3718594795_34c839a6b9_zPhoto credit: Andy McLemore

My science fiction story “Loyalty,” which takes place following a botched heist in a near-future Melbourne, has been published in issue #80 of Aurealis.

Aurealis is Australia’s oldest science fiction magazine, and publishing there has been a long-held goal of mine. It was actually the first place I ever got a rejection letter from, way back in 2009 when I was 19 years old. So I’m pretty pleased with this even if I now feel super old.

The Rachel Papers by Martin Amis (1973) 219 p.

Martin Amis is one of the most well-known contemporary British writers, so you have to read him, and since the local library had his first novel The Rachel Papers I figured I’d start there. I say “most well-known” rather than “greatest” or “prestigious,” because apparently he’s a bit of a Marmite figure. The Rachel Papers is a summation of recent events in the life of upper-middle-class Charles Highway, on the brink of his 20th birthday, largely surrounding his meticulous campaign of seduction towards the titular Rachel.

For the most part it’s okay. It drags a lot in the middle, and ultimately feels like a collection of gross-out comedy in the bedroom and bathroom, but it’s well-written and often quite funny. Martin Amis is of course the son of the novelist Kingsley Amis, and in many ways The Rachel Papers struck me very much as the son imitating the father: it’s a sort of bawdier 1970s version of Lucky Jim, a romantic comedy of manners updated for the cynicism of the 1970s. (There’s also Daddy Issue red flags all over it, in Charles’ relationship with his father.) Amis the younger is also apparently an influence on David Mitchell, and indeed I can already see in Charles Highway the blueprints for characters like Robert Frobisher in Cloud Atlas or Hugo Lamb in The Bone Clocks: young, oversexed, adventurous, witty, kinda misogynistic, destined for success, too smart for their own good.

So an okay novel, fairly forgettable, but not bad for a first go (especially considering he was 23 when he wrote it, the bastard). His next is Dead Babies, which is apparently much better.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (1937) 365 p.

When I was about 11 or 12 one of my distant uncles or second cousins – I can’t remember who exactly – lent me a full-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings, and since I didn’t want to disappoint him I read the entire thing despite not particularly liking it. I’ve never re-read it in its entirety since then, but my opinion of it remains more or less the same. The Fellowship of the Ring starts off all right, but in the next two volumes Tolkien quickly sinks into a self-indulgent obsession with his own semi-Biblical, irredeemably nerdy fantasy lore; basically the textbook example of a fantasy or science fiction author allowing the world to come before the story. It’s all “son of Denethor” this and “son of Arathorn” that. Peter Jackson’s film adaptations are a thousand times better.

The Hobbit, on the other hand – which I probably read not long after The Lord of the Rings – is absolutely brilliant: a classic of fantasy fiction, a great children’s book, and probably among the hundred greatest novels of the 20th century. It’s actually hard to believe that this is the same author. There’s just no reasonable explanation for how a man who got it so, so wrong in The Two Towers and The Return of the King (and I wouldn’t touch The Silmarillion with a bargepole), a man who displayed such a clumsy grasp of how to write a good book, was also capable of getting it absolutely right with The Hobbit. His authorial voice is entirely different, pitched at a younger audience, perfectly capturing the spirit and the tone of a whimsical grandfatherly storyteller.

Unlike its more famous literary brother, The Hobbit is a short and simple novel about a straightforward fantasy adventure. Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End is visited one day by Gandalf the Wizard, and is more or less press-ganged into accompanying a company of thirteen dwarves to voyage across plains, mountains and forests to recover their lost treasure from the dragon Smaug, who usurped their kingdom under the Lonely Mountain back in their grandfathers’ day. Bilbo grows from being a nervous, timid person mostly concerned about his next meal into a brave and resourceful adventurer. There’s goblins and giant eagles and shapeshifters and giants and dragons and elves, and riddles and battles and prisonbreaks, and it’s all a wonderful little story that comes to a tidy conclusion. It deserves its place in the 20th century canon because a) Tolkien is the one who invented (or at least popularised) a lot of fantasy cliches, so it is in fact quite an original book even if it doesn’t seem it, and b) what it does, it does extremely well. Again, it’s difficult to see how a writer who would later drop the ball so badly was capable of getting it pitch perfect here.

It’s ironic, in a sense, that while the films are better than the books for The Lord of the Rings, quite the opposite is true for The Hobbit. I’ve watched the first, and won’t bother with the others, which I’ve heard are even worse. The essential problem with it is that Jackson couldn’t decide whether he wanted it to be a light-hearted romp like the book, or a serious drama like The Lord of the Rings. He opts to make it both and the film suffers terribly for it, failing on both fronts. It slaloms crazily between serious beard-stroking councils with Elrond and Gandalf and Saruman, and ridiculous CGI Donkey Kong video game levels. Martin Freeman is a tremendously likeable performer, and it’s pleasant enough on an aesthetic level to dip back into that world and look at the Shire while pipe music plays and Ian McKellan says something about courage or friendship, but that’s about it. As soon as they leave Hobbiton you may as well switch it off.

