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The Guardians by John Christopher (1970) 156 p.

John Christopher – author of the Tripods trilogy and The Death of Grassdied back in February, and I didn’t even find out until a few weeks ago, which bummed me out. So I ordered a few of his books off the Internet, ones which I’ve never read, because I like indulging in a bit of nostalgic young adult fiction (a genre which can be nostalgic even when you’ve never read the book in question) and I’m sure a writer who could put out a classic like the Tripods trilogy must have a good backlog.

The Guardians takes place sometime in the mid-21st century, when England has been divided into two worlds – the aristocratic “County,” a land of picturesque countryside and landed gentry and upstairs/downstairs social stratification, and the modern “Conurb,” a bleak, Ballardian cityscape of CCTV and blocks of flats and sports riots. Christopher takes the existing divide in Britain between country/city and upper class/lower class and develops it to its sci-fi conclusion, where the two worlds are separated by electric fences and rigid social control.

The protagonist, Rob, is a young Conurb lad – living in “the London Conurb,” in fact. To his credit, Christopher has developed this world from real places and names, instead of making everything generic, as in some other examples of mid-20th century science fiction. Rob is sent to a boarding school after his father dies, but finds life there unbearable, and – after discovering that his deceased mother originally hailed from Gloucestershire – decides to escape into the County, via Reading. He finds it easier than expected to get through the electric fence, and fortuitously runs into a helpful County family that adopts him into their mansion.

Christopher’s prose style is fairly dry, but also much simpler than I remember it – perhaps because when I read the Tripods trilogy, I was actually in the intended age group. Nonetheless, I found The Guardians to be a fairly engaging novel, and was quite impressed with the themes and ideas it presents to a young target audience. It’s a novel about social control, and balancing freedom against happiness, and I was unsure which side of that argument Christopher was going to land on until the very final pages. He manages to pack quite a lot into a mere 156 pages without the story ever feeling rushed. I was also impressed by how well The Guardians has aged, considering it was written 42 years ago; it actually could have been written in the last decade, and wouldn’t feel at all out of place. The themes about trading liberty for security and the divide between England’s rose-tinted past and pessimistic future are still very much part of the zeitgeist.

Overall, a decent young adult novel. It wasn’t a great book, but it was a quick and easy read and delivered more than I expected from it. Next in line from Christopher’s backlog is The Prince In Waiting, also from 1970, the first book in his “Sword of the Spirits” trilogy.

An Age Like This: The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters Volume I by George Orwell (1968)

Considering that he was one of the most important writers of all time, I found it incredibly hard to obtain a collection of Orwell’s complete works. According to Wikipedia only two were ever published; one four-volume set edited by his second wife, and one twenty-volume set which included all his novels and books. I just wanted his essays and short pieces, so I went with the first set, but both The Book Depository and AbeBooks came up stumped; I had to order the four separate books from four separate websites, two of which eventually emailed me back to say they didn’t actually have them in stock. I have all four now (split across two different publishing editions, so they look a bit mismatched) but geez, that was difficult.

An Age Like This covers the period from 1920 to 1940; which is to say, it has three letters from the 1920s and then jumps to 1930, when Orwell’s surviving work is a bit more substantial. Letters, nonetheless, comprise the vast majority of the book. I’ve never read a collection of an author’s letters before, and I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. They weren’t something I was ever interested in reading, and at times they didn’t seem to be particularly relevant to anything, which left me feeling like a voyeur. I’d hate to think that sixty years after I died somebody was reading all of my old correspondence to my friends. (Well, actually, I wouldn’t, because it would mean I became hugely important. But still.)

But there’s still some fairly interesting bits and pieces throughout: a diary Orwell kept while living in the slums of northern England for The Road to Wigan Pier, letters he sent while in the trenches of the Spanish Civil War, observations of Morocco, and a good understanding of his opinions leading up to WWII. Nowadays that war has been all but deified, the last Good War where the Free Men stood up to Nazi Oppression, but Orwell makes it clear that public opinion in Britain (and presumably elsewhere) was complex and divided; he himself clearly had no illusions about nations standing up for what is right, as opposed to what was in their (capital) interest.

There’s also a particularly hilarious reply (the only piece in the volume not written by Orwell) to the essay “Boy’s Weeklies,” which I read a long time ago, and which remains one of Orwell’s most interesting essays. Frank Richards, the writer of the weeklies in question, actually responded to Orwell. In his indignant, rambling response he refers to himself in third person, suggests that he is a better writer than Bernard Shaw, Thackeray or Chekhov, and declares that “noblemen generally are better fellows than commoners” and “foreigners are funny.”

I read An Age Like This in bits and pieces, and found it fairly easy going. If I’d tried to read it all at once I probably would have been bored. Nonetheless, I expect to enjoy the later volumes more, when there’s less personal correspondence and more essays and opinion pieces.

