Reaction: The Master and Margarita, tr. Michael Glenny

The star of revolution shall rise high above the streets of Moscow, from a sea of blood and fire, and shall become a cynosure for the freedom of mankind

–          Bakunin, 1848

An adulterous writer has written a novel about Pontius Pilate, but is pilloried by the Soviet establishment, causing his own mental breakdown; his lover is desperate to regain him; the Devil himself comes down to Moscow, to visit chaos upon her people for their many sins. I’ve been meaning to read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for some time now; it is without a skilfull and striking book; I was disappointed by it.

Satan descends on Moscow, and through illusions and thaumaturgy wreaks havoc, with the assistance of a band of malicious and jocular demons, often for no apparent reason than chaos itself. Their target is the decadent population of Moscow, and primarily the literary elites – they seem to have the traditional power granted Satan to punish the sinful, and time and again they encounter Muscovites afflicted with greed, pride, gluttony and lust, and lay them low, sending many to the lunatic asylums.  His project intersects with the quest of Margarita to regain her lost love, the Master, at any cost – and throughout both tales is interspersed as a descant the half-real half-novelistic tale of Pontius Pilate, and his execution of a mad vagrant preacher named Yeshua.

Bulgakov is clearly good at his job; throughout the novel, I had the sense of being in good hands, who knew where they were taking me; and yet I felt I never really went anywhere. I’m surprised and dejected to be so unmoved by what is frequently named one of the greatest novels of the century.

Addressing each level in turn: to begin with, the prose. I cannot read Russian, unfortunately, and so the issue of translation was bound to get in the way – to an unknowable amount. The translation is read was that of Glenny, supposedly the most natural and authentic translation, albeit not the most precise and literal – if this is so, I pity people who read the LESS natural versions. The prose, barring one or two infelicities, was not bad, only stilted and uninspiring – occasionally a beautiful passage slips through, but far too rarely for my liking. For an ordinary book, this would be a tolerably, occasionally impressive, and at any rate interesting prose style; for a book attempting to be a highlight of the century, it was below par. At the same time, some depth of symbolism is likely to be lost by the less literal translation, which perhaps reduced the power of the novel for me.

The novel is also, alledgedly, funny, and I can see why people might think it so – much of it (almost the entire first half) is a riotious satire packed with wit and slapstick. But there’s only so much humour in slapstick, particularly where we do not care about the characters. The character of Behemoth continually amused me with hs wit and duplicity, but in the sense of provoking smiles, not the sense of outright laughter. The satire was biting – but in my mind too biting to really be funny. The tone of the book is negative to the point of malignancy – there is a viciousness, a hatred, in the downfall of the literary snobs who failed to recognise Bulgakov’s transcendent genius (the autobiographical elements are obvious to any reader) that makes it unpleasant to enjoy. In addition, I found the portrayals of women (always adjuncts to their men, divided into young sex objects and aging harpies, always petty, constantly going naked or being stripped naked by men) and non-Europeans (who feature only as servile ‘Negros’ in Satan’s retinue, and demoniacal jazz musicians who are themselves replaced, with no harm to the ‘music’, by gorillas and chimpanzees), somewhat off-putting.

Moreover, too much of the novel was too distant from my experience – while the general point of undermining a decadent society is universally  approachable, the details of the Soviet system Bulgakov attacks is, while known to me in outline, not as immediately visceral in my imagination as would be required to make the satire powerful. He spends too little time detailing his setting – because, we can assume, he was writing for an audience to whom the terrors and depressions of Stalinism  were so familiar that they need not be reiterated. Nonetheless, there is something a little incongruous in a novel so clearly written for posterity and for alterity (in addition to the thematic references in the novel itself, there is the extraneous biographical fact that he only hurried to complete the book when he knew that he was dying) that makes so little effort to be accessible outside its own times.

