I’ve never read much Arthur C. Clarke. I read lots of other golden age writers: Bradbury, Bester, Simak, Asimov, Heinlein, Pohl, Kornblutch, etc. But not Clarke. Can’t think why. I suppose I just wrote him off because the movie 2001 was so boring, and the book of his that was in all the stores, Rendezvous With Rama, seemed incredibly dull. However, I recently purchased Jo Walton’s essay collection What Makes This Book So Great and have found it to be a great source of book recommendations (it’s where I learned about Random Acts of Senseless Violence, for instance). And one of the books she recommended was Against The Fall Of The Night. I went online, very skeptical, to read the Kindle sample, and…I loved it. What a fantastic book! It’s so sweeping and magisterial. It’s about a young man who’s born ten billion years from now, on the last remaining city in a completely desertified Earth. I haven’t gotten far yet, but the Walton is absolutely right that this book exudes a sense of heaviness and stillness–the sense of time hanging dead on top of you–that is pretty magnificent. For instance, the first scene in the book consists of the people of the city rushing out from their towers to stare at the sky:
Convar’s voice was sad when presently he spoke to his son.
“Look at it well, Alvin,” he said. “It may be the last the world will ever know. I have only seen one other in all my life, and once they filled the skies of Earth.”
They watched in silence, and with them all the thousands in the streets and towers of Diaspar, until the last cloud slowly faded from sight, sucked dry by the hot, parched air of the unending deserts.
I’m reading Jo Walton’s The Just City. Maybe it’s just me, but even though this book came out four months ago, I’ve heard zero buzz about it. I don’t know why. There’s something really fun and ridiculous about it. This is a book about Pallas Athena (yes, the Greek goddess) transporting 300 philosophers from throughout history to an island at the beginning of recorded history so they can create an ideal society, as set forth by Plato’s Republic.
If you’ve ever read The Republic, you’ll immediately understand how absurd this is. For one thing, The Republic is an authoritarian nightmare. There is literally no personal freedom. However, since this book begins w/ people who’re all of the same mind, it takes awhile to unravel.
I just can’t. The book is so weird. I love Jo Walton. The only book of hers I haven’t been able to get into was Among Other, but her Small Change trilogy and her last book My Real Children are amongst my favorite books of hers. Jo Walton gets plenty of buzz and sells plenty of copies, I’m sure, but I feel like she should get even MORE credit. When her books release, it ought to be a bigger event than when Neil Gaiman’s books drop. I mean seriously, her books are so smart and so readable. I wish someday I’m half as good (and half as accessible) as she is.
I liked Jo Walton’s latest so much that I thought about just posting the last page of the book on here, because I’ve rarely seen one that was finer. Well, except for the last line, which turned the screw a bit too much. Posting the last page of a book is the kind of thing you can do with a literary novel, but not with a genre novel, so I won’t (even though it’s not a heavily plot-driven book.
Anyway, I am so tired. Abysmally tired. I went to bed in good order last night, but only slept five hours. The night before that, I only slept three. Not sure what’s up with that. It doesn’t really matter, since it’s not like I have a job to go to. But it does not feel good to be tired. And, for some reason (maybe because my room gets too much sun), I’m no longer able to engage in daytime napping.
So, because of that, I won’t be able to give this book the thorough treatment it deserves. Suffice it to say, it’s really good. Certainly the best SF/F book published in 2014 that I’ve yet read. I’m going to nominate it for a Nebula. The book has a simple conceit. A woman is born in the UK in the late 1920s. At some point early in her life, she faces a momentous decision. At that point, her timeline splits and her life (along with the fate of the entire world) diverges. This is a very personal story. It’s about loves lost and found; careers made and broken; children who are born and grow up and have children of their own. There are also nuclear bombs and moon bases. Interestingly, neither of Patty’s worlds–the two that are chronicled in the book–is our world. However, one of them is similar enough to our world that it’s a bit strange and confusing. I like the effect. It’s lovely.
The human story here is really engaging. You genuinely want to know what Patty is up to and what will happen to her. And the point counterpoint between the two stories is interesting enough that it can take the place of conflict or plot. One of the lives is much happier than the other. In that one, Patty faces nothing like the troubles that she faces in the other one. But you don’t care, because there’s something fascinating about seeing the same person take two such different routes.
The book is so engaging on a page by page level that you’re able to ignore the strangeness of the premise. In the end, though, it does roll back around and try to make a point (perhaps too clearly). What I like best about the book, in looking back on it, is the way it differentiates personal happiness from societal well-being. In all too many SF/F, the social order serves as a sort of pathetic fallacy (i.e. the nature of the world reflects the nature of the character’s internal states). If a world is authoritarian and dark, then the people feel repressed and depressed. If a world is shiny and glitzy, then they’re optimistic and happy. In reality, though, happiness has much more to do with your home life and your professional life than it does with the social order. I remember another book that made this point very clearly was Walter Mosely’s Futureland, which took place in a horrifying corporate dystopia where, nonetheless, some people managed to be very happy.
Anyway, read this book. It’s great. The book I’d most closely compare it to is John Williams’ Stoner, which is another broad sweeping story about an entire human life. However, Stoner is more Romantic. It idealizes the main character’s unhappiness too much. It tries to turn him into a hero. This book doesn’t have to do that, because it has two main characters. It has the happy version and the unhappy version. And they’re both heroic and unheroic in different ways.
Just finished reading Half a Crown, which is the concluding volume to Jo Walton’s trilogy of books about a post-war Britain that’s slowly succumbing to fascism. I’m now going to spoil the book (and the whole series) pretty heavily, so don’t read any further if you care about that sort of thing.
The book ends with the young Queen Elizabeth going on television–after a failed attempt to assassinate the fascist Prime Minister–to dissolve the fascist government and announce free and fair elections. In some of the online commentary on the book, I saw some people talking about how this was kind of a deus ex machina (which it definitely is) and how it’s sort of rosy and unrealistic. But, to me, it didn’t seem too terribly unrealistic at all. This is exactly what happened in fascist Spain, right?
During Franco’s life, King Juan Carlos was somewhat powerless and sidelined. But when he died, the King (amidst a royalist counter-coup and all kings of other instability) took power and then went on television and announced support for democratic and constitutional rule. Thus, to me, the ending didn’t seem too terribly out of place.
I certainly enjoyed the way that Walton’s books paired the society novel with these suspense plots. They’re like the novels that Nancy Mitford would’ve written if World War II had turned out rather differently. Actually, I probably would’ve enjoyed them more if they hadn’t all been half-narrated by this Scotland Yard detective. I enjoyed the clueless debutante points of view (a different one in each book) substantially more than I enjoyed the conflicted detective’s PoV.
And some of the world-building was interesting. I liked the way that life continued as normal, to a substantial degree, even as the fascists took power. But I also thought that elements of it were quite poorly thought-out. For instance, we have numerous examples of fascist countries that were not under the control of Nazi Germany (Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and Peron’s Argentina). But none of these countries attempted to exterminate their Jewish populations or assist Nazi Germany in the persecution of Jews.
In some ways, the book seems to paint a rather narrow of view of fascism and totalitarianism as things that are only really blameworthy when they lead to pogroms and genocide. Although those things are terrible, of course, it would be interesting to someday read a “rise of fascism!” book that attempts to examine the other aspects of fascist life (the corporatism, militarism, nationalism, etc.) in the same way that Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty examined the economic planning problems inherent in the Soviet system.