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Here by Richard McGuire (2015) 304 p.

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I recently moved into my own apartment for the first time, a one bedroom place in a two-storey complex at the edge of St Kilda Junction. St Kilda is one of those inner city Melbourne neighbourhoods currently in a state of flux, as developers buy up properties, demolish them, and build a new tower as high as they can under the council regulations, to the very edge of the property line, full of as many rabbit warren apartments as they can to flog off to Chinese buyers or our own home-grown all-Aussie negative-gearing baby boomer caste. There are no less than two huge, loud construction sites outside my bedroom window.

My building is from the 1950s. It occurred to me the other day that I will probably be one of the last people to live here; I give this place another ten years before a developer tears it down and throws up something fifty storeys high (which, before I start sounding like a writer for the Age, is exactly what should exist in a location like this). But how many people have lived here before me? How many families, couples, young single professionals?

Even if the building itself goes, this space will endure. People will still live in this same air, whatever kind of building surrounds it, just as the indigenous Kulin people lived here for tens of thousands of years before us. It’s just a patch of ground, but those generations stack up. In the tiny space of my living room, how many human stories have played out over tens of thousands of years? How many arguments, insults, first kisses, agreements, fistfights, break-ups, deaths, murders?

Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here takes place entirely within a single room in a house somewhere in the north-eastern Unites States. The setting is static, but it ranges enormously over time, from the primordial swampland of 3 billion BC to the far future of the year 22,000, when strange new megafauna roam across a tropical landscape. Most of Here focuses on the 20th and early 21st century, when the house exists, and we see a parade of those seemingly banal events that make up a life: children playing, people dancing, lost keys, parties, family photos, sickness, birth, death, and the whole gamut of life.

None of this is chronological (McGuire apparently considered having the publication process jumbled, so that every reader would have a unique book with a different progression) and neither are the years separated. Different panels show different events unfolding in different years; a woman scrubbing the floor on all fours in 1986 is juxtaposed against a wolf in a forest with a fresh kill in its jaws in 1430. A woman reads on a couch in 1999 while a pair of Native Americans make love on the forest floor in 1609. A man practices his golf putting in 1958 while people in radiation suits inspect a desolate landscape in the 24th century.

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There are no distinct narratives to follow; no names, no families we can trace through the house as they grow and pass on. The constant cutting and chopping and the blurry, pop-art nature of the illustration make this impossible, and in any case this wasn’t McGuire’s intention. “Graphic novel” isn’t the right word for Here; neither is “comic,” not that I’m prejudiced against the word. Here is a creative work unlike anything else I’ve ever seen; a wholly original and fascinating concept executed beautifully. What seems at first an amusing gimmick develops into a meditation on space and time, the indifference of the planet, and the impermanence not just of our own lives but the human species as a whole. Here is one of the most unique things I’ve read in years.

Killing and Dying by Adrian Tomine (2015) 121 p.

Killing and Dying

Adrian Tomine wasn’t a name I knew before I heard of this acclaimed comic collection, although I quickly recognised his drawing style: he’s one of the most regular cover artists for The New Yorker, and has a distinctive style of understated, pastel, almost motionless scenes which manage to capture those small, revealing moments in life. (My favourite is probably the central one here.)

Killing and Dying takes six of Tomine’s short comics and puts them in a collection that’s sad, funny, and surprisingly moving. Tomine has lived in New York for more than ten years, but nearly all of Killing and Dying is set in the drab California landscape of his youth, a perfectly rendered place of quiet suburbs, freeways, and cheap apartment buildings. (I love the cover: that bleak little Denny’s squatting at the edge of an intersection beneath a smoggy urban sunset.) If there’s one word to describe Tomine’s stories, it’s “subtle.” Comics are of course an excellent medium for subtlety, with all the unspoken details the artist can leave in the background, but Tomine is particularly good at it. The title story, “Killing and Dying,” is about a nervous teenage girl who decides she wants to try stand-up comedy, and her parents’ differing reactions to this – until about halfway through, when you suddenly realise it was a different kind of story all along.

The only problem I have with Killing and Dying is a problem I have with most of the comics and graphic novels I read, which is that it’s far too short. But it’s a beautiful book – both for its stories and as a physical hardback – and well worth your time.

Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976) 242 p.

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The position of women science fiction is a Hot Topic in the Discourse, because in spite of heavyweights like Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood, there’s no denying that it’s a genre heavily tilted towards male authors. So it’s great to see that writing stilted, awkward and crummy science fiction novels isn’t the exclusive province of semi-autistic male writers.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang is the 1977 Hugo winner and a fairly colour-by-numbers post-apocalyptic dystopia, split into three parts. The first takes place as global society is crumbling, and a tight-knit family with a farmland valley somewhere in the Appalachians resorts to cloning to keep their numbers up in the face of declining fertility. Why exactly a clan of hillbillies had so many esteemed scientists among their number to kickstart that process is something I’ve already forgotten, which is part of the problem. In a novel attempting to convey the creeping horror of having members of your family endlessly duplicate themselves, it helps if the characters are not in the first place so paper thin: wafer thin, tracing paper thin, the kind of paper they print Bibles with thin. In any case, this is one of those apocalyptic novels that suffers from First Act Syndrome, when all the characters who weren’t worth the effort to remember vanish after the time jump anyway, and the valley has become the domain of a weird new society of clones.

