As you may or may not know, the Hugo Awards are sort of like the Oscars for science fiction and fantasy stories. I don’t follow them much (or, to be honest at the risk of losing my geek cred, at all), but when I saw the list of this years’ winners, and recognized a few names, my interest was piqued.
The winner for Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form (which apparently means “Best TV episode”) was the Doctor Who episode “The Doctor’s Wife,” written by Neil Gaiman, who accepted the award (and said he was currently writing another episode for the show). This is from Series 6; I am currently half way through Series 5.
Best Graphic Story went to the webcomic Diggerby Ursula Vernon, which I recently reviewed. I personally wouldn’t rate it higher than the amazing Gunnerkrigg Court, but Digger is definitely worth the time of anyone who reads my blog.
The other name to catch my eye was Catherynne M. Valente, who apparently was part of a fancast along with Doctor Who-writer Paul Cornell. I don’t know what a fancast is, but it sounds like some kind of discussion panel that is broadcast…for fans? With fans? By fans? Ceiling fans? I don’t know. But I have respect for the writing ability of both these people, and would definitely be interested in hearing them talk about their stories or those of others.
Firstly, I apologize for the egregious lack of updating for the past two weeks. It was not what I had expected of myself. In fact, this whole year has been pretty bad as far as planned reviews go. I’ve been very busy with life stuff, but I’ve also gotten lazy. Fortunately, my reviews of the 1985 movie Legend and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island are nearing completion, and hopefully should pop onto the Internet before long.
(Notice the vague term “before long.”)
As a bit of a conciliatory gift, I do offer you another imaginative short film. This one—somewhat like Neverwhere—explores a sprawling, magical world beneath our city streets and among our subway and sewer systems. Unlike Gaiman’s book, there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly murderous lurking around: just a white fox who steals orange subway tickets from little girls, before dashing off through the pipe system and into a surprisingly spacious underground world. This girl, however, gives chase (she must really have been looking forward to wherever the subway was going to take her), and what she finds—that is, what the white fox seems to want her to see—is rather unexpected, and, I think, quite nice.
Like so many short fantasy films, this one is like a visual poem. There is a story, but the purpose of the film itself is more about the emotional and artistic experience of it all: of the impressionistic, light-on-details animation, of the dreamlike, but sometimes insistent, piano music, and of the suggestion of beauties in our world that we haven’t yet discovered, not because they are so far over the horizon, but because they lie quietly under our very feet.
Title:Neverwhere Series: Nope. Author: Neil Gaiman Pages: 370 Published: 1996 Spoiler-free Synopsis: “Richard Mayhew is a plain man with a good heart—and an ordinary life that is changed forever on a day he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. From that moment forward he is propelled into a world he never dreamed existed—a dark subculture flourishing in abandoned subway stations and sewer tunnels below the city—a world far stranger and more dangerous than the only one he has ever known…” (Book jacket) Reason for Beginning: I’ve heard all these years the worshipful praise lavished on Neil Gaiman by geeks and nerds, and even some trustworthy friends, but I haven’t been overly impressed with his short stories. So I was told to read his novels, where he really shines. Neverwhere, I was told, I would probably love. Reason for Finishing: I did! Gaiman starts with a rattling superb premise and does it full justice. Story Re-readability: High, I think. The pace is brisk, the prose easy and clever, the characters very interesting and likable, and the plot just detailed enough to reward multiple readings. Author Re-readability: High. Finally, Neil Gaiman lived up to his legend. I don’t know if I’ll like his other long works as much as this one, but I’m now eager to give them a try. Recommendation: Yes. I’ve a hard time imagining any lover of fiction who wouldn’t enjoy Neverwhere. It sucks you right in and carries you along, the kind of book to keep you reading late into the night. I can even imagine it attracting people who aren’t normally big readers of “genre” fiction; it’s a magnetic page-turner that repays its readers’ attention with strong world-building and worthwhile characters.
Also, I am proud to announce that the detailed review below has no SPOILERS of any significance to the plot.
Richard wrote a mental diary in his head.
Dear Diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiance, a home, and a life that made sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense). Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement and I tried to be Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiance, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple of hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal fruit fly. (135)
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere evokes the wonders and nightmares we imagine (or suspect) to lurk in the tunnels, subway systems, and catacombs beneath our great cities. It conceals many dark and fearsome mysteries, some which are scarier because they aren’t understood, and others which are the scarier precisely the more you understand them. Yet the overarching feeling one gets from reading this book is that of a witty pulp adventure that skips along almost cheerfully, acknowledging the presence of horror without submitting to it, and showing us also many welcome moments of beauty, tenderness, and humor. I don’t know if it’s high art, but it’s certainly high entertainment.
Door scratched her nose. ‘There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber,” she explained. “There’s a lot of time in London, and it has to go somewhere—it doesn’t all get used up at once.’
