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The Passage by Justin Cronin (2010) 766 p.

The Passage is inevitably going to be compared to The Stand, because Cronin has a similar writing style and because of the underlying premise: it’s an epic end-of-the-world novel in which an American bio-warfare lab accidentally unleashes a terrible plague across America and the world (in which America is the focus and the rest of the world barely gets mentioned, as though Americans forget it’s there; and when they remember, they dismiss it as unimportant anyway). There’s a black woman who talks to god, a quest across the country to Colorado and Las Vegas (in reverse in The Passage), a nuke goes off at the end and… actually, as I’m writing this, I’m realising how derivative it is. There’s definitely no way this book would exist without The Stand. The biggest obvious difference is that while King’s superflu killed people dead, Cronin’s virus turns them into vampires – pale, lean, unintelligent but exceptionally strong and agile vampires of the modern-horror variety, akin to the creatures of I Am Legend.

In any case, The Stand is better. And The Stand isn’t even amazing; just good. Not the best of King’s work and not the best in the post-apocalyptic genre. So that leaves The Passage in a pretty sorry place.

The first third of the book is certainly the strongest, revolving around the U.S. government’s top-secret “Project Noah,” and the FBI agent assigned to collect death row prisoners for experimentation. The pace moves slowly (as it does throughout the book) as Cronin delves extensively inside the characters’ heads, gradually revealling the scope and extent of the project: the secret base in Colorado, the staff comprised of convicted pedophiles, the fate of the research team that first uncovered the virus in Bolivia, and the orders for the end of “phase one:” execute all the staff, transfer the vampires to White Sands for testing. Phase one is never completed; the vampires break out and overrun the facility.

This is where any fan of the apocalyptic genre expects the juice of the story: the chaos that unfolds as the vampires wreak havoc across society. Instead we get about ten pages with a few scraps of information, and then the story jumps ahead a hundred years and introduces a completely new cast of characters, sheltering inside their fortified town in California.

In terms of pacing this is a bad move, one that perhaps could have been salvaged if Cronin hadn’t insisted on introducing about twenty characters at once, without any indication as to which of them will be important. Cronin, bless his heart, seems to think that they’re all important, and that I really want to read about the thoughts and fears and hopes and dreams (actual literal dreams!) of ancillary characters. This is not the case, particularly when even the main characters are unmemorable cardboard cut-outs. We have the Self-Doubting Leader, the Badass Amazon, the Magic Negro, the Wisecracking Teenager, the Socially Awkward Engineer, and so on. (Later we will be introduced to the Stern But Kind Commanding Officer.) And these characters are forced to support the weak middle section of the book, the hundreds and hundreds of pages about… well, nothing much in particular.

The Passage struggles back to life in the final act, once the wheat has been sorted from the chaff and the core characters set out on a mission. Things do come to a somewhat reasonable conclusion, and although the novel ends on a cliffhanger wih regards to some of the characters, I didn’t care about them, so that was fine.

Justin Cronin isn’t a bad writer – comparisons to Stephen King are a compliment – and The Passage isn’t a bad novel, but it isn’t a particularly good one either. If I could describe it in one word, it would be “bloated.” Cronin easily could have cut out the entire middle third of the story, and probably should have. The characters are weak, and although I don’t expect Atticus Finches and Holden Caulfields from a vampire novel, I will remember The Stand‘s Harold Lauder and Larry Underwood and Glen Bateman longer than I do… uh… Peter and company. But it does have its moments – as as I said before, the first act is intriguing and well-written, and there’s a good creepy segment in the third act where the characters arrive at a settlement in Nevada where all seems to be well, yet there’s something eerily wrong about the place (similar to a segment in Watership Down). In the end, however, The Passage‘s flaws outweigh its virtues. Marginal thumbs down.

Some pretty amazing stuff from the 2010 National Geographic Photography Contest, gathered here at the always-interesting Big Picture blog at

He rose and turned toward the lights of the town. The tide pools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea.

– From “Blood Meridian,” by Cormac McCarthy

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks (1988) 471 p.

I began Banks’ famous Culture series with Look To Windward, about six months ago, and while it wasn’t a fantastic book it was promising enough for me to want to try the rest of the series. Consider Phlebas is the first Culture novel, so I thought I’d start here.

My biggest complaints about Look To Windward were that it felt more like a loose collection of ideas than a tight story, and Consider Phlebas is fortunately better on that front. The novel takes place during a war between the Culture (a post-scarcity utopia controlled by benevolent AIs) and the Idirans (a theocratic military race), but the protagonist is neither of these, instead being a mercenary named Horza who has aligned himself with the Idirans. Horza is also a Changer, a humanoid with the ability to transform his body to perfectly mimic specific people.