I could go on but there’s not much point. There’s lots of spiritual guff about the power of nature, I guess some Soviet-era hysteria about the fascism of empowering society over the individual, some weird obsessions with incest. It’s not completely unreadable, but it is completely unmemorable (I’ve already forgotten the main character’s name) and it slots in perfectly alongside all those other mid-century sci-fi novels which are more interested in exploring an idea than telling a story or painting interesting characters, yet still doesn’t do any of those three things particularly well.

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (1990) 399 p.

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This was possibly the first “grown-up” book that I ever read, back when I was about ten or eleven. I must have read it quite a few times following that but I certainly haven’t glanced at it since my early teenage years, so I thought it was worth a re-read to see how it held up.

We all know the story, obviously. The interesting thing is how the book diverges from the film, which has a strong Spielbergian touch, with lots of wonder and joy and a happy ending. The book is much darker.

The opening is very well done, told from the point of view of an American nurse working for a year in a remote village on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. A helicopter from the island off-shore where an American company is building “a new resort” arrives in the middle of a thunderstorm, carrying a badly injured worker. The other workers claim he was run over by a backhoe, but the nuse suspects the injuries are actually from an animal mauling. The man breathes the word “raptor” before he dies, and after the company men leave with his body, she asks another nurse if the word means anything in Spanish. The nurse is attending to a childbirth, and is upset to hear the word, since it’s a Central American superstition – a raptor is an abductor, a demon who kidnaps babies. The American nurse, as an afterthought, checks the word in her English dictionary and is surprised to find it there:

raptor \ n [deriv. of L. raptor plunderer, fr. raptus]: bird of prey

Which, I mean, even before the movie became so famous, the book is called Jurassic Park and has a picture of a dinosaur on the cover. But I still thought it was a very creepy and effective opening.

It later becomes a little ridiculous as characters completely fail to twig what’s going on. Dr Alan Grant is staggered to find dinosaurs being cloned on Isla Nublar, despite being a palaeontologist receiving funding from a genetic engineering company, who was sent fax evidence of what appears to be a dinosaur corpse found on the coast in Costa Rica, has had the company’s lawyers call him about said dinosaur corpse sounding very concerned, has seen the construction plans at Isla Nublar for what appears to be a large game park with very high fences and large moats, and has been invited down to it for the weekend because it would be “right up your alley.” Like… come on, man. And towards the ending of the novel, characters’ actions become increasingly random and motiveless.

This is often the problem with airport fiction – the sparse dialogue, the characters used as chess pieces, the plot as a machine to drive the novel in the direction the author wants it to go regardless of how little sense it makes. What it adds up to, in the latter stages of the book, is a thriller that’s not very thrilling. A film is always going to find it easier to create a sense of terror and suspense, but in this case the novel and the book aren’t even remotely close.

Spielberg was interested in telling an exciting story; Crichton is more concerned with exploring the ideas and the ramifications of cloning extinct species, both scientifically and philosophically. Writing a thriller comes second. Which is not to say that Jurassic Park is not a thrilling book – I found it quite compelling and page-turning, at least in the first half, despite having read it probably a dozen times as a kid. It’s just deeply flawed, and the film is far superior. The novel’s pace is too often interrupted by clunky (and sexist) characterisation, exposition, awkward info-dumps, authorial lectures masquerading as dialogue (especially from Ian Malcolm) and a lack of consistency in how dangerous the dinosaurs are supposed to be. It annoyed the hell out of me, for example, that even after the carnage unleashed on the characters by the raptor attack near the climax of the novel, Grant and Ellie and Muldoon and Gennaro still go off hunting for the wild raptor nest – and enter it – with the casual attitude of a Sunday stroll.

Having said all that, I still like it. Jurassic Park a great piece of airport fiction – a gripping novel which is easy to read and difficult to put down. The movie is unquestionably better, but the book is still worth reading – especially given that it has a very different ending.

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989) 355 p.
Discworld #8 (City Watch #1)

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This is the book Pratchett advised new readers to start with; this is the beginning of the City Watch arc, the strongest thread in the Discworld series; this is the introduction of Sam Vimes, who may be “the most fully realised decent man in modern literature.” This is, in short, the highlight of the first ten books in the series.

The Night Watch of Ankh-Morpork was a proud institution, once upon a time, before the Machiavellian new ruler Lord Vetinari seized power. In an ironic joke mentioned in most of the books up to this point, Vetinari effectively legalised crime: allowing the thieves and the assassins and the beggars a certain quota of permitted activity, overseen by their powerful guilds, while also making them responsible for any unlicensed crime. While this resulted in a much safer, more predictable and prosperous Ankh-Morpork, it also sidelined the City Watch. By the time of Guards! Guards! the Night Watch has dwindled to just three men: the weaselly Corporal Nobbs, the overweight Sergeant Colon, and the wretched drunk in charge of them, Captain Sam Vimes.

