Tag Archives: speculative fiction

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

The Day of the Jackal by Frederick Forsyth

While we’re travelling, I’m reading less and also trying to read more books set in the area where I am, so #109 The Day Of The Jackal by Frederick Fosyth is probably the last Big Read book I’ll read for a while.

Published in 1971, and set in the early ’60s, The Day of the Jackal is a thriller. A sinister group want to overthrow the French government, and to do so they’re going to hire The Jackal, an expert assassin.

A matter of style
Jackal is a classic airport thriller. It’s fairly chunky (358 pages) but not so thick as to be intimidating. It’s a very detailed fantasy, a careful working out of a fictitious political drama. It’s also a police procedural, as the main body of the story follows a detective who has been tasked with tracking down the killer.

The novel is divided into three sections: ‘Anatomy of a plot’, ‘Anatomy of a manhunt’ and ‘Anatomy of a kill’. The sections get shorter and shorter as the tension picks up. The novel shows both sides of the chase, what the plotters are planning first, then when the police get wind of it and start to hunt them down, and then how it all unravels. It’s easy to read and rattles along pretty well. I did get bogged down in the descriptions of the weapons and some of the details of the work on both sides.

Fact or fiction?
Set in France in the 1960s, Jackal features both real people and fictional characters. And they interact. I don’t like this. It sets my teeth on edge, and I spent the entire book trying to figure out which bits were real and which were fiction. I imagine that the audience at the time would have had less trouble.

Also, as the book was set several years before it was written, and is based around a plot to assassinate a real person, early readers would definitely have known the outcome before the book opened. In case later readers are in any doubt, Forsyth drops a spoiler in part way through. I feel this removes a lot of the tension. If you’re reading this book, it’s not to find out whether the assassination plot succeeds or fails, but to watch it unfold. And that, unfortunately, dragged. Perhaps it’s just a little dated. I did find it interesting watching the police struggle without the instantaneous communications and large databases we now take for granted, but that was about it.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel

I haven’t read #92 The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M Auel since I was about 14 or 16, when it was one of my favourite books. My dad recommended it, and I remember being really pleased when I got a copy of Shelters of Stone (the fifth book in the series) for him, before he knew it was out. I wish I could remember what he thought of the books, beyond liking them. He told me he had suggested them to my 6th grade teacher, as we were studying the period. Mrs H apparently agreed that they were a good topic match, ‘apart from all the sex’, so he decided to wait a few years before handing them over!

The Clan of the Cave Bear is set around 25,000 years BC. Ice covers northern Europe, and woolly mammoths, aurochs and the giant cave bears roam the land. The stone age homo sapiens share their world with Neanderthals, not always peacefully. When an earthquake destroys the home of 5-year-old Ayla, a homo sapien girl, and the cave of a Neanderthal tribe, their paths cross. The Neanderthal group take Ayla into their clan, and she tries to become a good clan woman. But her differences are more than skin deep, and as she grows up both Ayla and the Clan wonder if she can truly become one of them.

Not as good as I remember
I enjoyed revisiting Ayla and the people of the Clan, but honestly, the book isn’t very good. It’s one of those sweeping epic stories where impossible things happen regularly and million-to-one chances come through nine times out of ten. This first book is about 500 pages long, and there are six in the series. Ayla is the main character, and she changes and grows (quite literally: she grows up) but I don’t feel like the other characters developed much.

Ayla is boringly perfect and lucky. I complained about the convenient back story issue when I reviewed The Thirty-Nine Steps, and Ayla suffers from the same affliction. She has just the right background to make sure she shines in any situation, and the author struggles to find someone who isn’t won over by her charms. However, it’s important to add a bit of strife, so one person resists, and conflict ensues.

I probably wouldn’t mind the clumsy narrative devices, such as how many discoveries Ayla makes (approximately 10,000 years worth, over the next few books, if I remember correctly) if the book was internally consistent. It isn’t. There’s a lot of detail to remember, but in a couple of places the story was definitely revised as it went along, so something happened for the first time at least twice. I found it jarring, but other people may not notice these details.

Fake pre-history
The blurb for the book says it was praised by scientists and paleontologists. Although my understanding of the period is severely limited, I can’t imagine that praise was unambivalent. As I’ve said, I’m no expert, but I’d be highly surprised to discover that the prevailing understanding of Neanderthals is that they were telepathic, with a race memory that extended back to the primordial seas.

The characters are also very well equipped with accurate and effective herbal remedies. Medical training is a recurring theme, and the characters involved seem to have a surprisingly modern understanding of illness and health. They have a few blind spots, where narritively convenient.

