Son of Reading Diary round-up

Again–more for me than you. Enjoy ’em, though.

Star Maker, by Olaf Stapledon: Apparently Stapledon was genuinely surprised when people started telling him he’d written a “science fiction novel”, which actually makes perfect sense once you’ve read it because it’s not really a novel at all. Star Maker‘s closest generic ancestor is the medieval dream vision; like Chaucer’s narrators, Stapledon’s (never named) is vouchsafed a long journey into the heart of cosmic truth. There’s not much in the way of plot or character development, which hampers a reader’s ability to care, although Stapledon’s theology and conception of universal history (and obsession with “community”) is intellectually interesting. Worth reading, though, mostly because he anticipates huge numbers of science fictional tropes, including the Prime Directive.

Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts: A combination of Golden Age of SF and Golden Age of Crime elements into one occasionally frustrating, though generally satisfying, whole. Written in three parts–one a prison breakout mystery, one a whodunnit, and one a locked-room case–the novel’s overarching plot doesn’t quite come together (and by the book’s end I still didn’t feel convinced, as the jacket assured me I would, of the righteousness of the murders). The solutions are ingenious, if also fairly bonkers. This is my first Roberts novel and I’m not totally sold, but I’ll pick up more.

Sibilant Fricative: Essays and Reviews, by Adam Roberts: One thing I am sold on is Roberts’s criticism, though, which is funny and incisive. The best thing in this collection is probably his critical read-through of the entire Wheel of Time sequence, which, if you don’t remember it, absolutely dominated bookshelves of a certain ilk in the ’90s and consists mostly of painful attempts to recreate a Tolkien-esque atmosphere which fail because they’re not grounded in anything like intellectual coherence. Roberts’s increasing despair is articulated with precision and force. He’s also good on Philip K Dick, Neal Stephenson, Ursula K LeGuin and Tolkien himself.

The Neon Rain, by James Lee Burke: A pivot to a different genre thanks to my library expedition. This is the first of Burke’s New Orleans-set detective novels featuring Dave Robicheaux; it starts with a warning from a death row inmate due to be executed in three hours, proceeds through a series of frequently violet set pieces exposing gang violence and US government complicity in selling weapons to oppressive regimes in Central America, and concludes with our hero vindicated, though wiser, and having picked up a hottie along the way. It’s magnificent: southern Gothic meets urban noir. Clearly written in the ’80s (the love interest’s eyes are “childlike” a little too often), but I have high hopes for the rest of Burke’s canon and plan to read The Tin Roof Blowdown, set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, next.

That was a lot of male authors (and the forthcoming entry in 20 Books of Summer happens to be William Shakespeare, which doesn’t help). I’m currently reading Kate Atkinson’s new novel, though–Big Sky–and can confirm that a) she’s at the top of her game right now, and b) no previous Jackson Brodie experience is necessary.

If you like what I write (and I freely concede that this particular reading diary entry may have been of no use to you at all, but maybe it diverted you from spreadsheets for a minute or two), why not buy me a coffee?

8 thoughts on “Son of Reading Diary round-up

    • It’s weird, but very interesting in terms of the genre question – I can’t think of many other modern authors who are working in that revelatory tradition, particularly not ones who (as Stapleton does) explicitly repudiate Christian orthodoxy.

  1. I’ve skimmed some Olaf Stapledon as research for an article I wrote on Arthur C. Clarke (among other things – Stapledon was an influence) – it didn’t strike me as something I’d want to read for fun, but sometimes I get the wrong impression when I skim things!

    • I think you’re right – I found it fairly heavy going, partly because (again) I don’t think what he’s written is actually a novel in any meaningful sense. Very interesting from a historical point of view, though.

  2. I’d say “attempts to recreate a Tolkienian atmosphere that fail due to a lack of intellectual coherence” is a not-wholly-unfair first-approximation description of most epic fantasy.

    To be fair to Jordan, however (and the man must have been doing something right, as it’s hard to overstate how massively commercially successful and influential he was – he sold about as many copies as George RR Martin now has, only without the benefit of a cultural-touchstone TV series), this may be less true of him than of many other writers. Jordan shies away from the overt trappings of Tolkien – no elves, no dwarves, quasi-scientific magic, a far-future setting with SF elements in the background, etc – and also swerves hard away from Tolkien’s epic structure. He focuses much more on character, and on ‘mundane’ plots. His big innovation in the genre, beyond sheer prolixity, is probably the way he introduces elements of the mystery genre – a lot of the compelling factor in Jordan is driven less by the epic scope and more by wanting to find out who killed whom, why so-and-so has done such-and-such, and what will happen next (similarly, he uses prophecy not to impart epic grandeur, but to set up puzzles for the reader). It’s true that he lacks the ideological integrity of a Tolkien, but unlike many fantasy authors he manages to get away with that by replacing ideological commitment with something else (puzzles).