Regarding the central love affair – I found myself unmoved. The two characters are both unsympathetic (I would naturally sympathise with the man, but found him increasingly passive, and frankly whinging; the woman was odious from beginning to end); their love began unrealistically and uninterestingly; their love was put in peril in a way that is, with knowledge of the era, understandable, but adumbrated far too briefly and softly to bear the dramatic weight placed upon it; their love-story makes its way to its conclusion with very little actual imput from the characters themselves, primarily through reliance on God and Satan.

This reflects a wider problem with the novel – every single character is, by design, unsympathetic, and even those who have a glimmer of charisma spend hardly any time before the camera. What we have instead, particularly in the first half, is a procession of venal, personality-denuded apparatchiks stumbling into a succession of unpleasant fates through the untrammelled fiat of Satan himself, who fails entirely to take the usual poetic measures, or to give his enemies any way of saving themselves, but instead simply visits his omnipotence on them one by one. Things do improve somewhat in the second half, which is more directed, and more focused on the character of Margarita herself, but it is never really possible to care too deeply about anything that happens.

Bulgakov is supposedly erudite, and the novel contains many references and allusions; this is no doubt true, but erudition is an easy coin to find and no demarker of greatness; in any case, while the parallels with Faust are obvious, many of the more specific Russian allusions were lost upon me – I had only the vaguest notion of Pushkin’s works, and had not even heard of Griboyedov.

The story of Pontius Pilate, meanwhile, is written with a degree more eloquance, for some reason, and felt more immediate; Pilate and Yeshua are both vaguely sympathetic, I suppose, and Pilate is actually interesting now and then. Bulgakov does a good – and clever – job in this thread, creating a picture of Jesus that makes him historical and real without making him unsympathetic. Unfortunately, the story is too short, too familiar, and too devoid of a real ending (and, indeed, too disseminated throughout the novel) to have real power.

There is, it must be said, a little more too things that this. Satan does not simply punish vice, for a start – what he appears to be punishing is submission to a postmodern condition. The Muscovites have narrowed down their life to a fragile structure of laws and of rewards, in which fulfills their role to the extent that he is forced to, while continually striving for more – but what they strive for is only what they have been told to strive for. I’m reminded of Merton’s anomic deviance:  the Muscovites are indulging themselves in what he calls “innovation” – the pursuit of the approved goals by unapproved methods. When Satan gives out fashionable clothing to the women of Moscow, they innovate, reaching their goal (fine dresses) but avoiding the traditional communist mechanisms for attaining them; likewise, when a housing manager exploits his position to acquire bribes, he is innovating. The problem is, the decadent Muscovites have lost sight of the real, and are lost in a fetishisation of what are properly the symbols of, or the road to, real goals: fashion becomes a goal in itself, and money is collected, even hoarded, with no hope or intent of buying anything valuable with it. The system of rules and rewards is everything; their lives rest upon it; they are eager, for instance, to assimilate the chaos of Satan by explaining him and his demons away as hypnotist conmen – because to believe in Satan would be to cause the whole atheist, materialist framework of their system to collapse. They are apparatchiks in every sense of the word – they unconsciously defend their Apparatus at all costs, while having no actual loyalty to it. They believe they are exploiting the system, when in truth the system is exploiting them. It is interesting that something so close to Merton’s critique of capitalist ideology is here directed at communism.

The apparatchiks climb upon the frame of their apparatus, but in doing so they put themselves at its mercy; Satan tears it down, and them with it. Satan is chaotic – Satan is irreconcilable. Satan is the element of disorder that seeks to destroy all that they have constructed – and Satan is also omnipotent. Satan is, perhaps, the permanent revolution; and yet, as Bakunin says, a revolution still leaves somebody at the top – and so long as there is a ruler, there is injustice. Power corrupts – absolute power corrupts absolutely; Satan is corrupt. He seeks to be an eternal force of revolution, but he leaves himself always at the top; perhaps this bankruptcy explains a part of his curious lethargy, even depression, in much of the novel?  Perhaps, but it is not drawn out fully. Mostly, it seems his moods shift as the plot demands.