All the sex
I would give a content warning for the sex, and not because of erotic or pornographic descriptions. The sex is strange, and uncomfortable. It’s not described in much detail in Cave Bear (although I have a feeling that there’s a more graphic and steamy account of consensual sex in Valley of the Horses), but the sex is primarily non-consensual, and exists in a culture where meaningful consent is impossible. In Clan society, any male can demand sex from any female, and it’s culturally impossible for a female to refuse. Most females wouldn’t even consider refusing.

A culture where refusing sex is impossible is something I find weird and creepy as it is. That most of the characters are under 16, adds an extra dimension of weird uncomfortableness, even though Auel establishes that lifespans are abbreviated and adulthood comes earlier. As if wrapping one’s head around the idea of a 10-year-old being an adult and a 20-year-old being a senior citizen wasn’t hard enough, sex in Auel’s Clan society starts in childhood. Children apparently imitate what they see their parents doing, the games getting more realistic as the children age. But, she clarifies, there’s no prohibition on adult males having intercourse with female children, it’s just less common.

Auel switches between dry, almost academic detachment and in-character view points. She doesn’t really give us an in-character view of what a healthy, normal sexual life in the Clan would be like. An abnormal one is portrayed, and we’re given a little lecture on how sex occurs in this society, but there’s little emotional information. It’s not a big part of the book, but it’s not handled well, and it does stand out.

All in all, I’m not sorry I read the book again, as it made me think about my dad, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I’m unlikely to hunt down the other books, even though I don’t think I ever read book six, Land of Painted Caves. I got Clan of the Cave Bear out of the library, as I couldn’t find Dad’s copy – he tended to lend books he liked out, and didn’t worry too much about getting them back. His rule was ‘when you lend, mentally give’, which is a sound one, even if it leaves a few gaps on the book shelf.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

Demons, babies and magic, oh my!

This is the space where a Big Read update should go, but there isn’t one. I haven’t picked up a Big Read book at all this week, despite putting ‘finish Sons and Lovers‘ on my to-do list at least twice. I’ve got to that point where I’ve by-passed all the books I have available so often that even the ones I know will be good seem dull. Have you noticed this effect? The more often I look at a book and then read something else, the less likely I am to ever read it, even if I love it or its a book I’ve been waiting to come out.

I’m back in the UK now, which has switched up my TBR pile, but I’m not making any promises. Instead, here are three books I’ve read this week:

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)
I totally love Diana Wynne Jones, so I was thrilled when the price on The Dark Lord of Derkholm dropped to £1.99. It’s well worth two quid. It’s a really fun read on several levels. It’s a fantasy novel for children, with magic and fun. It’s set in a world which is being destroyed by a rapacious tourist industry, so the wizards of the realm decide to take action. Gamers (RPG or computer) will appreciate the world, as the tourists are on trips which look rather like a gaming quest. It’s as if the NPCs finally got a chance to talk… Having been recently reading Tolkien, I particularly appreciate the fact that the novel has, oh, female wizards, and women at all. People of different races act like people, not like walking stereotypes, talking animals are people, and you can have different kinds of people in one family. It’s not that it’s an ‘issues’ book, it’s just good world building.

The Amazing Thing About the Way It Goes 
by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee (2014)
The Yarn Harlot‘s newest book, The Amazing Thing has surprisingly little knitting in it. Really, there’s not much yarn at all, so don’t buy it for that. It’s got the same mix of uncommon common sense, humour and minor disasters as the previous books, but without the yarn. There’s parenting advice, but no advice on what not to knit for your kids. As a result, it’s still a good book, but disappointing. I really like reading about knitting, and I don’t have any teenagers that need wrangling. On the plus side, the book should appeal to a much wider audience, and I’m all in favour of knitters who make me laugh having a bigger yarn budget.

Demon Hunter and Baby by Anna Elliott (2012)
I have to say that I got Demon Hunter and Baby when it was free, and I don’t think it’s well edited enough to be worth the £3+ that it’s currently selling for. However, I really like the concept. I enjoy urban fantasy, and part of the reason I like it is that there are lots of physically, mentally and magically strong female characters in the genre. Unfortunately, few of them ever get to settle down, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen one have a baby. Demon Hunter and Baby is a good example of the genre, with a neat twist (the baby, I mean. The plot is a bit more predictable). The mythology feels a bit disjointed at times, and at times I felt like there was too much going on. It reads a bit like book 2 in a trilogy, but it’s a stand alone novel, and I feel like a good editor would have made the book rather better.