    He fails, like most fantasy authors, primarily because he’s a bad writer. His worldbuilding is evocative but shallow, and his characterisation, similarly, is striking but soon repetitive. Halfway through his series, he lost control of his plot entirely, and the pacing becomes unutterably turgid – which is bad not only in its own right, but because it places too much weight on the flimsy elements that would have been less obviously bad if not drawn out to such length. [Nynaeve “tugging her braid” and “folding her arms beneath her breasts” while being annoyed with the impudence of a man is distinctive when she does it once, a lazy shorthand when she does it five times, and an infuriating vebal tick when she does it about fifty times across the series as a whole]

    [this doesn’t apply to the first novel, and to a lesser extent the second, which are indeed failed attempts at Tolkien – the first in particular is very badly written – famously there’s an entire chapter of flashback that most readers don’t immediately realise is flashback, leading to great confusion]

    Now, if you want a clearcut failed attempt at Tolkien lacking any intellectual coherence, read Terry Brooks. Or, better yet, don’t. Even as a teenager I rolled my eyes…


    What makes you say Star Maker isn’t a novel? Is is just the complete lack of any characterisation or plot? (this is a traditional part of a certain genre of SF novel). Have you read ‘Last and First Men’? [I haven’t read either, and I don’t know many people who have, so I’d be interested in a comparison if you had one…]

    The ‘visionary’ approach to SF was, in a broad sense of the genre, quite common in early SF&F, particularly in stories set in the future – early authors struggled to explain how their narrators could know about the future, yet be talking to us in the present, and the vision is an easy answer to that. The most famous example, and the direct precursor to ‘Last and First Men’, and hence indirectly to ‘Star Maker’, is William Hope Hodgson’s ‘The Night Land’ (1912). It’s officially “set” in the 17th century, but the hero receives a “vision” that effectively transports him into the heat death of the universe when the last humans live under siege in a giant pyramid. Hodgson’s novella drawn from ‘The Night Land’ even overtly evokes the Christian visionary tradition in being named “The Dream of X” (the visionary being nameless) [cf. christian vision poems from The Dream of the Rood all the way through to the Dream of Gerontius]

    • Ever in awe of your ability to write a comment longer than the original post… 😉 To be fair, Roberts’s objections to Jordan are largely to do with the awfulness of the writing (which is one of the reasons I rate his criticism so highly; he’s capable of breaking down a bad sentence and showing you why it doesn’t work). At one point he lists all of the instances (well, probably not ALL) in which a female character “gathers her skirts”. Even assuming they’re spread out over a thousand pages, it’s a lot of gathering.

      So, I wasn’t at all aware of the visionary tradition of early SF, but Star Maker makes perfect sense to me now that I do. Very interesting that The Night Land is even set specifically in the 17th century–era of Bunyan and that archetypal Christian dream vision, The Pilgrim’s Progress. I was certainly thinking of The Dream of the Rood when I read Star Maker, though also of Chaucer: The House of Fame, for instance, with its vivid, febrile imagery, or even The Book of the Duchess (although the latter is much more character-based).

      • Oh, there’s nothing I can’t write a response longer than, without even intending to… (perhaps it’s the other way around – if I don’t have something substantive to chip in, I tend not to bother saying anything)

        To be fair to Jordan, while his writing is bad, it’s much better than a lot of fantasy authors of the time! (yeah, I’m really selling the genre here, aren’t I?). His biggest flaw at the sentence level is indeed the obsessive repetition of certain phrases – if you drew up a list of every time a female character “sniffed” disparagingly, you’d literally have constructed a novella-length work. But then, a lot of writers would repeat themselves over the course of 4 million words…

        [a big structural flaw related to this is that all the women are the same woman. Jordan actually admitted this – all the women are his wife, who was also his editor. This is… complicated. On the one hand, knowing that that’s how he perceived his wife is alarming; on the other, and given that she approved of this as his editor and muse, it’s hard not to feel some sympathy. And making all the women in his universe into version of his wife in different costumes is both kind of sweet, and also very creepy… particularly given the frankly excessive fixation on lesbian spanking that pervades the later books]

        On visions: another interesting example is Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday”, subtitled “A Nightmare”. It only explicitly crosses over into SF&F in the final chapter or so, but Chesterton was a big influence on the genre early on, and it shows how the ‘dream’ was used to excuse all kinds of shenanigans. A more sophisticated form is in Cabell’s “Jurgen” – I can’t remember if Jurgen is explicitly receiving a vision throughout the novel, but it’s certainly set up that way – the centaur Nyssus acts as a threshold psychopomp to transport him first to an allegorical place (the Garden Between Dawn and Sunrise) and then into the past, and the novel ends with Jurgen transported back to the moment he left.

        And of course there’s an incredibly popular example in fantasy: Alice in Wonderland is all a dream Alice has on a hot afternoon. And apparently in “Phantastes”, the inspiration for a lot of these early fantasies, the protagonist is given a vision of Faerie Land, before waking up the next morning seemingly IN Faerie Land.

        This visionary device, with its protagonist seemingly transported to another world (or time) before returning to where they left (oddly, in The Night Land, they never return) probably gave rise to the ‘portal fantasy’ – things like Narnia. But I think these tropes are very old – as you say, the vision goes back to time immemorial, and a lot of old fairy stories, in which often little or no time passes on earth, seem to have a lot in common with it.

        A modern (well, 1970s) example is The Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, which is all about whether the protagonist believes he’s actually in The Land, or is just experiencing a hallucination, while the audience is given the third option that this is his mind while he’s in a coma.
        [to link this to the other point: Donaldson actually is the rare post-Tolkien writer whose story is shaped by a coherent ideological commitment like Tolkien, though of a different bent. Unfortunately, at least at first, he’s a terrible writer. (Later, he becomes such an incredibly weird writer that it’s hard to apply words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’).]


        While we’re on the topic (or while I am, at least), another “lost genre”, with similar motivations, was the “tall tale”, in which the SF or Fantasy was embedded within an improbable (but hinted to be true) story told to the narrator by a random guy usually met in a pub or the like…

  3. I must read more Adam Roberts – I own half a shelf-full. I did adore Yellow Blue Tibia which was utterly bonkers about Communism and UFOs. I remember reading The Neon Rain so long ago and never following it up.

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