On that note, part of the appeal of The Hobbit is the way it taps into a fundamental dichotomy in human nature: wanderlust and the nesting instinct. The desire to see the world, but also to settle down and have a comfortable home. The Shire (not yet named as such in The Hobbit, interestingly) is an idealised version of pastoral England, and Bilbo’s hobbit-hole in particular is the perfect, cosy, comfortable home. This is one area where the movie successfully builds on a key theme, with Bilbo drawing an explicit link between his love of his own home and the fact that the dwarves were dispossessed of theirs; in the book, it’s never entirely clear whether they’re trying to retake the Mountain completely, or just steal their treasure back. I remember reading an interview with an author – it may have been Philip Reeve – who was asked which character he’d like to be from literature, and replied with Bilbo, because you get to go on adventures but still have a nice, stable home to return to.

That’s the success at the heart of The Hobbit: a sense of homeliness, of comfort and shelter from the big world, of a grandfatherly figure like Tolkien smoking his pipe and spinning yarns by the fireplace while the rains taps down on the windowpanes.

Britain goes to the polls tomorrow in one of the tightest elections in living memory. For a political nerd like me it’s been quite enjoyable living here during an election campaign. Despite having the same basic parliamentary system as Britain, Australia has certain key differences, and of course being a different country means that while you might have the same system, you have a different political environment. Both countries’ politics are fucked, but they’re fucked in different and interesting ways.

Labour and the Conservatives are neck-and-neck in the polls, which is to say they’re both on about 34% and, despite what both party leaders claim, they’re therefore both going to fall well short of the majority required to command the confidence of Parliament and thus retain or seize government. John Lanchester has been running an entertaining and informative election diary at the LRB, and he has a breakdown of the potential results here. Suffice to say that no matter how you cut it nobody will get a majority, just as in the 2010 election, when the Conservatives were begrudgingly forced into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Support for the Lib Dems has badly flagged in the five years since then, while north of the border, the Scottish National Party – despite the failed referendum last year – has grown so strong and popular that it’s not out of the question they might win every single seat in Scotland. By far the most likely scenario is that the SNP will be kingmakers, and there is zero chance they will support a Conservative government. Yet Ed Miliband has consistently ruled out a coalition with the SNP, even on an informal basis. This is bizarre. I know he needs to go out on the campaign trail and pretend Labour can win enough seats to form government, but he’s not stupid; he knows how this is going to play out, and his pre-election refusal to deal with the SNP will surely haunt him as much as Julia Gillard’s infamous words “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead.”

Speaking of Gillard, one of the ways in which British and Australian politics are similar is that in both countries, the electorate is mortified by the concept of a coalition or a hung parliament, despite this being the norm in most of Europe. I wrote about this a few years back. I believed then – and still believe, in both Australia and the UK – that this is a symptom of the Americanisation of politics, and a sheer lack of understanding about how the nation operates and a childish desire for a “strong” leader. The Westminster system is not supposed to produce a extremely powerful executive like an American president. It’s supposed to produce a legislative assembly which passes laws, with Prime Minister and Cabinet being an afterthought.

The buzzword of the final week of the campaign, courtesy of the Tories and the right-wing press, has been “legitimacy.” People who should know far better have been talking on the BBC and writing in newspaper columns about how unfair it would be if the party with the most seats didn’t form government. That is not how Parliament works, and there’s no excuse for not knowing that, because it’s not a difficult concept to grasp. Nor can I fathom why anybody, apart from die-hard major party supporters, considers the influence of other voices in a diverse parliament to be a bad thing. Who would prefer a single-party government which rubber stamps its agenda, rather than a minority government which must negotiate and compromise with smaller parties and independents? Which of those options sounds like a healthier democracy?

Nonetheless, I have no doubt the British populace will be subjected to constant Tory whining about legitimacy for the next five years in the same way the Australian people were forced to endure Tony Abbott’s aggressive three-year campaign against the legitimacy of the Gillard government. At the moment the Tories seem to be focusing their spite at the SNP (the word “propped up” gets thrown around a lot), which if nothing else totally validates the Yes vote in last year’s Scottish independence referendum. The Scots are being treated like interlopers in their own country’s general election. Still, the Tories would be wise to stay focused on that, rather than arguing that they deserve to form government because they have the most seats; that draws to attention the unrepresentative aspect of the Westminster system, in which the Greens can get 6% of the popular vote but take only one seat, while the SNP can get 4% and take fifty-nine seats. It’s not a thread the Tories should pull. (On the other hand, it worked for Abbott.)