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien

As part of making 2014 the year of long books, I’ve just finished #25 The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. The Hobbit is not, on its own, a long book but it forms a prologue to #1 The Lord of the Rings. I’ve been informed by at least 2 of my favourite people that The Lord of the Rings means The Whole Trilogy, not just The Fellowship of the Ring, which makes it a very long book indeed.

The Hobbit is a children’s fantasy adventure story. Bilbo Baggins is the hobbit of the title. Hobbits are cosy, tidy creatures with hairy toes who rarely stray far from home. Caught up in an epic quest and taken along by 13 dwarves and a wizard to slay a dragon, Bilbo finds himself travelling far from home with unlikely companions and even missing a meal or three – a big deal for a hobbit.

I don’t like this book
I realise that a great many people do, and I can sort of see why. The Hobbit reminds me very much of The Magic Faraway TreeTolkien, at least when writing for children, has the same glossy style for his adventures. Nothing very bad happens to a named character, and everything is clearly going to work out in the end. If you’re a true hero, million-to-one chances come off nine times out of ten (as Pratchett describes beautifully in Guards! Guards!, in a section that is lampooning, it turns out, the end of The Hobbit).

The whole time I was reading The Hobbit, I kept looking for depth, and not finding it. The world building is terrible – nothing makes any sense, not the geography, the travel, the supplies, the economy. Despite the fact that the group is usually 15 strong, no one fails to offer them hospitality. A single man, living alone in the woods happily feeds them for half a dozen meals an then kits them out with a pony each to ride, a bow and quiver each, and food for a fortnight. I appreciate that he is a special snowflake of awesome power, but where did all this stuff come from? Who made the bows, and why does he have an arsenal lying around? Who saddled all these ponies? Who made the saddles? And given that this man doesn’t like hurting any animal, where did the leather come from?

Every time they stop, the wealth of a small township is showered over them. As a result, the questers can be heroically unconcerned with their goods, and lose an awful lot of stuff along the way. They never pay for anything, or trade, or do any useful work so why people are so willing to help I really can’t think. Presumably it’s because no one has any memory of last winter or any plans for the next. Everything is in an epic context, and the only events that matter are those that happened a hundred and fifty years earlier.

On race and gender and the working class
Do you know, I’m not sure that there’s a named female character anywhere in this book? I’m not sure there’s even a female speaking part, which is impressive given how much attention is paid to food. There aren’t any workers, either, unless you count the goblins and the dwarves. The entire story is that of some rich dudes going on a quest to get some more money, and getting a bunch of ordinary folk killed along the way. 

I’m also really not happy with how the different races are portrayed in this story. Even if we assume that Tolkien invented them all whole cloth, and that hobbits aren’t supposed to be one sector of humanity, elves another and goblins a third, it’s still pretty horrific. Entire races are either Practically Saints, Quite Good or Really Bad. If you’re at all bad, you have to be killed. In the book, the elves and the goblins have been at war for a very long time, and I can see why because the elves go and hunt the goblins. When they’ve nothing better to do, they hunt gobilns. When goblins have nothing better to eat, they eat elves. Now, out of those, which is worse? Hunting sentient creatures for food or for fun?

Moreover, everyone eats sentient animals, which I find horrific. Sure, dragons eat humans, but humans eat sheep and it turns out they can talk, although not in a human language, and wait at table. This book is an ethical mess, and I really can’t see that any of the characters come of out of it looking good.

It remind me of the sort of games I played as a child. The kind that’s described so well in Swallows and Amazons, where it’s clear who the main characters are (the real people pretending to be other people) and everyone else is less than a breath on the wind, as real or disposable as you like. The Hobbit is like two children playing “I kill a goblins with a single blow with my magic sword” gets the reply “well I kill two, no, ten, no a thousand goblins with my, um, with my mighty hammer”.

I didn’t enjoy The Hobbit and I don’t expect to read it again. That said, it was an interesting exercise as it so clearly provides a background to other works I’ve experienced and even love. Pratchett clearly knows this book well, and reacts to it in several of his works. A lot of roleplaying games and roleplayers act like they’re in The Hobbit, where certain creatures are bad and can be killed at will, and I suspect one of the origins of that is this series. Although, to be fair to Tolkien, mass slaughter is common in SF novels and action films too. But just because the other kids are all doing it, doesn’t mean it’s cool, OK?