I hope that this has made a certain parallel obvious: one reason why the communist elite are so absent from this novel is that they are at its centre – Satan is Stalin. Around him, the citizens scurry for reward, yet are continually met with death and disgrace; they try to construct around him a latticework of rules and conventions up which they may climb to their reward – but like Leviathon he shifts his mass as he wills, and rearranges and destroys all the system built around him. He operates according to some principle of justice – but it is a principle that is unpredictable, and entirely at his own discretion, and that is particularly adept in finding reasons to punish and destroy.

The novel runs into difficulty, however, in articulating an alternative. This, we might expect, will be a Cynic retreat from convention into nature; Margarita’s choices, and Pilate’s urge to save Jesus, both call to mind the Cynics’ exhortation to ignore all rules, customs, conventions and public morals; the symbolic nudity of witches throughout the book reminds us, likewise, of Diogenes and Hypatia. And yet, the Cynics believed in defying custom not as a good in its own right, but instrumentally, as a path to a freedom that could only be obtained through reason; Bulgakov seems to discard the rational part of the equation. What we are left with is an exultation of groundedness per se, regardless of the ground, of love regardless of the loved, and of commitment, regardless of the cause. What we are left with, in other words, is a paean to fanaticism, and to obsession, as the only way to escape from insincerity and to achieve authenticity.

I find this problematic not only because it is amoral – with certain characters seemingly being rewarded despite being utterly despicable – but because it is incongruous within the framework of the novel, and because it feels dramatically unjustified. It is incongruous, because the novel is so pious in its blasphemy, so carefully sacrilegious in its profanity, that we are never in any doubt that we are operating in a theistic universe laid down by a theistic, even devout, author – and yet the morals being presented appear entirely at odds with the Christian viewpoint. It is true that we are presented with a distinction between ‘peace’ (an escape from the torment of the apparatus) and ‘light’ (salvation into heaven), but the distinction is so ill-drawn and peripheral that we do not clearly see why it matters. It is also true that there are Kierkegaardian elements in the rejection of public morals as a route to a higher individuality and freedom, but Kierkegaard’s angst comes from devotion to God, not from mere devotion – Abraham agrees to murder his son because he has been commanded by God, and God is not at the centre of this novel, Satan is. If he were in this novel, Abraham would be killing his son as a way of selling his soul to the Devil; as Bulgakov gives us no reason to like or admire the devil (a feat of non-sympathy that is by itself impressive, given the usual charisma of the character), and no reason to approve of murder, it is hard to see why  we are meant to applaud this.

In this light, in fact, we should remember that the love of the central pair is not strictly for each other alone, but is entangled with and fuelled by a love of the Pilate novel that the man is writing – it is hard not to see this, in this context, as a collapse into Kierkegaard’s recursive, narcissistic “aesthetic” phase. Indeed, all the most ‘grounded’, ‘authentic’ characters are obsessed not with anything truly Other but with a reflection of themselves –all of them, from Margarita to Matthew the Levite, are narcissists. Is this meant to be a refutation of Kierkegaard? It is hard to see how to piece it together as one. This, however, is a recurring feature in the novel – we are not given enough to work on. Sometimes this seems to be simple bad writing or bad translation – one character turns into a witch and back, which is meant to explain some change in her actions (the change being more a change of species than of profession – she explicitly turns back into a ‘human’), but she seems to speak and act exactly the same after the transformation as before it.  In other places, we cannot tell bad structure from intentional obscurity – much of the thematic weight of the novel must rest with the conclusion of the Pilate storyline, but it simply occurs, with little explanation or build-up. Indeed, it seems to intentionally make the end another random act of power – a power, this time, which unlike Satan’s is never fully explained within the context of the novel.  I have an idea about it – which I don’t dare share for fear of spoilers – but I can also see where the text refutes that idea. There’s just not enough to tell. The book gives us a puzzle – but, frustratingly, there doesn’t seem to be any reward.