‘I may still be hung over,’ sighed Richard. ‘That almost made sense.’ (228)
Patchwork societies of people and beasts—a few invested with magic, and many quite dangerous—have existed beneath us for thousands of years. Invisible to most of the Above inhabitants, these disorganized groups have a culture made of the scraps of human history: a societal organization somewhere between tribalism, feudalism, and anarchy, where clothing outfits may combine Elizabethan doublets with ripped jeans, and the subterranean streets may be lit by Dickensian gas lamps and 20th century cigarettes. These are also where go the people who “fall between the cracks” of the Above societies. London Below has homeless beggars who have learned to talk to rats, soldiers from a lost Roman legion who never reported back to their commander, and deadly remnants from ancient mythology. Often they travel through the London Underground, either making use of abandoned stations and unused lines or shielding themselves from the notice of normal Londoners through unexplained magic.
‘You’ve a good heart,’ she told him. ‘Sometimes that’s enough to see you safe wherever you go.’ Then she shook her head. ‘But mostly, it’s not.’ (4)
Nothing in the securities business has prepared Scotsman Richard Mayhew for London Below. He’s a hero very much in the Arthur Dent & Bilbo Baggins tradition; that is, a mild-mannered, middle-class, normalcy-loving Brit who finds himself ignominiously thrust into dangerous adventures through little fault or desire of his own. I like him. In some ways, it’s his determined decency that causes him to be dragged into these adventures; if he were only a bit more callous and selfish, he’d have been left undisturbed. There are worse faults by which to fall into danger.
I also like the cast of distinct, engaging personalities that Gaiman has created for Richard to encounter. The girl Door is sweet and manages to be both approachable and a little enigmatic all at the same time; Gaiman gently teases the possibility of a romance between her and Richard, and cleverly leaves that an open, uncertain possibility even at the end. The Marquis de Carabas is an eccentric tangle of disreputability, honor, self-described cowardliness, conspicuous courage, and general awesomeness—similar in some ways to the Doctor, especially in an amazing and disturbing scene where he confronts the monstrous villains Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. Croup and Vandemar themselves are like more sinister and effective versions of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd from the Bond flick Diamonds Are Forever.
He had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once.(13)
Gaiman’s prose style is a bit sparser than I expected, but it works well for his story. He moves everything along at a brisk pace, never dallying without something interesting to show us. He’s got a nice ear for clever phrases, sometimes for beautiful ones (“The Angel Islington was dreaming a dark and rushing dream.” ). Quirky British humor, of the Douglas Adams kind that explains the fantastic with references to the absurdly mundane, is present and welcome. Perhaps most importantly, his style can shift for the needs of the story.
That story itself I refuse to summarize. I’d love to discuss it with anyone else who’s read the book, but for anyone who hasn’t, you’re much better off discovering it for yourself.
I cared for the protagonists and loathed the villains. I smiled or laughed at the funny parts, grinned at the awesome moments, and was a bit tense during the dangerous moments. I had a lot of fun. This is the kind of book that makes your next visit to London even more magical than it otherwise would be, as you constantly find yourself wondering whether this particular subway train leads the earl who holds court at Earl’s Court Station, or whether this homeless guy can speak to rats, or whether this park or department store will be the next place to host the Floating Market.
I stripped my shelves of dozens of books, and afterward they were still crammed, and I still had stacks on my table and headboard. It was a painful, difficult task. I would look at all my fantasy books and immediately find them all to be priceless. I would look at all my books written before 1900 or about time periods before 1900, and could not bear to part with any. But in all harvests there is chaff, and I went through my storehouse of literature and cathartically removed the least nutritious, least savory, and least sweet. I took down these books, including a dozen or so old textbooks, until they numbered 57, and drove to the nearest Half Price Books, which buys used printed stuff.
They gave me $13 for the lot.
It’s not that I had been dreaming of sudden wealth from the sale of 57 used and somewhat useless books. But I did rather hope that it would at least cover the purchases I made. Six books cost me about $27, which is certainly a good deal, but leaves me $15 poorer than this morning. Oh well, minor complaint. The truth is, the value of the books I found is far, far more than $27, or even $72, if it had come to that (which I’m grateful it didn’t).
The Bell at Sealey Head by Patricia McKillip, which I have a dim memory of being recommended to me by some friends in the past. I know nothing of it, but I read McKillip’s debut series The Riddlemaster Trilogy, which I liked despite the spotty writing, and have wanted to explore her more polished writing.
Then there is Three Hearts & Three Lions by Poul Anderson, about which I know even less except that the back cover proclaims it a seminal and influential fantasy novel and that the author’s reputation is among those that have come highly recommended but only vaguely described. But the plot sounded interesting and it was $2 on the clearance shelves, so I doubt I stepped wrong.
And then…a Sutcliff novel! The store had a grand total of two Sutcliff novels, and the other was The Eagle of the Ninth, of which I already have two copies (and have given away a third). This one is a retelling of the tragic medieval tale of Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde), and is aptly titled Tristan & Iseult.