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

The best I can say about this book is that #118 The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde is free on Kindle and from Project Gutenberg. I absolutely hated the first 75% of this book, up to chapter 14. After that point, I got interested, briefly, and then ended up simply strongly disliking the rest of it. It reminded me of Perfume, in that it was unpleasant to read to the point where I wished it wasn’t on the list at all, and wondered who could possibly love this book, and also the manner of its unpleasantness.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is the story of a beautiful young man. After sitting as an artist’s model, he realises that the portrait will never change, while for him, there’s nothing to look forward to but the ruin of his good looks. A fervent prayer seems to alter the natural order of things, and the painting begins to decay…

The book is angry and bitter. The main character, Dorian, takes his tone from a friend of his, the louche Lord Henry. I can’t picture what these people would be like in person, as they’re so unpleasant to read about, yet they seem so charming, if the reactions of people about them are to be believed.

We’ve been watching Elementary and the description of an addict in that resonates with how both Lord Henry and Dorian act. They disregard the feelings and rights of others to the point where sociopath seems a good description. They are both set on following their own course, like an addict who prioritizes the next hit over anything else. They value nothing but their own continued existence, not love, friendship, money, or others’ lives. I can’t quite grasp what they’re searching for. They say ‘pleasure’ and yet, don’t seem to be enjoying much of anything. Oblivion, perhaps, when the experiments with drugs come up, but that doesn’t explain the previous decade.

Clever phrases
Wilde is famous for his clever turns of phrase, and he’s very quotable. His most famous quotations tend not to come from Dorian Gray, though, as the lines are so bleak. Lord Henry is the main mouthpiece for Wilde’s famous epigrams, and these are largely vicious.

Women appreciate cruelty, downright cruelty, more than anything else. They have wonderfully primitive instincts. We have emancipated them, but they remain slaves looking for their masters, all the same. They love being dominated.

I’ve read and rather like The Importance of Being Ernest. In that, the quips are tempered. In this, the hate is palpable and all the more dangerous for being cleverly worded. Wilde seems to have a particular hate for women, and refers to them constantly as inferior, dragging men down in one way or another. The middle and working classes come in for a bashing as well, as does anyone who presumes to have some kind of morality.

Moderation is a fatal thing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as a feast.

I can’t tell and don’t care enough to find out which parts of this are supposed to be Wilde’s own beliefs and which are a clever satire of the society of the time. I found the whole thing unpleasant to read, and generally wished I wasn’t reading it. As it’s easy to put a book down, the novel took under 3 hours to read, stretched over at least four months. I also fundamentally disagree with the core premise of the book:

Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man’s face. It cannot be concealed. People talk sometimes of secret vices. There are no such things.

And I don’t hold the same views on art. Sorry, that should be Art, with a capital A. Wilde treats art as something entirely separate from everyday living. He opens with a preface describing this view, which can be summed up in two of his neat phrases:

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.


The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely. All art is useless.

Latter, in a flash of insight, Dorian claims to have been harmed by a book lent to him by Lord Henry (who plays the role of the devil in this work quite effectively). Lord Henry counters:

As for being poisoned by a book, there is no such thing as that. Art has no influence upon action. It annihilates the desire to act. It is superbly sterile. The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame. That is all.

And I would say: that is bullshit. What’s the point of art, or Art even, if it doesn’t stir some emotion? And how can we expect that all emotions thus stirred will be so fleeting as to pass through a life without a ripple? My life has certainly been changed, for better and for worse, by the books I’ve read at different times. The NHS now offers books on prescription, making official something many of us have been doing for years. When I want to feel cheered, I read something cheerful. When I want to be more productive, I read a book about someone who has accomplished great things, and I’m stirred to action. As a child, when I wanted to read a scary story at bedtime I learned to follow it up with a does of Enid Blyton, and then I slept well.

Just as there are books that can help and heal, that can encourage the reader to be their better self, there are books that can harm. It’s not always obvious which are which, as some people thrive on books that are poisonous to others, but I do believe that one can be poisoned by a book. In fact, this book felt toxic to me, and I’ll be happy when it’s gone from my system.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

A very short book, #194 The War of the Worlds by HG Wells is free on Kindle and on Project Gutenberg. Early sci-fi, it’s held its charm and is interesting to read, particularly as humans have to fight the aliens without the power of flight, the motor car or the telephone.

A quiet suburb in Victorian London receives an unpleasant shock when a pod from Mars lands on the common. Over the next few days, the tragedy unfolds as it becomes obvious that the visitors are determined to be conquerors and humanity is in serious danger.

A link in the chain
HG Wells is famous as one of the fathers of modern science fiction, and I can see why. Published in 1898, when Queen Victoria was on the throne, it’s nonetheless strikingly similar to later books, like The Day of the Triffids, and its influence even shows through in the structure of modern zombie stories.

