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AA Gill is Further Away by AA Gill (2012) 270 p.

Another excellent collection of AA Gill’s travel columns and opinion pieces, one of the only contemporary journalists whose prose is actually worth gathering up in a volume. AA Gill is Further Away is divided into two halves, “Near” and “Far,” with “Near” collecting stories from England and “Far” containing more general foreign travel narratives.

On the whole I enjoyed the English pieces better, as they range across topics as diverse as sustainable fishing, plastic surgery for burned WWII airmen, chicken breeding and dyslexia. There’s a marvellous love letter to Hyde Park, its “open plains and secret dells, wild places, ruins and follies, fountains and palaces.” One of the best articles is an exploration of the Battle of Towton, Britain’s bloodiest in history, yet largely forgotten.

The reason Towton hasn’t come down the ages to us may be in part that it was in the middle of the War of Roses, that complex internecine bout of patrician bombast, a hissy fit that stuttered and smouldered through the exhausted fag end of the Middle Ages like a gang feud. The War of Roses have no heroes; there are no good guys and precious little romance. They’re as complicated and brain-aching as Russian novels and pigeon breeding.

The second half consists largely of more typical travel articles, but still have a few gems, such as his trip to Svalbard, his coverage of the 2008 US elections, or his analysis of Dubai:

Dubai has been built very fast. The plan was money. The architect was money. The designer and the builder was money. And if you ever wondered what money would look like if it were left to its own devices, the answer is Dubai.

Enjoyable and illuminating as always.

Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee (2007) 178 p.

J.M. Coetzee was born in South Africa and migrated to Australia in 2002. One of the blurb reviews on this copy is from The Age, and refers to Coetzee as a master “we scarcely deserve.” I have no doubt that “we” refers to “we Australians.” I’m also seeing him speak at the Wheeler Centre next Monday, and their description of the event takes care to mention in the opening paragraph that “we’re lucky to have him living right here in Australia” (exclamation mark implied). I suppose the cultural cringe is alive and well, and I suppose I also suffer from it, because I agree – we are lucky, and we do scarcely deserve him. It feels odd to read one of the greatest living writers crisply discussing subjects close to home, such as Australia’s bafflingly cruel treatment of refugees or the Liberal Party’s general philosophy, but it’s very satisfying.

Diary of a Bad Year is part non-fiction, part fiction, and like many of Coetzee’s works, part memoir. (There is, incidentally, no way he’s never slept with one of his students.) The narrator, referred to as “Senor C,” is a South African emigrant to Australia, an acclaimed novelist and academic, who once wrote a book called Waiting for the Barbarians, but who is also much older than the real Coetzee, and who doesn’t appear to have won the Nobel Prize. Senor C has been commissioned by a German publisher to contribute a series of “strong opinions” on various social and political topics, and these short essays make up the first part of the book. If these essays were all that Diary of a Bad Year contained it would be a failure, because they are stiff and authoritarian and lecturing. (They were mostly in line with my own views, but that doesn’t matter.)

But the essays are cut off halfway down the page, replaced with a string of text detailing this fictional Coetzee’s life, and how he employs Anya, his sexy young Filipina neighbour, to type for him. Essays on the outrage of Guantanamo Bay and the poor state of universities and anti-democratic secrecy laws are thus complemented by the lecherous narrative of an old man who, while being intelligent and measured and thoughtful, is nonetheless driven by his dick. And soon a third ribbon of text joins the story – the thoughts and opinions of Anya, who is smarter than she first appears.

Coetzee uses the viewpoints of his fictionalised self, and of Anya, and even of Anya’s boyfriend Alan (who is not given a thread, but has many lines of loudmouth dialogue in her section) to criticise and cast doubt on the strong opinions of the book’s essays. This is a relief, because without them they would possess an insufferable surety, and proper novelist should never really be sure of anything.