11.22.63 by Stephen King (2011) 740 p.

Everybody knows that Stephen King used to be a much better writer than he is today. He started to come apart in the 1990s, and his flagging talent exploded when he was hit by a car in 1999. I lamented this many times while reading his Dark Tower series, which started out so well in the 1980s and ended so, so badly in 2004. But is it not possible that he could return to form? I’ve heard distant whispers of good things about Full Dark, No Stars, The Wind Through The Keyhole and 11.22.63 – the latter even being named one of the New York Times10 Best Books of 2011. I chose to read 11.22.63 for the same reason I read any King novel – it had an intriguing premise. King may be pegged as a horror writer, but I’ve never once been scared by anything he’s written. I read him because he’s a decent storyteller who comes up with some interesting ideas, which I suppose, on a theoretical level, are scary (i.e. The Stand or Firestarter).

11.22.63, which keen students of history will notice is the date of JFK’s assassination, is the tale of recently divorced high school English teacher Jake Epping, whose buddy Al owns a diner in the small Maine town of Lisbon Falls. Late one night, Al calls Jake over to the diner unexpectedly, and Jake is astonished to see that he appears to have aged by a matter of years, apparently overnight. Al lets Jake in on a secret. In the storeroom of his diner there’s a portal. On one side you’re standing among brooms and mops and stacks of cans in 2011; on the other side, you’re standing in bright sunlight next to a textile mill, on September 9, 1958.

The time portal is not explained, of course, and nor should it be. Al is almost as clueless as Jake, though he has discovered a few rules. No matter how long you spend in the past, whether it’s a few minutes or a few years, you will always return two minutes after you left. Anything you do can and will change the future, as Al discovered by carving his initials into a tree – but every time you go back, it’s a reset, and anything you accomplished on previous trips has been erased.

Having mostly used the portal for short excursions to purchase beef at 1958 prices, Al has recently come back from a much longer trip, and only because he was dying of cancer. Coughing blood into maxi pads, he explains to Jake that he’d been trying to change the future for the better – specifically, trying to stop JFK’s assassination. This, Al conjectures, could then stop the Vietnam War, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, the race riots of the ’60s and ’70s, and just generally make the world a better place. (A dubious proposition, but never mind – it doesn’t matter that we believe it, only that Jake and Al do.) He failed in his mission because JFK won’t be assassinated until 1963, and as the date approached, Al began to die of cancer. He has returned to the future to entrust the mission to Jake.

Naturally, Jake accepts, but he makes a test run first. One of his adult night-class students is a crippled, brain damaged janitor who suffered his injuries on Halloween, 1958, when his father murdered his family with a hammer. Jake goes back through the portal with the intention of sticking around for two months and stopping those murders from happening.

This segment, which takes up the first 200 pages of the book, is tight. It’s a dress rehearsal for both Jake and the reader, setting up a kind of tension which couldn’t exist in any other kind of story – time goes by slowly, but everything boils down to a single moment, and being armed with some foreknowledge doesn’t make Jake invincible or infallible. The past, in fact, tries to present itself from being changed, with all kinds of minor mishaps and coincidences blocking Jake from his course of action – reminiscent of Final Destination, and a reminder that Jake and Al are messing with forces beyond their control or comprehension.

I won’t spoil how the mission to save the janitor’s family goes, but suffice to say that Jake soon travels into the past for a much longer stay and a much larger mission. JFK was assassinated in 1963; the portal sends Jake to 1958. So he has some time to kill, which he intends to spend closely tracking and observing Lee Harvey Oswald to make sure the conspiracy theories were wrong. The last thing he wants is to murder an innocent man and have JFK get capped from the Grassy Knoll anyway. So 11.22.63 is a double mystery, about whether or not Oswald was truly JFK’s assassin, and whether or not Jake will be able to stop him as time rolls excruciatingly slowly towards the fateful date. (It’s not exactly a one-chance shot, since Jake could always return to 2011 and then return to a reset 1958 and try again; but five years is an awfully long time, and Jake himself continues to age.)

It’s in this middle section that the novel sags, and you can see the King-ian cogs and wheels grinding away in their tedious, cliched fashion. Jake doesn’t much like Dallas, so he spends the late 50s and early 60s living in the Texan town of Jodie: a perfect white-picket 1950s small town populated with decent, friendly American folk, where Jake takes a job at the local high school and falls in love with Sadie, the school librarian. 11.22.63 was clearly written in part so that King could indulge in some reminiscing about the good old days of Studebakers and lindy hops and high school football, but the Jodie chapters are the ones where the story is pretty much stripped away, leaving us with nothing but an exercise in nostalgia – which I found tedious, given that I was born in 1988 and King is not particularly adept at capturing another era anyway. (Not bad, but not great either).