Wells definitely set a pattern that later writers followed. In fact, it’s very similar to the works of John Wyndham (author of Triffids) and if you like the one, you’ll probably enjoy the other. However, Wells draws on techniques used in previous adventure stories. The narrative structure is very similar to that of Treasure Island, for example. In both, the narrator puts pen to paper to recount the fabulous and unlikely tale that he has had the fortune (or misfortune) to live through, witnessing all the key events at first hand and being well-placed to prop his narrative up with second-hand reports from credible sources where required.

The book rattles along in first person, much as Treasure Island does. Interestingly, in both books, it’s clear that the narrator is writing the work some time after the events, and in The War of the Worlds, Wells seems to indicate the nature of the ending early on, within the first quarter, I’d say, if not sooner.

The future of the past
Reading The War of the Worlds was interesting at least partly because of the era it was written in. Today, alien invasions are so old hat that they’re almost a cliche. The invasion in The War of the Worlds is fresh, and it’s interesting because Wells’ society is missing some of the key technologies that we take for granted in the battles with aliens we imagine today. For example, in the earliest part of the book it takes a fair while for the existence of the aliens to be known outside the area where they’ve landed. Someone sends a telegram, but it’s dismissed as a hoax, so no one bothers to check. And pre-telephone, pre-internet, pre-smartphone, there’s no army of citizen journalists rushing to fill the void.

Throughout the book, characters have to get their information from printed new sheets. Travel is by foot, by horse, by rail or by boat. Sailing ships are common in the channel. Class divides are obvious, before a person even opens their mouth, their clothes give them away. There are no planes or cars. The Martians, by contrast, are a high-tech race. They don’t need to be all that high-tech, to beat Victorian Britain, but they’re shiny and powerful, putting humanity in real peril.

There’s a lot of science in the book, and most of it strikes me as very outdated. I feel like most of the assertions Wells uses to build his story have been proven false in the intervening hundred years, but I’m not totally sure, as I’m really not a scientist. If anyone with a bit more biology, physics or astronomy would like to take a look and clue me in, I’d be very grateful!

All in all, I quite enjoyed the book. It’s like reading Diary of a Nobody crossed with Day of the Triffids. And it’s rather less grim than Wyndham gets. Wells is also deeper into the age of Empire, and there are definitely tones of British supremacy throughout the book.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

The Truth by Terry Pratchett

Back to one of my favourite authors with #193 The Truth by Terry Pratchett. I never quite know how to describe Pratchett’s books – ‘comic fantasy’ is accurate but lumps them in with just-played-for-laughs and self-consciously quirky books by authors like Tom Holt and Robert Rankin who just aren’t as good.

To recap briefly, for those who aren’t familiar with his works, The Truth is a comic fantasy novel set on a flat world where gods, barbarian heroes, wizards and guilds are all real. And now it has its first newspaper. Ankh-Morpork is a hotbed of intrigue, and now one William de Worde is poking his nose in, finding things out, writing them down and printing them for anyone to buy. The city may never be the same again.

Discworld + newspapers = ?
The Truth came out in 2000, the 25th Discworld novel. It’s one of the ones where Pratchett takes something out of our world (in this case, newspapers) and adds it, suddenly, to the Disc. The story is mostly in the effects of this collision. In The Truth, it’s not just a new technology that’s arrived, it’s a new ideal. The freedom of the press has hit Ankh-Morpork and it’s the start of its information age. 

Pratchett has written a number of ‘Discworld + tech = ?’ books (including Soul MusicMoving PicturesGoing PostalMaking Money and it looks like the new one, out next week will be in the same vein as it’s called Raising Steam) and while I usually enjoy them (particularly Moving Pictures) I generally prefer the books where the elements from our world are less obvious. That said, The Truth is one of my favourites in this genre, and I do like the enduring characters who have their first appearance in this book.

On writing
The Truth is a particularly good read for writers, as it’s primarily about journalistic integrity. Pratchett started off in newspapers, so knows rather more about the topic than an online hack like me, but it’s still interesting. In The Truth, the whole world of news reporting is brand new, so the early adopters are shaping the media as it goes. Using the Discworld’s tendency to pick up ideas from our world whole cloth, Pratchett can explore how people on both sides of the press relate to news.