Much of this rambling is me trying to find some depth to the book in the crannies of its obscurity. It’s hard to find much complexity in the light. Continuing the Pilate train of thought, the book doesn’t really address the fact that, to me at least, Pilate is the most sympathetic character, despite being the paradigm of a man who sacrifices his principles for the sake of obedience to power. I say ‘despite’ – but really he feels sympathetic BECAUSE of this. There seems more to admire (even if there is also more to condemn) in Pilate’s decision to kill an innocent man out of duty, though he completely feels it wrong, than there is in any number of childish deals with the Devil.  In this respect, we see Bulgakov imitating both the Cynics and Nietzsche, agreeing with the latter when he says that things performed out of love are beyond good and evil (beyond ‘light’ and ‘dark’ in the novel), but he does not address the complexities of Nietzsche, nor his criticisms of the Cynics – in essence, he fails to address Nietzsche’s concerns about the very concept of authenticity. If it is a matter, as we might expect with a Cynical interpretation, of following nature and not man, we are given the paradox: “how can we NOT follow our natures?”; if it is a matter, with a Nietzschean expectation, of asserting our own power, isn’t there also a great show of power in a man who can deny his own morals, as Pilate does?

This point is related to the dangling objection I made earlier, that the themes do not seem thematically earned. Everything occurs because it does – in this book, the god is let loose from the machine in the first chapter, and rules everything that follows with an iron fist and a shallow whim. A more philosophical novelist would try to show us HOW this or that led to peace, or salvation, or to death or to damnation – if not through the operation of external rules, then at least through some internal logic – but Bulgakov just relies on God or the Devil to sort everything out by will. Why can authentic (alledgedly) love triumph where venality and pride cannot? Because Satan says so. As an example, a Nietzschean expectation would lead us to think that love is protecting because it is less reliant on the facts of nature that social status relies upon – this is reinforced by the fact that Satan not only has power over these facts, but actually seems ONLY to have power over these facts. But of course the straits the central characters find themselves in at the time of their (belated) entrance into the novel demonstrate that this is not the case. Because he love is for something that is both outside of her and in the material world, Margarita is just as vulnerable to Satan’s power as any other character – except by the Will of the Author.

There are a few hints here and there of an attempt to address this – Margarita is, briefly, once, not entirely narcissistic, and Pilate’s final chapter is intriguing, if only because it is so obscure – but no matter how much I wrangle with it, I cannot put things together into anything particularly innovative or provocative.

I should also say that, unlike the other novel that I have felt bad about not liking enough, Dhalgren, this book had no ‘echo’ – when I finished the novel, the novel stopped being read. Great books – and even some, like Dhalgren, that are not great – have the power to possess the mind for some time after the final page, not only in conscious thoughts, but in an entire frame of mind, with the sensation of a deafeningly silent echo; I had none of that from this novel, although I concede that the conclusion was elegant and fitting.

Adrenaline: 3/5. To be honest, I feel generous giving it this, but looking back at my scores for other books it would be unfair not to. Although I feel that the book as a whole lacks effective pacing, and that it’s never that exciting, it must be admitted that Bulgakov can write certain scenes very well, creating real suspense and even minor thrills. One sequence of chapters halfway through the book even reached excitement. Overall, though, there is so much chaos and absurdity (a word I should have used a lot more above – absurdity seems to be the power of the divine, both in Jesus and in Satan) that excitement cannot build up much. “Chaos is dull.”

Emotion: 2/5. There are some vaguely real characters, and yes, I did care a bit about them. But overall, everyone is too unlikeable, and too many people appear for only a chapter before vanishing, and the central love story is too alienating, and the book is too obscure, to really take my heart along with it. It also feels strangely neutered – although terrible things happen to people, they don’t feel terrible. Perhaps this is because of the humorous tone, perhaps because there is just so much nastiness, or perhaps it is because there is an omnipotent deity in every chapter who can undo anything that happens – it just feels more as though being sent to Stravinsky’s lunatic asylum (haha, incidentally Mr Bulgakov, a composers joke, you’re so urbane) is closer to losing a ‘life’ in a computer game than a real human tragedy.