The essays often correspond subtly to the theme du jour of the lower stories; at least half the time they correspond so subtly that I couldn’t finger the connections, though I have no doubt they were there; Coetzee is smarter than me, after all. The story at the bottom adds up to a reasonable novelette, and while it lacks the power and potency of a longer work, it was certainly worthwhile.

This isn’t one of Coetzee’s stronger works – it certainly doesn’t compare to Disgrace – but you wouldn’t really expect it to. It’s a neat little post-modern experiment (containing, ironically, a strong criticism of post-modernism) which is quick and concise. It’s not the first book of Coetzee’s you’d want to read, but it is worth reading.

The Citadel of the Autarch by Gene Wolfe (1983) 317 p.

Gene Wolfe’s deceptively long Book of the New Sun comes to a close with this, the final volume, The Citadel of the Autarch. (Actually, that’s not quite true – he apparently wrote an extra book in 1987 called The Urth of the New Sun, which I may or may not read in the future.)

This was a difficult series to review because it’s really just one long book split into four, and – like many promising stories whose ultimate value hinges on how well they turn out – I couldn’t really judge it until now. So this is going to be a review of both The Citadel of the Autarch and the Book of the New Sun as a whole, and spoilers will abound.

I originally heard about this series in 2011 when I was working in a bookstore and trying to get back into the fantasy genre. The Book of the New Sun and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire were the two series which, above all others, were mentioned as the high point of fantasy fiction in the last fifty years. The only reason I chose to go with Martin first was that 2012 was clearly his year, with the TV series coming out and out store shifting more than 50 copies of A Game of Thrones every day. Given how thick that series is, I didn’t get around to the Book of the New Sun until last month.

It’s ostensibly fantasy, but is really science fiction; a good example of why these sections are often lumped together in bookstores. The protagonist, Severian, is a journeyman apprentice from the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, more commonly known as the guild of torturers. After breaking his vow, Severian is expelled from the guild and sent out to face the wonders and dangers of Wolfe’s rich fantasy world, which is actually our own planet far into the future, when the sun is slowly dying.

Wolfe excels at fantasy world-building – not just in the imaginative creation of the world itself, but the techniques he uses to create it. Unusually for a fantasy series, The Book of the New Sun is narrated in first person, and Severian’s point of view is used to great effect. He regularly interprets certain scientific processes as magical and casually skims over tantalising details because he considers them mundane. Much of the enjoyment of the book comes from parsing Severian’s story for details about his world, and trying to piece together what’s going on and what kind of a place he’s in.

The Citadel of the Autarch does and doesn’t lead to answers. This isn’t Lost, and it’s not like I really expected precise answers, given that so much of the book was written in mystic, arcane prose designed to hint at the truth rather than reveal it. The central conceit of the book – the awaited New Sun – is dealt with in a way that perfectly summarises Wolfe’s marriage of fantasy and science fiction, describing processes of such high, theoretical quantum physics that to a layman they are almost fantasy, and planting them in a world where the inhabitants do indeed consider them to be the stuff of religion, myth and prophecy:

“You know of the chasms of space, which some call the Black Pits, from which no speck of matter or gleam of light ever returns. But what you have not known until now is that these chasms have their counterparts in the White Fountains, from which matter and energy rejected from a higher universe flow in endless cataract into this one. If you pass – if our race is judged ready to reenter the wide seas of space – such a White Fountain will be created in the heart of our sun.”

The Book of the New Sun embraces, more than any other work I have seen, Arthur C. Clarke’s axiom that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Remaining on the subject of things I enjoyed in The Citadel of the Autarch, Severian’s ascent to the throne – which is casually mentioned to be his fate early in the first book – always seemed unlikely given his station in life, but is handled perfectly believably, utilising fantasy/sci-fi elements that were a major part of the series from the very first chapter. (It also gives a clever twist to the royal pronoun “we.”)