And lastly, Neil Gaiman’s Adventures in the Dream Trade, which is not actually an exciting novel but a collection of sundry items from many sources: an article here, a poem there, and the apparent entirety of the months from February to September from his old blog http://www.americangods.com. It was $2 and I enjoyed the introduction by John M. Ford (where he provided some witty poems that helpfully explained how to pronounce Neil’s name — Gaiman rhymes with drayman), so it was probably a good buy. It occurs to me now that I have read more of his casual writing on his blog and in a few articles than I have of his actual fiction.
Anyway, in more relevant news, I have finished Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn and intend to review it soon. My review of the Doctor Who two-parter “Human Nature”/”The Family of Blood” will be delayed, as upon watching it many months ago I was so drawn in to the story that I forgot to take notes, and so will have to refresh my memory before attempting to report on it.
At any rate, God bless you all and Godspeed on your own reading!
Title: “The Recurring Smash” Author: Rudyard Kipling Page: about 3 Source:Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, ed. Stephen Jones, with an introduction by Neil Gaiman. New York: Fall River Press, 2010. Synopsis: An unfortunate young man named Penhelder has a peculiar sort of curse, in that every third spring, with alarming regularity and despite all attempts at safety, he encounters some painful accident. Reason for Beginning: Picked somewhat randomly from my large book of Kipling stories; settled on because of its brevity. Reason for Finishing: Was hoping Kipling would provide some answers. Story Re-readability: Not much, really. It’s somewhat amusing, but lacks any real meaning. Author Re-readability: This is a difficult call. From this story alone, I’d say Kipling is fairly re-readable. His prose is graceful and textured, and commanding; by this I mean that he writes with authority, like he knows exactly what he wants to write and how to write it. But I detested his style in “The Wish House,” in which the “texture” of his dialogue utterly overwhelmed my ability to understand what was going on. Another problem he seems to have, is that he often fills his stories with specific details about British India that he never explains, as if his stories are only written for people of his place and time, who would immediately understand his references. If I did get these references, they would undoubtedly become one of the chief strengths of Kipling’s writing, because I suspect that he uses them to suggest quite a bit about his characters. Still, unless you are a student of turn-of-the-century British life and imperialism, you are likely to meet with many terms, phrases, and references you don’t understand. Fortunately, in “The Recurring Smash” these do not impede one’s understanding of the plot.
Key Thoughts & Recommendation
The strongest element is undoubtedly Kipling’s ability to swiftly sketch out a character’s life through specific and believable details, all with hints and references to the outer world, so that you are always aware that this strange little story is just one of many things happening in the world at large. There is also an appealingly droll sense of humor at work here, with Penhelder being generally resigned to his fate, while still frantically trying to avoid it. The ending even resembles the punchline to a joke, and it might even be funny if Kipling would just tell us what he meant.
It’s a passably amusing story, but Kipling’s decision to give absolutely no answers regarding Penhelder’s mysterious condition renders it empty of meaningful content rather than intriguingly enigmatic. I simply don’t see a point in recommending it; unless you are a Kipling devotee, I can see no benefit to be got from reading this story, nor anything that you’d miss by skipping it.
So! I am preparing my episode-by-episode review of Doctor Who Series 2, with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor. It will probably still take a little while to finish, but I’ve got more notes on each episode than I did for the previous series, so hopefully it’ll go faster by comparison. Also, I finished my long-postponed reread of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Eagle of the Ninth, and am writing that review too. I’m trying not to compare it too much to the movie adaptation, but certain observations will be made.
Books that I am reading for review are The Dragonheroes by Blake Garrett Anderson and King Arthur’s Children by Tyler Tichelaar, the former an epic fantasy novel in the tradition of David Eddings and the latter a scholarly study of, well, the children of King Arthur in fiction.
Recently I have purchased Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay, Hood by Stephen Lawhead (first in a trilogy that reimagines Robin Hood in a Welsh semi-fantasy setting), and Rudyard Kipling’s Tales of Horror & Fantasy, edited by Stephen Jones with an introduction by the one-and-only Neil Gaiman. It shall be some time before I get to the novels, but perhaps now and then I can review one of Kipling’s short stories.
A mysterious (and awesomely dressed) man shows a bored young boy a new way of looking at the “mundane” world.
Title: The Coloured Lands Author: G.K. Chesterton Format: Short Story Pages: 5 (in Tales Before Narnia, edited by Douglas A. Anderson) Published: 1925 (first) Reason for Beginning: It is in the anthology I have, it is short, and I have heard wonderful things about G.K. Chesterton, who was supposedly one of the wittiest, most intelligent, and most imaginative writers of the early 20th century, and a Christian apologist to boot. This is the first anything of his I have read. Reason for Finishing: It’d be pretty bad to not finish a story this short, but having it be so interesting is nice too. Spoiler-free Synopsis: A mysterious (and awesomely dressed) man shows a bored young boy a new way of looking at the “mundane” world. Continue reading “Short Story Review: “The Coloured Lands” by G.K. Chesterton”