Thought: 4/5. Here I really am being generous. Perhaps it deserves more than 3 – but it was the least intellectually interesting of the books I’ve scored a 4 so far. Most of the thought is more along the lines of “what’s the point of this?”, and “is he saying anything?”, rather than “what are the consequences of what he’s saying?” But… maybe I’m just missing a bit of the point. There’s enough loose ends that maybe someone could put together more than I can.

Beauty: 3/5. No! Here I rebell against good nature! The book is… elegant. Certain phrases are striking. But the prose (a translation, I know, but that’s all I have) is, while not bad, not normally noteworthy. Some images are beautiful; others are predictable.

Craft: 3/5. Again, I make a stand. Yes, well done, he weaves three plots together, and he’s not afraid of symbolism and in-jokes. But I’ve seen it done better. Again, the prose in translation can’t stand for him. If he has a point, he doesn’t transfer it too well. He’s clearly a good writer, and it’s clearly constructed professionally. But…

Endearingness: 3/5. I think I quite liked it, disappointing though it was. A lot of that is Behemoth. And also, let’s be honest, chaos may be dull, but there is something a little exhilerating about watching a riot – something that disposes us well toward tricksters and anarchists, even when we don’t admire them, or even like them. The book has charisma. On the other hand – there’s too little happiness, too little niceness, too little engagement with any of the sordid-yet-dull characters, to make it a book I can say is more pleasant to read than most.

Originality: 5/5. Maybe not as original as San Michele, but nonetheless pretty unique, all things considered. Yes, the “devil comes down to earth” idea is not entirely original, but the whole is perplexing and unpredictable enough to make that familiar germ grow into something wholly singular.

Total: 24

Overall: 5/7: Good. Oh, it’s definitely a good book. I just can’t see my way to admitting that it’s great – which is what disappoints me.

I’ve been thinking, not entirely unrelatedly, about my scoring system. I think the categories are mostly adequate (I’ve been thinking of adding in a ‘memorableness’ category, but it seems superfluous), but the point I raised in this reaction was a good one – some books have an ‘impact’ or ‘echo’ on the soul, and none of the other categories manage to predict whether or not this will occur. So, I’m adding a new category – but rather than being 1-5, this will be 0-2: this should be seen as a ‘top-up’ thing, rather than a pillar of the novel as a whol. I just don’t think my reactions in this direction can be more finely gauged than ‘nothing’, ‘something’ and ‘a lot’.

This will be one of three reforms. Secondly, and connectedly, I’ll do away with the ‘composite’ I’ve been mentioning, replacing it with a sum total – this is both more intuitive and better able to cope with the ‘small’ category of Echo that I’m adding. Thirdly, I’ll be adding one additional point for ever 5 – in other words, considering a 5 as a 6. This is because I think that, as between two equally-scoring books, the ‘advantage’, as it were, should go to the book that comes closer to perfection in one direction, rather than the book that is most average. The scoring system is, after all, only a way to break down and bring out more clearly my overall reaction, and I think that the extra point will cause the sum scores to more closely reflect my overall scores.

I know, nobody cares – nobody would care even if anybody were actually reading any of this. Nonetheless, it only seems appropriate to be clear about what I’m doing – even if it’s only for my own benefit.

Short Reply to BotF.

Following on from this post here, I thought I’d copy across a further comment. DF, having refused to answer any further comments by me, made this brief post on his blog.

In reply I said the following (shorn of comments at the beginning and end that situated the reply in its context, and that are therefore irrelevent here; please read the first half not as an attack on DF, but as a statement of what I am NOT saying, to elucidate what I AM saying in the latter half), which might make clearer what I was aiming at in my last post:


You would feel less as though you were banging your head against the wall if you hadn’t built your own entirely fictional wall to bang your head against.