The problem with the Book of the New Sun is that while Severian’s retrospective memoir narrative works wonders in establishing a great fantasy world, it fails at actually telling a good story. It can be overly dry and constantly digresses, and the plot-driven parts of the book suffer for it. The Citadel of the Autarch, in particular, has a clump of unforgivably tedious battle sequences at its centre which almost sent me to sleep. And The Book of the New Sun is, overall, a plot-driven story, which means that more often than not I was pushing myself through because I was fascinated by the world, rather than genuinely enjoying the book because I liked the story. (See also – China Mieville.) The Book of the New Sun is undoubtedly a series that would reward re-reading, but I doubt I’ll ever have the inclination to do so.

The series also feels far too constrained and dictated. Severian is a free agent with free will, and throughout the book he regularly informs to the reader of his goals and motives. Yet he feels like a puppet on a string, because he keeps randomly encountering important people and major events and recurring characters. It feels as though everything he does is pre-ordained. Which, as far as I can tell from the book’s conclusion, it may be – but then there’s the problem of deus ex machina, which the series is marinated in. Wolfe even has the cheek to have a minor character say:

“It refers to some supernatural force, personified and brought onto the stage in the last act in order that the play may end well. None but poor playwrights do it, they say, but those who say so forget that it is better to have a power lowered on a rope, and a play that ends well, than nothing, and a play that ends badly.”

The Book of the New Sun often feels more like conceptual literary fantasy/sci-fi than an actual story that one reads for enjoyment. I find it quite interesting that it’s considered to rank alongside A Song of Ice and Fire, because the two are apples and oranges. I definitely prefer Martin’s series, because it’s easier to read, more entertaining, and bucks enough cliches to elevate itself above schlock genre fiction. Wolfe’s series, on the other hand, pulls up just shy of the point where I’d call it pretentious, and I can easily see how it’s stuck in an uneasy niche – too literary for fantasy readers, and too fantasy for literary readers.

They’re not bad books. They aren’t the books I was expecting them to be, and I can’t say I truly enjoyed them, but they are bold and unique and worth at least checking out for fans of both fantasy and science fiction. I also suspect that, like certain other critically acclaimed books that I didn’t give great reviews to (Wolf Hall, True History of the Kelly Gang) I’ll find that they stick in my mind and I come to think much better of them than I do right now.

A final note, which didn’t fit elsewhere – Wolfe’s note-bearing epilogues at the end of each book are just plain strange. The epilogues – which run at the end of each of the four books, for only three or four pages – are in-universe frame story notes written from the point of view of a “scholar,” apparently of our own time, studying the Book of the New Sun as a “manuscript” and attempting to learn about Severian’s world. They go some way to explaining a few bits and piece, but I’m confused as to why Wolfe would insert them in the first place when he obviously trusted most readers to be smart enough and engaged enough to pick out the details themselves. Furthermore, if he was going to use this technique, it should have been employed more regularly, in footnotes and endnotes and chapter breaks all over the novels, ala Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. Instead we have four epilogues, totalling about 10 pages, versus 1,212 pages of narrative. Why bother? Either put them in often or cut them entirely.

The Sword of the Lictor by Gene Wolfe (1982) 301 p.

The third volume in Gene Wolfe’s needlessly divided Book of the New Sun, The Sword of the Lictor begins with Severian the torturer and his companion Dorcas having established themselves in Thrax, the City of Windowless Rooms. Severian soon makes the same mistake he did in the first novel, showing mercy to a “client,” and is forced to flee once again.

Even more so than the previous two books, The Sword of the Lictor is a series of episodic adventures ranging across cities and mountains and jungles. Some are interesting, and some aren’t – one particularly good chapter involves Severian coming across a cabin in the mountains inhabited by a mother and her children, who are being menaced by a disturbing alien beast. Many seemingly unimportant things happen which, judging from the previous books, will turn out to be important later.

As I’ve said before, these are difficult books to review because they’re largely similar – it’s really just one long book split into quarters. The next book in the series, The Citadel of the Autarch, is the final, and I’ll reserve judgement on the series as a whole until I’ve read it.

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March 2013