The most important reason this is a superior system than any other, to my eyes, is how entertaining it all is. Not only does Britain have a far larger and more diverse Parliament than Australia, so you can ponder, say, how Cameron might get over the line with the assistance of the Democratic Unionist Party, but the sheer closeness of this election has made it fascinating. It’s essentially a four-way race, with the minor parties holding more power in the post-election negotiating stage than the major parties. An election campaign, as in any country, is the most rigidly stage-managed and predictable part of any political cycle. The real battle for Downing Street begins on Friday. (Make your own majority with the BBC’s weirdly animated tool!)

I thought about whether I should vote or not. I’m entitled to, not only as an Irish citizen, but as a Commonwealth citizen residing in the UK – a courtesy which Australia, at least, doesn’t extend back towards the British. (Curiously, EU citizens residing in Britain are ineligible.) It seems a bit dishonest to vote in an election when I’m leaving the country in a few months. On the other hand, Britain is an important enough country to influence the rest of the world; I doubt Abbott and the IPA would be trying to strip away Australian workers’ basic rights if Reagan and Thatcher hadn’t made neoliberalism the new world religion in the 1980s. I also feel like it’s morally OK to vote because I live in a safe seat anyway – Bethnal Green and Bow, which will almost certainly go to Labour. Of course, this raises the point of whether it’s worth voting at all.

This is where Britain and Australia diverge quite sharply. We have safe seats in Australia as well, of course, but we also have the Senate. Everybody in an Australian state has an equal say in the senators that state sends to Canberra, so your vote matters even if you live in the safest seat in the country. Britain, on the other hand, has the House of Lords. I consider myself a fairly well-read and knowledgeable person, but until I started doing work for the BBC a few years ago, I thought it was just a name. I hadn’t realised the House of Lords is actually an unelected upper house – in the fucking 21st century!

Furthermore, Britain doesn’t have preferential voting, although this is a case where Australia is ahead of the curve rather than Britain lagging behind. It makes the entire voting system deeply undemocratic. If you live in a swing seat, do you make a tactical vote to keep your least preferred party out of office? Or do you follow your heart and vote for the Greens or Plaid Cymru or UKIP? (If you’re a right-wing/libertarian American, think about the choice to vote for Gary Johnson or John McCain in 2012; if you’re a left-wing American, think about the choice between Ralph Nader and Al Gore in 2000.) A preferential voting system removes this undemocratic issue completely, and it still boggles my mind that the British people soundly rejected it in a referendum in 2011. I suppose you can chalk that one up to the power of negative campaigning and the Tory-dominated press.

So I can totally understand why so many British people feel apathetic and disenfranchised. The system is stacked against them. On the other hand, Australia’s compulsory voting changes the dynamics once again. In Australia, a safe seat is definitely safe, because virtually everybody votes. In Britain, the turnout was 65% at the 2010 election; slightly higher than the 58% turnout in the 2012 US presidential election, but still shameful. As long as voter participation remains so low, you can’t really argue that your vote doesn’t matter or won’t change anything, even if you live in a safe seat.

So I’m going to vote tomorrow. If I was in a marginal I’d vote for Labour, but I’m not, so I’ll vote Green. The Green Party of England is a little more soy-and-lentil than their respectable (and respectably successful) Australian counterparts, but I nonetheless feel it’s an important movement that needs support. Tim Winton once said that a hundred years ago it was a case of “Daddy, what did you do in the war?” whereas in the future it will be “Daddy, what did you do to stop our planet turning into a salt pit?” But, yes, really, I’m going in to vote because I’m an irredeemable nerd and I’m curious to see what the process is like in another country.

Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (1986) 302 p.

I read a book when I was in primary school called Castle In The Air, a great little Arabian Nights-styled fantasy adventure which stands by itself for the most part, and only becomes confusing towards the end when it becomes clear that it’s a sequel to another book and a bunch of old characters pop up. I suppose my reading choices were limited by what the school library had in those days, because I never ended up reading the first one, Howl’s Moving Castle, or any of Jones’ other books – I think I tried Hexwood but found its plot far too confusing for my age. Howl’s Moving Castle was, however, adapted into a film by Hayao Miyazaki in 2004. It’s not his objective best (that would be Spirited Away) but it’s far and away my favourite of his films: a beautifully creative unconventional fantasy which also slots neatly into my beloved genre of “oddball crew on a weird vehicle.”