This was part of what made 11.22.63 a novel that is, like many of King’s longer works, desperately in need of an editor. It’s a fairly major edit to suggest, since Jodie comprises the majority of the book and Sadie ends up being crucial to the ending, but surely small-town loveliness has no place (even as juxtaposition) when coming from a horror writer in a novel about murdering a sociopath to change the future? Surely it would have been better for Jake to live alone, depressed and maybe alcoholic, in a shitty apartment in the 1960s, a pair of headphones over his ears every night, listening to endless recordings from the Oswald family next door, plotting to kill a man who might be innocent? Better for the tone of the novel, certainly, and also conveniently slicing about 300 pages out of it.

Anyway, I stuck through the novel’s doldrums because I wanted to see how it would end up, and as November 1963 approaches, King fortunately picks up the pace again. The final third of the book is gripping stuff, as strong as the first third. As usual, though, King manages to pull it out of the fire and fuck it up at the last minute. The time portal, which so patently didn’t need to be explained, is expanded upon, and the consequences of Jake’s actions are partly taken out of his hands, becoming less logical and more… universal, for want of a better word.

One of the things that irritated me about the end of the Dark Tower series was King’s obsession with fate or destiny or cosmology or whatever you want to call it. By the time the last two books rolled around it almost had me tearing my hair out. It’s not as bad as it was then – maybe the further he gets from his car crash, the more he manages to shake it – but there is a strain of it, as Jake runs into connected characters and similar situations, referring to them with what becomes an irritating repeated mantra: “the past harmonises.” (Running a close second is the cheesy “dancing is life.”) As I said, it’s not as bad as it has been in his other books, but King still demonstrates a bothersome interest in removing his characters from logical sequences of cause-and-effect (fairly vital in a time travel novel) and have them skirt alongside the Dark Tower zone, where the characters have no free will and what they do doesn’t actually matter – everything comes down to fate and destiny and mystical forces beyond our control. Boring.

11.22.63 is an ambitious but flawed and bloated novel, and I knew as I was reading it that my final judgement would rest on how well it ended. On that count, unfortunately, it stumbles. Since it stumbles so often even before it gets to the ending, I can’t quite recommend it unless you’re a King fan or find the premise really interesting. It certainly has good moments and gripping passages, some lasting for hundreds of pages, but it’s still the kind of book that I wish I could take a crack at editing, because it’s frustratingly capable of being much better. King can still come up with fantastic ideas, but he’s not the storyteller he used to be.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin (2000) 1216 p.

(Spoilers for A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings, but not for this book itself.)

I felt like George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series might be one of those destined to go downhill, since the first book was really good and the second only quite good. Fortunately A Storm of Swords, the third in the series, puts a spike in the line graph. Although it starts out slow, the final third of this book (which still amounts to a hefty 400 pages) is as good as the series has ever been.

A Game of Thrones impresses early on when Bran is thrown from a window, and later on when Ned Stark is suddenly and shockingly beheaded. A Clash of Kings didn’t have any shock moments that quite lived up to that, but A Storm of Swords has one that is, if anything, better than those first two put together. It’s not only a violent and grisly end to a character, but to a character who was embodying a whole lot of hope – a death symbolic of the snuffing out of a torch, proof that sometimes the good guys die and the bad guys win. I read in “The Monthly” (paywalled) that this aspect of Martin’s writing was inspired by the death of his friends in the Vietnam War; by a desire to overturn Tolkien’s noble, orderly world and replace it with something more real.

But I don’t want to suggest that great fiction derives from an author’s willingness to spare nobody from the butcher’s knife. Killing off a character too early can be a critical error; indeed, there’s a shock moment in A Clash of Kings which proves to be false, when Bran and Rickon are killed, and which I immediately knew was a psyche-out, because Martin had invested far too much time in foreshadowing Bran’s abilities, and his character arc was nowhere near complete. Killing off a character like that for sheer shock value is a mistake, and I’m glad he didn’t really do it. But Ned Stark’s time had come, and so had that of the unfortunate character in A Storm of Swords. And, as I said, it’s important not just for the death itself but for the manner in which that death shakes up the plot. (In fact, I somewhat guessed it was coming, because another character was about to finally reach safe haven – and I knew Martin wouldn’t let that happen.)

It’s not just this shock moment, either. The final third of the book involves a lot of great story threads finally seeming to push on from the doldrums they’d encountered: Sansa’s passive-aggressive imprisonment in King’s Landing, Tyrion’s relationship with his family, the growing threat beyond the Wall, and Jaime languishing in solitary confinement. I mentioned in my review of A Game of Thrones that it was impressively well-paced, and that it was one of the only 1000-page epics I’d ever read where I never felt my time was being wasted or the story was bloated. That wasn’t quite as true of A Clash of Kings, and it’s not true of the first half of A Storm of Swords, but by the end of the book I felt like things were really moving at a tremendous pace, and I was fairly keen to dive into the next book. (I didn’t, but still.) The only issue I have is the story of Daenerys, which at this stage is almost entirely disconnected from the main plot. The stories of the other characters merge into each other quite well, but when Daenerys pops up, it feels like I’m being interrupted and forced to read a different book entirely. Hopefully she’ll return home soon enough.

