castle of Otranto by Walpole Horace.  I must try and get round to reading Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch. I should probably read a couple of old favourites too, including Brave New World and Ammonite by Nicola Griffin. I once tried to read Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We but didn’t get very far. I’m going to give that a bash too. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of new stuff too.

The History of Science Fiction Literature Challenge – The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells (1896)

The Island of Dr MoreauThe story is a short and simple one. Virtuous man finds himself, quite by accident, in a place of scientific corruption. He must remain true to himself while battling the perceived evil, hoping for an escape.

Originally published in 1896, Wells allegedly called The Island of Doctor Moreau “an exercise in youthful blasphemy” but it became so much more than that. The copy I read was a free edition on iBooks, presumably a copy of the first edition, as there is no indication is any further edition.

The tale begins as told by the nephew of the main protagonist whose job is to give it a journalistic flavour; a hint of realism. But soon we’re into the story of Edward Prendick, who is the sole survivor of a shipping accident. He’s soon picked up by passing ship, containing a chap called Montgomery and laden with a menagerie bound of a small island. Montgomery’s mate is an oddly bestial fellow by the name of M’ling. The ship’s captain, a drunkard, and Montgomery both insist that Prendick remains with the other. In the end he’s abandoned, but Montgomery picks him up and takes him to the island. Soon Prendick learns that the island is full of such creatures as M’ling. It seems that disgraced scientist, Moreau, has set up shop in the island where he can continue his experiments with vivisection in peace. Montgomery brings him animals, including a puma. Prendick suspects he might end up under the scalpel and tries his luck with the beast-men. After an unfortunate incident, Prendick returns to the compound and although earlier professes to be abstinent in the ways of alcohol, takes a brandy to help sleep. Another altercation with Moreau sees Prendick back in the jungle, learning of the ways of the beast-like folk. Are they men turned into animals or animals made human? He learns they have a Law, determining their humanity.

The discovery of a half-eaten rabbit leads to the story’s prolonged conclusion with ends in disaster and tragedy. After months alone with the abominations, Prendick eventually escapes the island but is deemed to be a raving lunatic by the captain of the ship who rescues him. Meanwhile Moreau’s creations return to more natural ways without human guidance. Prendick feigns amnesia before returning to London. There he can’t bear the company of people who he sees as animal-like, so he moves to the countryside and solitude.

Victorian society in England was a place of the Gentleman scientist, debates on evolution versus the church and much experimentation with medicine. It was also more than 80 years since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had been published. In the interim, most science fiction had concerned itself with false utopias or end-of-the-world fears. Science had been left behind, until Wells himself wrote The Time Machine a year earlier. While Victor Frankenstein might be seen as a proto-mad scientist, Moreau can be said to the archetype: shunned by the establishment; ploughing on with his insane vison despite failures; and without solid justification other than because he can. Moreau has no conscience. He has ‘never troubled by ethics’. Meanwhile, our hero Prendick is a man of virtue (highlighted in particular by brandy and the fact the ship’s captain and Montgomery are both drunks) and courage whose fortitude must be tested if he is to live to tell his tale. Both Montgomery and Moreau try to corrupt Prendick. Are society and science corrupting the common man?

Wells is clearly a successful storyteller with a satirical imagination and his nose in the zeitgeist. He can also write great action set-pieces filled with tension. I’m not sure he gets the credit he deserves for this aspect of his fiction. The imagination shown is interesting too. It would be easy to concoct beasts a reader might expect, but combinations such as a hyena-swine, bear-bull and vixen-bear are unexpectedly vivid constructions. Some are hard to imagine in reality (the ape-goat satyr for example). Whatever the combinations, these are true horrors. His characterisation is a little heavy-handed but fits the story well and is of its time. The dialogue fits and is believable. It is easy enough to imagine the types of men the three humans are.

There is of course, a danger in reading much of The Island of Doctor Moreau as a bit racist. I don’t think it is specifically, although it is hard to judge in parts if Wells was reflecting the attitudes of the time or being satirical. He talks a lot about M’ling and the ape-like creature being brutish and idiotic. Black men as servants and slaves?

In the end, I think Wells was praising scientific advancement while cautioning against unregulated progress. He uses terms such as ‘triumphs of vivisection’ and describes how Moreau made the creatures. He suggests minds should be open to science. He thinks that maybe man can conquer nature using science as Moreau tries to remove the animal cravings from his creations. Also, when Prendick shuns society in the coda, it is for chemistry and astrology.