Yes, everyone sensible agrees (including any respectable critical theorist) that critical theorists should be damned – their job is to describe, not dictate.

But in this particular instance – what on earth are you taking? Nobody has ever said that “world-building” is the only ‘correct’ (whatever that may mean) term. You’ve said we’ve said it, repeatedly, and every time you’ve been corrected. If you kindly took the time to read anything that anyone else had written, you’d notice that you’re deluding yourself through the creation of ridiculous strawmen.

Likewise, nobody said to you that real places were not real – that would clearly be ludicrous. Again, this is a fiction dreamt up by yourself, seemingly in order to justify your refusal to engage with criticism.

Similarly, you did not address why non-fantasists might not like the term – which is a good thing, really, since nobody cares whether they like or use the term – but rather tried to establish that there was a distinction behind the use of the term, which is an entirely different point. As we’ve all said, there are differences in connotation between the terms, and that can explain differential patterns of usage – this is irrelevent to the question of whether there is a denotational distinction, as I’m sure you are aware, being an intelligent man, however much you have tried to conflate the two in this discussion.

Finally, it is utter nonsense to describe this as a battle against “the epic fantasy people”. Just because people at that board generally like the work of one particular epic fantasy writer does not make us ‘epic fantasy people’. In my own case, I’d say that currently my favourite books are One Hundred Years of Solitude, The God of Small Things, and Blindness; going more strictly into fantasy, I’d put the Silmarillion and the Book of the New Sun as the most impressive works in the genre; the best book I’ve read this year was A Canticle for Leibowitz. Most books I read, however, are philosophy books. I don’t see myself as a mere “epic fantasy person” – although unlike you I don’t see ‘epic fantasy’ as a term of abuse.

What IS being said? Some key points:

– “setting” and “world-building” may differ in connotation and/or register, but there is no clear-cut denotational distinction underlying this usage

– all stories are fictional stories; their events do not happen, their characters are not people in the way that you or I are, their settings cannot be walked through, their cultures do not grow outside the page, and the intricacies of their plots are dictated by the fiat of the author, not by the free will of the protagonists, nor by happenstance or by the will of God.

– consequently, the inhabitants of novels are merely simulacra and mimicries of things we have learnt of in the world. All things present in the imagination take their substance from the things of the world, albeit re-ordered and reconstituted into forms that need not replicate those seen in reality. All novels are simulations, and all contents of novels are reconstitutions of the real. There is thus no literary novel that is pure of invention – not even a report of a real occurence is the same as the occurence itself; and likewise, there is no fantasy that is pure of the real and the grounded; the only distinctions are quantitative. An unambiguous worldbuilder like Borges, a borderline writer like Garcia Marquez, and a ‘realist’ writer like Roy are all doing the same thing.

– this being so, “world-building” should not be scorned and used as the basis for insult and deprecation, by comparison to the behaviour of a favoured literary cadre. Borges, Tolkien and Wolfe are just as respectable in their project (however good or bad their execution) as Garcia Marquez, Roy, or Rushdie.

– similarly, paying great attention to setting (eg Borges, Tolkien) is no more “nerdish” than paying great attention to character, plot, or style (although an excessive attention to any, at the cost of the others, will likely make a work less accessible to a general audience; conversely, such works are likely to be praised by certain afficionados of that element; this is a matter of taste).

Worldbuilding II

There’s been a discussion on world-building over at the Westeros forums; since I’ve posted here on the topic before, and since my contribution this time was from a different angle from last time, I thought it might be worth sharing. However, I don’t want to replicate an entire argument, some of which was a little technical, so he is just the major part of my ‘big post’ from the thread, which hopefully will be of interest even to people not involved in the argument itself.