The plot moves on to the point where the title of the series (which, thanks to the TV adaptation, is now more likely to be known as “Game of Thrones”) is starting to make sense – there’s an even greater war brewing, between the fiery God of the south and the frozen evil in the north. I’m interested to see how that turns out; Martin is not the kind of writer to paint in blacks and whites, and the strength of the series so far has been largely about political intrigue on a personal scale rather than sweeping battles between good and evil.

I’m consistently impressed, for a fantasy series, of how tight and entertaining the dialogue is. When Martin gets away from tiresome battle scenes and really awkward sex scenes and various other fantasy staples, his dialogue sparkles – one of the reasons the books are translating so well to television.

Overall, an excellent entry in the series, and I look forward to A Feast for Crows.

Australia hates athletes. Apparently.

I don’t care about sport, so I don’t care about the Olympics, beyond viewing them as a sort of vague historical milestone that rolls around once every four years. The Leading Media Story of this first week has been a bitter divide over Australia’s success and failure: one side furious with our athletes for failing to win gold, the other side telling them to the shut the fuck up and take a chill pill. I cannot begin to imagine the kind of psychopath that would pen a piece like this:

I have zero interest in hearing some tearydeary tell me that she had nothing left in the tank. Or, worse: “I don’t know what went wrong.”

That’s the job. Coaches. Athletes. Officials.

Stop whining. Start winning. Or find another job.

I’m surprised this latest furore is what it took for some voices to call for restraint. Even before the Olympics started, I was noticing, for the first time, the strangely passive-aggressive manner in which we treat our Olympic athletes. It started with the ludicrous “scandal” of Nick D’Arcy and Kendrick Monck posting jovial photos of themselves on Facebook, holding pistols and a shotgun, in a licensed gun store, in the United States. There were outraged calls for them to be penalised for undertaking such perfectly legal behaviour, and they have in fact been sent home after competing. (The Australian Olympic shooting team, strangely, suffered no such penalties.)

There was John Steffensen’s allegations of racial abuse, to which he was told “put your head down and your bum up and you just concentrate on your job.” There were the photos of Liesel Jones that led the media, completely unfounded, to spark rumours that coaches were concerned about her weight. Then there was the sleeping pill thing. I can’t even remember what that was about, but here’s how the Herald Sun spun it:

This is the same tone the Herald Sun uses for convicted felons, welfare cheats and unruly kids – a bold, stern warning from an authority figure, reassuring the law-abiding mums and dads of the mortgage belt that Something Is Being Done about the latest Threat To Civility. Only in this case, the line-up in Villain’s Row are the athletes that we allegedly admire, adore and respect. Apparently they’re only worthy of that if they “deliver” us gold, like couriers, or indentured servants hacking away at a rock face deep underground.

I must have missed a couple of steps along the way. First of all, why do we – the Australian public – need gold so badly? Is Treasury bankrupt? Is the fiat currency system about to fail? Are we constructing some kind of diabolical war machine fuelled by smolten Olympic medals and greased with the tears of our swimmers? Ah, the gold is a metaphor for sporting success. I see. My confusion remains. How does the athletic prowess of another Australian in any way impact the life of Davo Dickhead in his McMansion in the western suburbs?

The other thing I don’t understand is this: even if we, the people, have an insatiable lust for gold, how is it that the Australian athletes owe it to us? I don’t think it’s the taxpayer funding. I’ve barely seen that mentioned at all. Many Australians seem to feel on a deep and visceral level that the athletes personally owe them gold, whether they have a monetary stake in the battle or not.

I was going to write this before the Games started, during all the creepy outrage about the gun photo and the sleeping pills and Liesel Jones’ weight. The reaction of the press and the public to our lack of immediate, effortless dominance has only confirmed the uneasy feelings I had about the whole affair. It reminds me of nothing so much as an overbearing parent pushing their child into sport – not caring about why they might fail, not caring about how good the opposition is, not caring about them, really – just demanding success so they can live vicariously through them. The pushy, demanding parent at junior teeball may be a stereotype and a myth, but apparently the fickle Australian public isn’t.

Maybe, since I don’t care about sport, I don’t get to have an opinion on this weird, unedifying barrage of criticism. But I’m still puzzled by the ferocity of attacks aimed at world-class athletes by people sitting on their couches at home. What have you accomplished?

Archive Calendar

August 2012