So anyway, I thought I’d give the book a shot. It was an experience oddly similar to reading The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje: obviously very different novels, but both cases where the film adaptations are equally brilliant, and pretty faithful – in some instances Miyazaki has replicated the book right down to certain gestures or seemingly unimportant lines of dialogue. The plot, in both the film and the book, revolves around a young woman named Sophie working in a hat shop in a town at the edge of a wild waste, which is the domain of the mysterious wizard Howl and his legendary moving castle, and also of an evil witch. After being paid a visit by the witch for reasons unknown, Sophie finds herself magically transformed into an old woman, with the curse also preventing her from telling anybody about what’s happened. She leaves the hat shop, sets off into the Waste and encounters Howl’s castle.

I think it’s a good book, but as with The English Patient, found it difficult to judge it separately from the film. I prefer the film, which is unsurprising since I’ve loved it for so long, but it’s also because the book has a few too many extraneous characters and plots, and is written in a sort of semi-fairytale style which makes the characters’ motivations and feelings more muddied. (That’s a first – the Japanese story making more sense.) I still liked it quite a bit, intend to read Castle In The Air again, and would recommend it for young fantasy readers. Watch the film as well, though.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett (1983) 287 p.
Discworld #1, Rincewind #1

People are often discouraged from reading the Discworld series for a number of reasons: the sheer number of books, or the fact that they’re split into multiple story arcs based around different sets of characters, who nonetheless all occupy the same world and pop up in each other’s stories, and that these story arcs follow no particular sequential order. Most bothersome of all for potential readers is the general consensus that the first few Discworld books aren’t up to scratch with the later ones. A popular starting point is Guards! Guards!, the eighth Discworld book but the first in the City Watch arc; I’ve heard, but can’t confirm, that Pratchett himself recommended this one. You could also make a good case for Mort (Discworld #4, Death arc #1) and Wyrd Sisters (Discworld #6, Witches arc #1).

But the one thing almost everybody agrees on is: not here. Not the very beginning. Whatever you do, don’t start with The Colour of Magic.

Not that The Colour of Magic is a bad book, exactly. It’s just not very representative of why the Discworld is so beloved. The series in its prime combines plot-driven adventures with cutting social satire and hilarious writing. The Colour of Magic – not Pratchett’s first novel, but still written way back in 1983 when he was a mere 35 years old – is a very different beast. It’s basically a straight parody of the pulp fantasy popular in the 1960s and 1970s, the sort of faded yellow paperbacks with buxom women in chainmail that you can find in second-hand bookstores all over the world. Nobody would argue that the fantasy genre is certainly undergoing a renaissance right now, but in a world dominated by George R.R. Martin, the swords and sorcery style of Conan the Barbarian, Dungeons & Dragons and Fafhrd and Mouser feels charmingly quaint.

But for a book which I remembered being like an awkward TV pilot, more of a curiosity than a proper Discworld novel, the underlying concept of The Colour of Magic is actually brilliant: a naive, hapless and extremely wealthy tourist named Twoflower leaves his job as an insurance agent to visit the fantasy lands of heroes, dragons and adventure. His first port of call is the city of Ankh-Morpork, where he visits the rough-and-tumble drinking hole The Broken Drum and hires the cowardly wizard Rincewind as his tour guide. Given that this is one of Pratchett’s very early works, I was delighted to see that his wit was just as sharp, and The Colour of Magic is often hilarious:

“I just want to meet them. So that when I get home I can say that I did it.”

Rincewind thought that a meeting with most of the Drum’s clientele would mean that Twoflower never went home again, unless he lived downriver and happened to float past.

It’s nonetheless impossible to shake the feeling that you’re in a sort of bizarro alternate universe Discworld. Being a swords and sorcery parody means The Colour of Magic takes place in a generic, vaguely Central Asian fantasy-land, which exists mostly to serve the adventures of the heroes within it – a very, very different place from the semi-European world the scope of the Discworld would later focus on, with Ankh-Morpork at its centre and Lancre at its edge, roughly analogous to London and the English countryside. It occurred to me as I was reading that we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of Ankh-Morpork as one of the greatest fictional cities of all time, and no longer register what a weird name it is, for a city which (in the later books) is not necessarily based on London but is certainly distinctly, fundamentally British. Here are the names of some of Ankh-Morpork’s denizens in The Colour of Magic: Cripple Wa, Ymor, Withel, Gorrin, Hrun the Barbarian, Gorphal, Zlorf Flannelfoot, Rerpf. It’s straight out of Dungeons & Dragons, a city of wizards and temples and cutpurses and shady taverns, where so many disreputable adventurers congregate that there’s “talk of organising a rota” for the nearby questing grounds during the high season.

The running joke is how dangerous it is for an ordinary person to show up, amble around and treat a Conanesque city of thieves like a tourist attraction. The great irony is that in the later books, when Ankh-Morpork is a thriving semi-industrialised city and melting pot that attracts hundreds of thousands of immigrants from all over the Disc, this joke wouldn’t work at all – nobody would give Twoflower a second glance.