The novel kicks off with two separate threads. The first is a shadowy secret society intent on restoring Ankh-Morpork’s “rightful” ruler to the throne; a collection of self-entitled idiots and half-wits manipulated by a leader who is far more intelligent and dangerous. Their plan involves magically summoning a long-extinct dragon to terrorise the city and leave the populace desperate for a hero – but as is always the case with man messing around with things he was never meant to understand, events go quite differently.

The second is the journey of young Carrot Ironfoundersson, a human raised in the mountains by dwarves, whose father – the local dwarf king – wants to send him off to the city to learn to live amongst his own kind. His father consults the only human he knows, the local trader Varneshi:

“I have heard that dwarfs go off to work in the Big City, ” said the king uncertainly. “And they send back money to their families, which is very commendable and proper.”

“There you are then. Get him a job in, in -” Varneshi sought for inspiration – “in the Watch, or something. My great-grandfather was in the Watch, you know. Fine job for a big lad, my grandad said. ”

“What is a Watch?” said the king.

“Oh,” said Varneshi, with the vagueness of someone whose family for the last three generations hadn’t travelled more than twenty miles, “they goes about making sure people keep the laws and do what they’re told.”

“That is a very proper concern,” said the king who, since he was usually the one doing the telling, had very solid views about people doing what they were told.

Varneshi provides Carrot with an ancient copy of The Laws and Ordnances of the Cities Ankh and Morpork, which the young lad dutifully learns off by heart on his journey to the city. The opening of Guards! Guards! is something of a fish out of water comedy, as the naive young Carrot learns how to be a policeman in a very different city to the place he imagined – a difference apparent before he even arrives:

He’d expected high white towers rearing over the landscape, and flags. Ankh-Morpork didn’t rear. Rather, it sort of skulked, clinging to the soil as if afraid someone might steal it. There were no flags.

Carrot’s determination to thrust his own ideas upon the city, however, strikes a chord with Captain Vimes: “a scruffy collection of bad habits marinated in alcohol.” By all accounts Vimes should be an unlikeable character – cynical, bitter, jaded and pathetic. But he’s admirable because he has an internal dignity, because the reason that he’s cynical and bitter and jaded is because he’s right. He hasn’t made it far in life because “every time he seemed to be getting anywhere he spoke his mind, or said the wrong thing. Usually both at once.” He’s a man of principle, and – as the book goes on – we see that he’s actually very good at his job; a keen observer and smart detective. He’s a character who, though it gains him nothing, still goes to confront the master of the secret society near the climax of the novel, and can give a speech like this:

“You can’t give me my job back,” repeated Vimes. “It was never yours to take away. I was never an officer of the city, or an officer of the king, or an officer of the Patrician. I was an officer of the law. It might have been corrupted and bent, but it was law, of a sort.”

By the closing books of the Discworld series Vimes will have gone from rags to riches, obscurity to prominence; he will be second only to Vetinari as the city’s most powerful figure. Yet he remains fundamentally the same man as the drunk in the gutter at the beginning of Guards! Guards!: a watchman, a police officer, a damn good copper. A sentry in the night, protecting the city from itself.

The ensemble cast of Guards! Guards!, who will remain the crux of the City Watch for many books to come, are also wonderful. There’s the disreputable, larcenous Corporal Nobbs, whose pay Vimes docks “for being a disgrace to the species;” Fred Colon, the red-faced man who will “automatically gravitate to the post of sergeant” and, if he hadn’t joined a quasi-military organisation, would have been a sausage butcher; Lady Sybil Ramkin, Vimes’ future wife, who has the careless attitude towards her property and her appearance that only the truly rich can get away with; and of course Carrot, the Watch’s new recruit and very possibly Ankh-Morpork’s long-lost true king, who is much sharper than he appears underneath a veneer of honest simplicity.

The characters are a huge part of why Guards! Guards! works so well. But it’s also tightly plotted, has high emotional stakes around the city’s peril, and is hilarious. I’d completely forgotten this joke but it’s one of my favourites in the series so far, as typical pulp fantasy heroes descend on the city in answer to the call for someone to kill the dragon and start talking about how hard the trade is these days:

“Monsters are getting more uppity, too,” said another. “I heard where this guy, he killed this monster in this lake, no problem, stuck its arm up over the door-”

“Pour encourjay lays ortras,” said one of the listeners.

“Right, and you know what? Its mum come and complained. Its actual mum come right down to the hall next day and complained. Actually complained. That’s the respect you get.”

Guards! Guards! simply works. It works really well: the characters, the plot, the pacing, the jokes. It’s the first really great Discworld book, surpassing both Mort and Wyrd Sisters. It’s actually quite surprising to me that Pratchett didn’t revisit the characters again (in their own book; I think they make cameo appearances for a while) until #16, Men at Arms.

In any case, Pratchett knew his own work. Guards! Guards! is the perfect starting point for a new Discworld reader, because aside from being the start of a major story arc, it encapsulates what the series does so well (and, down the line, does even better): a compelling plot with brilliant characters, sparkling dialogue, and wry observations about human nature seamlessly mixed into the prose. Highly recommended.

Rereading Discworld Index

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