One of the interesting things about the book is that it emphasizes that news journalists are just ordinary people with an unusual job. The phrase ‘no one believes anything they read in the papers’ pops up, usually on the professional side, while the flip side ‘they wouldn’t let them print it if it wasn’t true’ is repeated, too. Clearly, neither phrase is entirely true, but, particularly this week with the changes going on in the UK, it does give you a nudge to think about how passive you are as a consumer (or how skeptical) and, if you are a writer or publisher of any kind, even a blogger, how thoroughly you check your facts.

Now, this is almost entirely fact free, being a personal review of a novel, so instead of going into the types of sources that may or may not be acceptable resources in the internet age, I will simply close by saying that I really enjoyed this reread, and I do recommend The Truth, both as a great fantasy novel (although it’s starting to get a bit steam punky, as the Disc levels up tech wise again) and as a philosophical text.

While I’m on the topic of Pratchett, another shout out for his new book. I’m definitely looking forward to Raising Steam. It’s due out on my 30th birthday and I’ve pre-ordered it for Kindle, so that will be a nice present to wake up to. The first book in the Discworld series, The Colour of Magic,  was published the month I was born, so it’s a pleasing coincidence that the 40th one should be out on my birthday.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Rereading #4 The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams is bittersweet for me because it’s something my Dad introduced me to and it really hurts to write a post about the book knowing he won’t read it. When I first started working in publishing, he subscribed to every newsletter or blog I told him I was writing for, even though most of them, at the time, were about knitting or card making and he had no interest in either.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is hard to describe. The novel is quite short, funny and brilliant. It’s the story of a human, Arthur Dent, and what happens when his home planet is demolished to make way for a hyperspace bypass, leaving him stranded in a universe which is wider, wilder and weirder than he ever imagined.

A cult phenomenon
It’s hard to describe H2G2 because the whole is somehow much more than the sum of its parts. As I reread The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I kept highlighting bits of the story that have crept into my personal lexicon. This is partly because I grew up with the Guide, listening to the radio shows on long car journeys, reading the books until they fell apart, and partly because they’re just really clever, catchy and memorable. Adams has a knack for creating zany, wonderful worlds which also say something deeper. Certain phrases just seem like such a good way to express a certain concept or sensation, usually one that is ignored by standard English.

I’m not surprised that so many people love H2G2, and I definitely recommend it to everyone I know. That said, although I grew up so immersed in it that asking me about it is like asking a fish about water. I do recognise that comic science fiction – even when it’s brilliantly done – is not for everyone. I think you have to leave the part of your brain which demands accuracy and realism in all things, the bit that insists that objects in motion should remain in motion and rain always falls down, at the door, or gag it at least, while you read the books.

A complicated multi-media delight
H2G2 started out as a radio show, first broadcast in 1978, and the first novel roughly follows the plot of the radio show. After that it gets complicated – the novels started as a tie-in with the radio show, of which there were 2 series aired in the late 1970s, but Adams eventually wrote 5 novels, the last published in 1992, rapidly moving on from the plots on radio. A TV series in the 1980s overlapped with the novels, and since Adam’s death in 2001 there has been another book (written by Eoin Colfer) 3 more series of the radio show (based on the books) and a movie. 

I definitely recommend diving into H2G2, but I don’t mind where you start. Usually I’m all about the book, and I do think the books are brilliant. But the original radio shows are excellent, very well crafted, and I think some of the extra emotion and characterization comes through from listening to it performed by actors, with all the sound effects and technologies they had available. In this case, I’d say dodge the audio books – although they’re read by Stephen Fry – and either go straight for the radio show, or pick up the novels. I also enjoyed the 2005 film, although I know some fans didn’t. All three versions are family-friendly and kids will – if my brother and I are typical, which we may not be – love them.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham

Since I last read #120 The Day of the Triffids, I’ve read several other books by John Wyndham. This a typical example of his work – the world ends, and everyone does, in fact, keep calm and carry on.

At the start of The Day of the Triffids, humanity has developed triffids, fabulous oil-bearing plants which also happen to have a lethal sting. Oh, and they can walk. When a meteor shower leaves approximately 99.9% of the population blind, hummanity is suddenly at serious risk – not only from the triffids. The main character, Bill Masen, one of the few sighted people left, is set adrift in this collapsing world.

How the world ends
First published in 1951, The Day of the Triffids is part adventure story and part philosophical treatise. The characters are erudite and educated, and adapt quickly and calmly to the situation – no one seems to run about screaming, they either kill themselves quietly and efficiently, die accidentally or set about coping. It’s astonishing, really, and somewhat unsettling. Bill comments, at one point, that he’s the only person looking for someone after the collapse – every other character seems to have shucked off all their connections on the day the disaster struck.