It’s similarly disconcerting to see a gigantic inverted mountain full of magical wyrms only a few days’ ride from Ankh-Morpork, where we know there should be nothing but the boring cabbage patches of the Sto Plains; a parody of provincial Britain with youths dreaming of the big city. Or a Death figure who is malicious and evil and develops a personal vendetta against Rincewind, rather than a grandfatherly figure with a fondness and sympathy for humanity, acting as something of a de facto guardian for us in perennial battles against darker eldritch forces. This is not the Discworld we will come to know and love.

But you know what? It’s still a lot of fun. I liked this book a lot more than the first time I read it, because this time I was prepared for how different it would be. It might not stack up against the later Discworld novels, but what does? The Game of Thrones generation (and I include myself in that) might very well have never dipped a toe into the pulp fantasy of the mid-20th century, but the influence of those works remains in the modern genre in many forms, and there’s a lot of relatable comedy here.

The Colour of Magic‘s major flaw is that it’s rather disjointed; a collection of disparate adventures undertaken by the optimistic/pessimistic odd couple of Twoflower and Rincewind, held together mostly by jokes. It begins well with Twoflower’s arrival in (and accidental indirect burning down of) Ankh-Morpork, but then gets bogged down in the middle with a Lovecraftian-inspired section and a riff on Dragonriders of Pern that goes on for a little too long. Fortunately, it picks up again in the final section, as the duo arrive at what might be considered the main event: a location which, for the first book in his brand new fantasy series, Pratchett could not have contemplated leaving out.

What’s the most immediately recognisable aspect of the Discworld series? If you’ve read it, you’d probably offer Pratchett’s distinct writing style, the hilarious and beloved characters, the unique mix of fantasy, philosophy and satire. But because it figures in virtually none of the books, it wouldn’t even occur to you to mention the one thing most people vaguely familiar with the series know about: the deliberately ludicrous setting of a flat world on top of four elephants on top of a giant turtle flying through space.

So it’s quite impressive, even though this is a reread and we’ve been here before, to visit the very edge of the Disc. After decades spent following Sam Vimes through the mean streets of Ankh-Morpork or Granny Weatherwax in rural Lancre, it actually feels like we’re going there for the first time. Pratchett puts his world-building skills to exemplary use as Rincewind and Twoflower are swept into the Circumfence, a ten thousand mile long net strung out at the very edge of the world by the island kingdom of Krull to collect the bounty of the sea. The unlucky pair are told by the water troll manning their section that they’ll soon be sent to Krull as slaves, and when Rincewind replies that he’d rather die, that he’d jump off the edge, the troll drags him across his tiny, rocky island to the precipice and – in a brilliantly written and genuinely vertiginous scene – forces him to simply look down. Even without the bounty of literature which we know lies down the track, there’s proof right here that Pratchett had greater writing skills than just a razor-sharp wit:

“Stop that or I really will throw you over the edge,” snapped the troll. “I’m holding you, aren’t I? Look.”

Rincewind looked.

In front of him was a soft black night whose mist-muted stars glowed peacefully. But his eyes turned downwards, drawn by some irresistible fascination.

It was midnight on the Disc and so, therefore, the sun was far, far below, swinging slowly under Great A’Tuin’s vast and frosty plastron. Rincewind tried a last attempt to fix his gaze on the tips of his boots, which were protruding over the rim of the rock, but the sheer drop wrenched it away.

On either side of him two glittering curtains of water hurtled towards infinity as the sea swept around the island on its way to the long fall. A hundred yards below the wizard the largest sea salmon he had ever seen flicked itself out of the foam in a wild, jerky and ultimately hopeless leap. Then it fell back, over and over, in the golden underworld light.

Huge shadows grew out of that light like pillars supporting the roof of the universe. Hundreds of miles below him the wizard made out the shape of something, the edge of something –

Like those curious little pictures where the silhouette of an ornate glass suddenly becomes the outline of two faces, the scene beneath him flipped into a whole, new, terrifying perspective. Because down there was the head of an elephant as big as a reasonably-sized continent. One mighty tusk cut like a mountain against the golden light, trailing a widening shadow towards the stars. The head was slightly tilted, and a huge ruby eye might almost have been a red super-giant that had managed to shine at noonday.

Below the elephant –

Rincewind swallowed and tried not to think –

Below the elephant there was nothing but the distant, painful disc of the sun. And, sweeping slowly past it, was something that for all its city-sized scales, its crater-pocks, its lunar cragginess, was indubitably a flipper.

It’s a wonderful scene, as the troll explains that he himself is a slave, who has been trapped here for five years and never had the courage to jump; an almost poignant story, lightened by the running joke that he keeps intoning “here on the Edge” in italics, to Rincewind’s wailing distress.