As an aside, there is a reference to religion and the heaven/hell and pleasure/pain concepts. These ideas aren’t dealt with in details except as punishment for the beast in the House of Pain. However, I wonder if this is a birthplace of the horror fiction idea of the exploration between the boundaries of pleasure and pain in such works as the film Hellraiser.

And so Prendick retains his virtue and escapes the horrors of the island but Wells reminds us that ‘an animal may be ferocious and cunning…but it takes a real man to tell a lie’. In the end, Wells has produced a classic mad-scientist science fiction horror. This is no simple ‘adolescent blasphemy’. There is death and destruction, with a dash of hope. There are warnings a-plenty about unfettered advancement and mankind’s animalistic nature. There is science beyond what is possible. Of course, the failing is the lack of any female characters within the text, but that aside, The Island of Doctor Moreau is a proper science fiction classic.

The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman

Magician's LandSomething nags at me with Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy, and it’s not whether or not you’d class them as traditional fantasy in the vein of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe or the Harry Potter books, or as more adult-based urban fantasy (say of the Dresden Files for example). I think the problem is the magic itself. Not that it exists, but the way Grossman describes it.

The Magician’s Land is and entertaining and enjoyable conclusion to the trilogy which began as a lot of sweary teenage Harry Potter types (The Magicians, 2009) and morphed into a darker kings and queens of the magic lands adventure (The Magician King, 2011). There is a lot to admire in Grossman’s writing, and his ideas. We left off the story with our hero, Quentin Coldwater, back on Earth trying to make a life for himself after his expulsion from the magical land of Fillory. Julia is out of the story, while Elliot and Janet were left ruling Fillory with Josh and Poppy. Quentin is now in a bookstore with a bunch of other magicians, being tested for a potential quest. Suddenly, however, Quentin is back at Brakebills, his former magical school, and is a new professor. One student, Plum, is trapped by Quentin’s old love, Alice (who is now a niffin) when a prank goes wrong. Quentin rescues Plum, but he’s sacked and Plum is expelled. Quentin again it seems, goes from hero to zero. We’re now back to the bookstore thread and Quentin and Plum have been recruited by a bird to find and steal a magical object. Meanwhile, Elliot and Janet discover that Fillory’s days are numbered.

Grossman plays with time in the early narrative of the book, so it takes a while to settle into a coherent plot. This is a good thing! It makes the story intriguing and asks the reader to pay attention. The early chapters feel cold and distant, as if Grossman is deliberately making it clear that this is an adult novel with adult themes. But then on our first trip to visit Elliot, we’re back on profane but amusing magician territory again. There’s some deft touches and pleasing nods to other genre pieces (the talking horse sighing in exasperation at the end of the world, again!). There are some nice touches throughout the book which respect the fans of the series but I suspect someone picking this up without the back story might be a tad confused.

There are a few rare passages, such as when Quentin and Plum become whales, that are truly magical; full of wonder and imagination. And I think that is the problem with The Magician’s Land. Throughout the book, there are descriptions of magic, such as when the ‘land’ is created, which are just dull. He tries to portray magic as natural; scientific. More like chemistry than a thing of beauty and wonder: “all very theoretical, and Quentin wasn’t that into theory” – me neither. Grossman throws a great deal of imagination into these descriptions, but they don’t feel like magic. They feel like the narrative treading water. Which is a shame.

The story is quite episodic in nature. I enjoyed Grossman’s storytelling. Whenever I thought I’d found the point of the tale, I soon discovered another direction was soon upon me. Even the title of the book can be taken a number of ways. Subtexts? Several. Connections to the past; friends and family. What it means to love someone. What it means to love magic. What it means to grow up into a different sort of person. Quentin isn’t the typical hero; he doesn’t always win the girl and save the day. It is brave of Grossman to make is main character someone who has more than a few negative traits, and mix him up with other characters in ways you wouldn’t expect. Like everyone in the book, I expected more from Quentin’s relationship with Plum, although by the conclusion, it was more real that those expectations never came to pass. Unfortunately, Alice’s reaction to her new condition was more than predictable.

In Grossman’s world, magic is imperfect and the hero’s don’t live happily ever after, which is a good thing. He tries to make it as real as he can, given the genre conventions and deconstructions. Aside from the occasional magical drift; the skilled narrative, complex character relationships, imaginative world-building and back story all add up to a decent diversion into a magician’s land.

This review is courtesy of NetGalley