The obvious Big Read book to compare this to is Stephen King’s The Stand. While both books deal with the end of life as we know it and the collapse of society, The Stand dwells more on the horrors of the situation and shows a broader cross-section of society. In The Stand, people also retain their connection to their former lives, they’re tied to their homes, they want to bury their dead. They still have loves and hates, prejudices and joys left from before the disaster. In The Day of the Triffids, everyone seems to be born anew on the day of the destruction – the ties to their former lives seem superficial and no one seems to mourn much, even when their entire family has been wiped out. Conveniently, most of the survivors don’t have any family.

The Day of the Triffids presents a genteel view of the end of the world. Despite the desperation which must be caused by 95% of the world waking up suddenly without sight, there’s little violence. The Stand, to my mind, is more of a horror story – bad stuff just keeps on happening. And the disaster (a super-flu) seems horribly plausible – mobile, murderous plants plus a sight-destroying comet? Not so much.

Both books also stop just when – in my mind – things get interesting. I’m intensely curious about how the world being set up turns out, but neither author gets much beyond the first new generation – although Wyndham does do it in about a quarter of the pages.

Disabled, ruined, dead
For me, the horror of The Day of the Triffids lies primarily in what it says about the society Wyndham was living in. The people blinded by the comet are absolutely disposable – they’re ruined, entirely. They can’t in any way get on without a sighted person. Many of them kill themselves – Bill does nothing to stop this, he rather agrees with it as a course of action. Pretty much every sighted character has a name, only a very few of the blinded characters do – perhaps four in the whole book. As a view of people with disabilities, it’s appalling – and it’s more shocking how quickly the sighted characters give up on the blinded ones.

Apart from being upsetting, this seemed astonishingly unrealistic. I can understand some sighted characters being set adrift alone, but almost every character is willing to discard former friends, neighbours, family as soon as they lose their sight. It’s absolutely bizarre – there’s more nuance and regret in most zombie films than in this book.

Naturally, it’s not just people with disabilities who come under fire. Wyndham is not good about women. The main female character is, of course, the love interest, and the female-led colony is the one doomed to destruction. In Triffids we’re treated to a 3-page rant by a male character explaining that women are keeping themselves down, and need to snap out of it and start being capable and fixing engines. It is, it turns out, women’s faults that they’ve not been engineers before the war as they proved themselves capable during it. He does not address why they are no longer in those jobs now peace has resumed.

The woman this is aimed at objects, argues, is shouted down and leaves. It’s not always possible to tell whether a character is speaking for the author, but in Triffids, I think it’s fair to assume that if Bill agrees, Wyndham agrees. Bill agrees – he simply points out that the speaker should have been more tactful. It’s an appalling misrepresentation of the social situation – and an oddly limited view, coming from a character with poor or working class roots who should have known full well that most women in Britain didn’t have the option of handing over either hard physical work or bread-winning to a man. In fact, even middle-class women seem to have been working physically harder at home than their husbands would have pushing paper in an office.

The Day of the Triffids isn’t, to my mind, Wyndham’s best book, but it is certainly his best-known book, and I can see why. Written during the shift from World War to Cold War, it confirms a number of social prejudices and, even as London falls, holds British values up as worthwhile, strong and good. I can imagine that, at the time, it was both shocking and reassuring, that it pandered to the fears current at the time and also gave a road map out of them.

To me, now, having read so much other apocalyptic fiction it seems lazy – whole swathes of the population, 95% of it, is ignored and unrepresented. Who is blinded and who isn’t doesn’t seem to have been thought through properly – and the numbers are too small, anyway. I feel that Wyndham had an idea he wanted to explore, and did it – it’s almost a personal fantasy or a cod-philosophy book. It may be early sci-fi, and it’s certainly gripping in a car-crash kind of way, but it’s not a book I strongly recommend.

I’ve decided to try to read and review all 200 books on the BBC Big Read list. You can read more about the start of the project or see a list of all the books I’ve read and reviewed.

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I’m late reading Dodger – it came out last September, and typically I finish a new Pratchett book within a couple days of getting my hands on a copy. Dodger has been sitting on my shelf for months, for two reasons:

  1. There was a lot going on
  2. I started it, and didn’t immediately love it

It’s easy to explain why I turned away from Dodger, despite being rather enamoured of Terry Pratchett’s novels – it’s that Charles Dickens again.

Dodger, for those who haven’t spent as much time with Dickens as I have recently, is named for the boy thief with the laughing face and the quick fingers in Oliver Twist. It’s a speculative rewriting of history, mixing actual historical figures with a completely fictional story, deliberately changing actual events to get a better plot.