It may be a bit clumsy, it may be a very disconcerting read compared to what we’re used to, but The Colour of Magic stacks up far more strongly than I remembered. When I read it the first time back in high school, I’d probably read about half the rest of the series at that point, in random bits and pieces, and I slotted it away as a curiosity: something of interest to people who liked Pratchett, but not worth much on its own compared to a book like Hogfather or Jingo. That was an unfair verdict. It’s certainly one of the weakest books in the Discworld series, and it remains out of place in the grand scheme of things, but even when Pratchett isn’t at his best he’s still pretty great. Having said that, I still don’t think it can be disputed that The Colour of Magic is not an ideal starting point for readers coming fresh to the series. That will have to wait.

Next up is The Light Fantastic, a direct continuation of Twoflower and Rincewind’s adventures – and a good thing, too, since The Colour of Magic ends on an almost literal cliffhanger.

discworld kidbyI started reading Terry Pratchett when I was about twelve years old; I think I’d finished most of his enormous Discworld series by the time I was fourteen or fifteen. Two months ago, after coping with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease for several years, Pratchett passed away at the age of 66 – far, far too young for one of the greatest writers of our time. I wrote a short piece after his death about how much his books influenced me, both as a writer and a person: how much they shaped my understanding of human nature, of how people work, of how society ticks along. The Discworld books were fundamentally a humorous fantasy series, but they were really so much more than that – smart, funny satires about every element of human behaviour, and all the ridiculous orthodoxies and contradictions that make up society.

I’ve been meaning to reread the Discworld series for a long time, and with Pratchett having passed away now seems like an appropriate time to do it. I’ll begin with The Colour of Magic, and keep this post up as a running index.

Part of the trouble with the Discworld series, for the uninitiated, is that it’s sort of complicated to figure out where to start. I’ll be discussing that as I go along – it’s partly a matter of opinion – but meanwhile, if you’re thinking of trying the series for the first time, this diagram is very helpful.

1. The Colour of Magic
2. The Light Fantastic
3. Equal Rites
4. Mort
5. Sourcery
6. Wyrd Sisters
7. Pyramids
8. Guards! Guards!
9. Faust Eric
10. Moving Pictures
11. Reaper Man
12. Witches Abroad
13. Small Gods
14. Lords and Ladies
15. Men at Arms
16. Soul Music
17. Interesting Times
18. Maskerade
19. Feet of Clay
20. Hogfather
21. Jingo
22. The Last Continent
23. Carpe Jugulum
24. The Fifth Elephant
25. The Truth
26. Thief of Time
27. The Last Hero
28. The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents
29. Night Watch
30. The Wee Free Men
31. Monstrous Regiment
32. A Hat Full of Sky
33. Going Postal
34. Thud!
35. Wintersmith
36. Making Money
37. Unseen Academicals
38. I Shall Wear Midnight
39. Snuff
40. Raising Steam
41. The Shepherd’s Crown

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908) 245 p.

The Wind in the Willows has always been the first thing that comes to mind when I try to think of a quintessentially English book. I’d never actually read it before, but it’s yet another one of those works whose reputation precedes it. You pick up bits and pieces about it from all kinds of adaptations, and it’s left an influence on a whole lot of other literature.

Set in the Thames Valley where Grahame (ironically a Scotsman) grew up in the 19th century, The Wind in the Willows follows a cast of anthropomorphised animals through the pastoral idylls and turning seasons of the iconic English countryside. It begins with Mole abandoning his house during spring cleaning, escaping into the fresh air of the countryside where he discovers the great river and befriends the Water Rat; shortly we’re introduced to the wise and gruff Badger and the irascible Toad, a wealthy and excitable young fellow who is forever pursuing new hobbies. In terms of structure it’s a weird sort of book, based on a collection of bedtime stories Grahame used to tell his son; one chapter is a plotless description of a cosy Christmas dinner, while another (very strange) one is about an encounter Rat and Mole have with the god Pan, and it’s all loosely connected by a narrative backbone concerning Toad’s conviction for stealing a motor car, his eventual escape from prison and his return to Toad Hall, where he finds it’s been occupied by stoats and weasels who must be driven out.

The Wind in the Willows is quite reminiscent of the novels of Tolkien in the way that it idealises the English countryside; although I suppose it’s not really idealisation, because back in 1908 the countryside hadn’t yet been compromised by the plague of modernity. (There are still beautiful places in England, but few views which will not be marred by some Ballardian interloper like a motorway or a Tesco superstore.) It’s a lovely, sentimental story full of streams and meadows and flowers and narrowboats and villages.