The novel revolves around a Mind, one of the Culture’s artificial intelligences, escaping an interstellar firefight by taking refuge in a Planet of the Dead, a deserted world officially off-limits to both sides of the war. Horza is dispatched to capture the Mind, and along the way falls in with a rag-tag group of pirates and mercenaries aboard a ship called the Clear Air Turbulence (which I remembered from Philip Reeve’s novel Predator’s Gold, but that’s from 2002, so the homage was Reeve’s).

Consider Phlebas is therefore a rollicking action-adventure space opera, not an exceptional one. Like Look To Windward, it feels somewhat disjointed, the characterisation is lacking and Banks’ prose is still excessively bloated and florid. His dialogue often feels stilted, and although he loves to put action scenes in, he’s terrible at writing them – waffling on about details rather than making them short and sharp, to capture the moment. (This was most notable when the Clear Air Turbulence flees from an orbital ring.) The climax in particular is excruciatingly slow and tedious, with an elaborate set-piece in an underground train system and lots of dull examinations of the final thoughts of dying characters whom we’ve only just been introduced to and therefore don’t care about.

Having said all that, I did enjoy this book and appreciate it for the light space opera it was. It’s quite readable, at least up until the climax, and I did enjoy it slightly more than Look To Windward. And it is, after all, the very first novel in the series and can’t be expected to be the best. General opinion seems to be that the best book in the Culture series is Player of Games, which, fortunately, is the next in line.

Consider Phlebas at The Book Depository

True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey (2000) 352 p.

Although Ned Kelly is one of Australia’s enduring folk heroes, I previously knew nothing more about him than a few stereotypes and simplicities still lurking in my brain from my primary school days, just like Captain Cook and the Eureka Stockade and Simpson’s donkey. (There was also Ned, a comedy that errs too far towards slapstick and toilet humour, but nonetheless also contains a good deal of genuine wit.) Sometime in my days of contrary adolescent authoritarianism I concluded that Ned Kelly, despite his folk hero status, was a thief and therefore a bad person.

True History of the Kelly Gang turned me around somewhat. I know it’s just fiction, but it’s well-researched fiction that seems to ring true to real life. Most of it is told from the perspective of Ned Kelly himself, in the form of a memoir he is writing to his (fictional) child, and Carey has instilled him with a wonderful narrative voice: lacking commas, expletives censored out, a general rolling conversational style that I couldn’t help but hear in an Irish accent. The story is an account of Ned’s life all the way from his childhood to his famous last stand at Glenrowan, and explains how and why he became the man he did.

Ned Kelly, like many settlers in 19th century Australia, was Irish. The upper class – the landowners, the magistrates, the governors and the police – were largely English. From the very early days of his life, Ned’s family was abused and oppressed and tormented, as were his friends and neighbours, the conflicts of the old country exported to the new. This was crucial; Ned quite explicitly considered himself to be a political rebel, rising up against the English ruling class, wanting nothing more than land and freedom for himself and his family.

It is, of course, a novel, but the one real surviving piece of Kelly’s writing – the Jerilderie letter – outlines the same motives and desires. Furthermore, when he was captured at Glenrowan, he was in possession of a document outlining a proposed declaration of a republic in north-eastern Victoria. As somebody who is both Irish and republican, I find my sympathies leaning towards Kelly. He was still, of course, a thief and a killer, and not somebody whom I’d like to share a milkshake with, but I understand now why many Australians revere him.

I found it particularly interesting to read this directly after Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Towards the end of True History, a character opposed to the Kelly legend says:

What is it about we Australians, eh? he demanded. What is wrong with us? Do we not have a Jefferson? A Disraeli? Might we not find someone better to admire than a horse-thief and a murderer?

I’ve sold my copy of Zinn’s book, so I can’t quote directly, but in the interview towards the back he talks about how we shouldn’t always look to great leaders and heroes – the Lincolns, the Churchills, the Roosevelts – but should instead rely on ourselves, the people, to pull us through harsh times. Ned Kelly is obviously a hero and an icon as well, but he’s about as close to a hero of the people as you could ever get.

So, the book taught me a lot about Ned Kelly and changed my attitude towards him. Is it a good book? Yes. Not a fantastic book, and another Booker-winner that must have been the product of a slow year (like The Blind Assassin), but nonetheless a solid piece of Australian literature and something I’m glad to have read.

Incidentally, my copy was published in the United States, and the blurb makes this idiotic statement:

Exhilarating, hilarious, panoramic, and immediately engrossing, it is also – at a distance of many thousand miles and more than a century – a Great American Novel.

How? How is this Australian novel about an Australian historical figure written by an Australian and set in Australia even remotely a “Great American Novel?” Either the publisher didn’t think Americans would read a book that wasn’t somehow related to America, or Americans really won’t read a book unless it’s somehow related to America. Both are depressing.

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November 2010