Pratchett’s Dodger is a quick, canny young reprobate, who saves a girl from a beating an in doing so gets drawn into a world of wider intrigue where he needs to use every trick and twist he’s learned in the poor parts of London to stay alive and out of the reach of those who would snuff him out like a candle.

Too much Dickens, not enough Pratchett
Dodger isn’t like Pratchett’s other books. It’s not set on the Discworld, but it a somewhat alternate-universe version of the 19th century, perhaps the same universe as Nation (which I very much enjoyed, incidentally). It’s being marketed at children, judging by the suggested reading at the end, and certainly looks like it’s going to be a Pratchett retelling of parts of Oliver Twist. It isn’t. Dodger is an entirely separate and unique story, which has more to do with Dickens’ actual life than the contents of Oliver Twist.

Dodger is something of an odd mix, I found – I think it’s like a mash up of Pratchett and Dickens, like a writing excercise taken full length. Pratchett has an extra 170 years of writing conventions and tropes to deal with, so in writing a historical novel he’s had to abandon many of his enjoyable fantastic elements but can’t really replace them with Dickens’ tricks as they’ve become cliched in the interim – particularly what I think of as ‘is it really you?’ where a chance encounter or a detail mentioned in passing causes someone to start up and cry ‘is it really you?’ as they discover that the book only has 6 characters, and therefore their missing brother, aunt, benefactor, mother and pet dog are all in the room with them already.

I’m very fond of Pratchett’s Discworld novels and not very fond of Dickens, so it’s not surprising that I was disappointed at first reading. Beyond my personal taste though, I felt that there was something a bit off about this one – a lot of the characters sounded the same to me when they spoke. I think – although I can’t tell for sure – that it’s the Vimes Does A Speech voice, which crops up in the Vimes books when he starts to lecture. Perhaps everyone was lecturing Dodger, but it did seem odd to me that so many of the secondary charcters had this same tone when Pratchett’s minor characters are usually so memorable.

The plot didn’t immediately grab me either, although I did get into it towards the middle, and finished the book in a couple of days this time round.

Too much Pratchett, not enough Dickens
Pratchett is not – to state the obvious – an on-the-spot period writer like Dickens was, and he’s had to bend history quite a bit to get his story to fit in. I’m not fond of historical changes unless they’re either clearly marked (I’d like footnotes, please, with references and suggestions for further reading) or so big that and obvious that you can’t possibly take them as fact (like dragons fighting Napoleon, for example). Pratchett’s book drags so many well-known names (like that Dickens) into the story that you hope no one would take it for direct reporting, but it’s still not always clear. I don’t quite know whether to call the changes inaccuracies, as the end notes make clear that at least some of them are deliberate, but there are quite a few things which don’t ring true, even to my untrained eye.

One thing which bothered me – and this is possibly only because I’ve just finished Oliver Twist – is that Pratchett throws Dickens into the story, but as a solidly Victorian character. And he seems like he should be, being heavily associated with the reign of that Queen, which, in fairness went on an awful long time. In Dodger, Dickens reads like a young, hungry journalist of about 20. Even allowing for the fact that gents at this period seemed to carry that phase on into their 30s and possibly longer (see Dickens’ own Pickwick Papers for an example), by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, Dickens was 25 and married, a character formed in the pre-Victorian era.

There’s no mention of a wife in Dodger, and it’s written as though Pratchett’s Dodger is the inspiration for the character in Oliver Twist but it seems like Dickens in this story encounters the Dodger some time after he would have written the fictional Dodger. The Dodger first appears in Chapter 8 of Oliver Twist, a chapter first published in May 1837, according to Wikipedia. In Dodger, Queen Victoria is mentioned as not only being securely on the the throne (accession June 1837, coronation 1838) but married to Albert (1840).

All in all, I think this was probably a good book (if you like Dickens, which I don’t) but it wasn’t a book you’d recommend to someone because they told you they loved Colour of Magic or my own favourite, Small Gods. It’s very different from Pratchett’s Discworld books. I imagine Pratchett enjoyed writing it, and did it for the love of the thing, and that’s a good enough reason to do it.

He has written so many books I’ve loved to bits that I can hardly complain that I haven’t had enough – although I do always want more. It’s like someone inviting you round for dinner regularly and putting your favourite foods on the table every week – it might take months before you realise they were serving their favourite foods and it’s all been a happy coincidence. For me, the discovery that Pratchett wasn’t writing to my exact tastes has been so long in coming that I really can’t do more than grouse, looking back at all the wonderful books I’ve had, that this one was merely acceptable.