From a modern viewpoint, though, there are a few jarringly dated moments. I’m sure it’s not what Grahame intended, but Mole and Rat are totally a gay couple. More disconcertingly – because it very much was intended, or was at least an inescapable part of Grahame’s world view – the rigid British class system is everywhere. Mole is regularly scolded for “forgetting his English” when he lapses into his working class accent, and he’s ashamed of his small and shabby house in comparison with middle class Rat’s more opulent riverside digs. More obviously, Toad is a privileged gentleman of leisure: a rich Bertie Wooster figure who spends his money on all manner of ridiculous pursuits, and escapes jail to find that – shock, horror! – his mansion is now full of working class squatters. (This also reminded me of Tolkien, when the hobbits return home from their adventures to find the Shire occupied by Saruman’s authoritarian regime. I don’t necessarily buy this, but the most amusing take I’ve read about that segment is that it’s an analogy for the British officer class returning from World War II to find the Labour Party in government.) At the end of the book the four main characters drive the weasels and stoats out of Toad Hall and back into the Wild Woods where they belong, and the last page or two talks, in a roundabout sort of way, about how those wicked animals were suitably chastened and respectful of their social betters for the rest of their lives. It’s all relatively mild stuff for its era, but still quite funny.

It reminded me quite a bit of the anthropomorphic animal tales of my own childhood: Brian Jacques’ Redwall novels, which have copped a lot of flak for what appears to be a fairly rigid racial analogy in which mice, moles, badgers and otters are unfailingly good, while rats, weasels, stoats, ferrets and foxes are – almost without exception, across twenty-two novels – evil. Besides that, the fingerprints of The Wind in the Willows are all over the Redwall series: a bucolic countryside, lavishly described meals, a battle to reclaim a country manor from verminous occupiers. I always skip introductions when I read classic novels, so it was almost too good when I looked back at it after finishing and realised that this edition’s introduction was penned by none other than Jacques himself. Here’s a taste:

Oh, those weasels! Armed with clubs and daggers, some even brandishing blunderbusses, they stalk the unwary traveller. One can instantly identify a weasel: they snarl nastily, dress in stripy jerseys and greasy waistcoats, they wear flat-peaked caps too, and carry gunnysacks marked ‘Swag’. What an unsavoury lot.

Make of that what you will.

It’s one of the contradictions of life, I suppose, being a latte-sipping Guardianista keenly aware of the injustices of the world, but nonetheless enjoying the nostalgia factor of The Good Old Days when the landed gentry enjoyed fine breakfasts in their elegant mansions, and adventure could be found in the far-flung corners of the grand British Empire. I’ll gladly criticise Brian Jacques, because he was writing in the 1990s and should have known better, but Kenneth Grahame was alive at the same time as Dickens. You can’t judge people based on their time. The Wind in the Willows, while dated in some aspects, is nonetheless a beautiful, timeless classic of children’s literature.

“Couldn’t you stop on for just this year?” suggested the Water Rat, wistfully. “We’ll all do our best to make you feel at home. You’ve no idea what good times we have here, while you are far away.”

“I tried ‘stopping on’ one year,” said the third swallow. “I had grown so fond of the place that when the time came I hung back and let the others go on without me. For a few weeks it was all well enough, but afterwards, O the weary length of the nights! The shivering, sunless days! The air so clammy and chill, and not an insect in an acre of it! No, it was no good; my courage broke down, and one cold, stormy night I took wing, flying well inland on account of the strong easterly gales. It was snowing hard as I beat through the passes of the great mountains, and I had a stiff fight to win through; but never shall I forget the blissful feeling of the hot sun again on my back as I sped down to the lakes that lay so blue and placid below me, and the taste of my first fat insect! The past was like a bad dream; the future was all happy holiday as I moved southwards week by week, easily, lazily, lingering as long as I dared, but always heeding the call! No, I had had my warning; never again did I think of disobedience.”

“Ah, yes, the call of the South, of the South!” twittered the other two dreamily. “Its songs, its hues, its radiant air! O, do you remember…” and, forgetting the Rat, they slid into passionate reminiscence, while he listened fascinated, and his heart burned within him. In himself, too, he knew that it was vibrating at last, that chord hitherto dormant and unsuspected. The mere chatter of these southern-bound birds, their pale and second-hand reports, had yet power to awaken this wild new sensation and thrill him through and through with it; what would one moment of the real thing work in him – one passionate touch of the real southern sun, one waft of the authentic odour? With closed eyes he dared to dream a moment in full abandonment, and when he looked again the river seemed steely and chill, the green fields grey and lightless. Then his loyal heart seemed to cry out on his weaker self for its treachery.

“Why do you ever come back, then, at all?” he demanded of the swallows jealously. “What do you find to attract you in this poor drab little country?”

“And do you think,” said the first swallow, “that the other call is not for us too, in its due season? The call of lush meadow-grass, wet orchards, warm, insect-haunted ponds, of browsing cattle, of haymaking, and all the farm-buildings clustering round the House of the perfect Eaves?”

“Do you suppose,” asked the second one, “that you are the only living thing that craves with a hungry longing to hear the cuckoo’s note again?”

“In due time,” said the third, “we shall be homesick once more for quiet water-lilies swaying on the surface of an English stream. But today all that seems pale and thin and very far away. Just now our blood dances to other music.”

– From “The Wind In The Willows,” by Kenneth Grahame

The Reality Dysfunction by Peter F. Hamilton (1996) 1225 p.

Is this the longest book I’ve ever read? I went to the bother of going to my old LibraryThing account and figuring out how to sort by page count, and determined that The Isles: A History is actually slightly longer, at 1296 pages – but that’s non-fiction. The Reality Dysfunction is indeed the longest novel I’ve ever read, scraping past A Storm of Swords by just nine pages.

Peter F. Hamilton is one of Britain’s best-selling science fiction authors, and it’s easy to see why. The Reality Dysfunction is easy, popcorn pulp sci-fi. I wouldn’t exactly call it well-paced, but the prose is workable and it hums along fairly quickly for a book of its length. (Obviously it still takes quite a while to get through.) It takes place in the 27th century, when humanity has spread across the stars in a unified Confederation, peacefully split between the technology-based Adamists, who use good old mechanical spaceships, and the biotechnology-based Edenists, who use living, sentient bioships, live in organic O’Neill habitats, and are telepathically bonded with each other. The introductory phase of the novel — which takes place over a frankly greedy 400 pages — is mostly centred around the tropical planet Lalonde, where new colonists are about to unwittingly unleash something very nasty.

Hamilton’s writing style is fairly humdrum, workable sci-fi prose, not dissimilar to the last mostly forgettable sci-fi book I read, The Quiet War by Paul McAuley. He can occasionally be stilted, switching viewpoint in mid-paragraph or using a comma when a full stop would have been better, and his dialogue is awkwardly expository. The worst aspect of the book for me was the characters. There are probably about two or three hundred who are named, regardless of how small their role is, and they’ll often vanish for hundreds of pages and then reappear with Hamilton expecting you to remember what their deal is. He has a habit of referring to them by their full names (often rather bland names for the 27th century, like “Ralph Hilch” or “Jenny Harris”) which always put me in the mind of working in a large office; people adding the surname in just so you’re sure who they’re talking about, faceless acquaintances you know nothing about but feel obliged to remember. And when the characters are regularly appearing, they’re not much better. The main character, Joshua Calvert, is an atrocious Mary Sue: a 21-year-old smart, handsome, gifted starship captain who literally makes every woman he meets want to have sex with him. I know the Literary Review only focuses on proper literary works, but Hamilton rightfully deserved a Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the endlessly awkward sex scenes that litter The Reality Dysfunction.

For all those flaws, I understand the appeal of a book like this. It’s creative and it’s epic. It has a number of great cinematic moments, like the mercenary team arriving at the Tyrathca settlement or the final desperate rescue mission that occupies the last hundred pages of the book. There are a lot of the exciting cavalry-has-arrived moments you’d expect from a novel like this, simplistic but nonetheless enjoyable set-pieces which make you genuinely pumped at the concept of the good guys getting one over on the bad guys. It’s a readable book, but not a well-written book, if you see what I mean; it often gives the impression that Hamilton is tossing everything at the wall to see what sticks in an early draft. It’s full of sound and fury but doesn’t add up to much. The books I kept comparing it to were Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels, which are either a) better, or b) appear better because I read them as a younger, more easily excitable man.

The phrase I kept coming back to was “airport fiction.” Airport fiction can be any genre – thriller, fantasy, sci-fi, whatever. It just has to check a few boxes. It has to be compelling, it has to have a good premise, it has to be readable but not too weighty; not the sort of arty prose you have trouble wrapping your head around on a 5:00am international flight, when you’re too disrupted to go back to sleep but not in the mood to get stuck into Gunter Grass or whatever. It’s the McDonald’s of fiction: a cheap and easy sugar hit. Sure, you might prefer to get the same sugar boost from more creative confectionery at an artisan bakery, but those are a lot harder to find.

I was, however, disappointed that in the final few hundred pages it became clear that there would be no resolution. I knew it was the first book in a trilogy, but was hoping it might be more loosely connected than that. Exactly what’s going on with the unearthed threat is explained, but it’s barely even begun to affect the Confederation, and it’s certainly not about to come to a conclusion. The book ends with about as much finality or sense of closure as the end of any given chapter, i.e. none at all. I’m not going to blame Hamilton for that, but I’m not going to read the rest of the series either; my curiosity is piqued enough that I’d like to know what happens, but not at the cost of four or five weeks in which I could easily read another five or six novels. I’ll just look up a plot synopsis. McDonald’s is tasty enough, but unless you’re fourteen years old you don’t want to eat it every night.

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