Background: somebody reported the views of a friend, that “He saw worldbuilding as completely pointless, and claims to be naturally averse to any writer known for using it.” People chimed in on both sides; the discussion turned to whether we could distinguish clearly between ‘setting’ (respectable, literary) and ‘world-building’ (“the clomping foot of nerdism”, despicable, weird, pointless). The obvious spectre in the room is Harrison (and cohort). Most prominently on the Harrison side was, as usual, Dylanfantasy, here “DF”, writer of the OF Blog of the Fallen (see links to the left).

I hope that the specifics of the argument are not required to understand the below, which should be read as a series of rebuttals of arguments against world building, and against the claim that world-building and setting are the same thing.


Some specific points:

– No, stories do not ‘take place in’ New York. They take place in a fictional world of the author’s creation. An illustration from Chesterton: in London, if you take the Tube, once you have passed Sloane Square, you know the next station “must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria.” But when a character in a novel passes Sloane Square, the next station can be whatever the author wishes. Now, oftentimes the author will restrain themselves to the expected, allowing Victoria to arrive as it does in reality – but in reality, this arrival in necessary, and in the fictional world of the novel, the arrival is contingent upon authorial fiat. The same fact in the same world cannot be both contingent and necessary – therefore, the story, however mimetic in appearance, is not in reality occuring in London, anymore than the stories about the Shire in reality occur in the Home Counties. In one case, the author has chosen to follow more closely certain facets of reality; in the other, they have deviated more greatly into their imaginations. But the same occurs to some extent in every novel: we do not say a writer is ‘a nerd’ because they have deviated from historical characters, or even because they have added or subtracted events in a dramatised historical account. And as others have pointed out, even if we confine ourselves to ‘the world’ (the series of ‘facts’ regarding geography, society, culture and history presented by the story), there is no clear dividing line between you and us.

– DF is being disingenuous in his focus upon terminology. So the phrase ‘world-building’ was invented more recently than ‘setting’? Fine – I don’t really see why that means the former shouldn’t replace the latter, but let’s grant that it shouldn’t. There still remains the fact that this is a confusion of “X is Y” with “X should be called Y”. I can say quite easily that a certain animal is an avian without denying that it is a bird, and without saying that the term avian should replace the term “bird”; nobody cares whether you call it “setting” or “world-building”, only that you don’t falsely demarcate, for essentially political/social reasons, between the two.

– Nor is it honest to argue that this synonymy makes either term redundant: I think we are all away that a word may differ markedly in connotation, intension/comprehension, sense or Sinn (or insert alternative terminology here), while having exactly the same denotation, reference, extension or Bedeutung. [Indeed, the words ‘denotation’, ‘reference’ and ‘extension’ all have approximately the same Bedeutung, interchangeable in most writers, yet all differ in connotation and sense). The words ‘setting’ and ‘world-building’ call attention to different elements and significations of the same activity (the former tends to call attention to the activity in passive form as the mirror or support of other narrative activities, while the latter tends to attract notice to the activity in active form as a work of art and effort and skill in its own right); I think this is an asset, compared to other activities in narration, such as “characterisation”, where the one word must stand for both aspects; but since every work has setting/world-building, and whenever the activity exists it has both aspects, dividing the words between genres rather than aspects is impoverishing our language by taking away a useful distinction and wasting a perfectly serviceable word for no apparent other reason than social manoeuvreing…

– “setting/world-building” is only the name we give to the part of the narrative activity particularly concerned with certain elements of the story: imitations of geographical awareness, imitations of historical retellings, imitations of cultural nuances, imitations of social potentials; imitations of all those things that shape the plot and the character that cannot be described through the stream of consciousness. Why is it less legitimate to play with these potentialities than with the potentialities of conscious choice? “World-building” is interesting to me because it is a mirror on the fascinating portions of the world: culture, society, history. The fact that the modern Anglo-American “Analytic” tradition extols rational agent theories so greatly that any attempt to address the particularity of the character’s moment as the fundament and touchstone of their historically-embodied conscious activity is a lamentable reflection on the close-mindedness of the ideology, and itself a moment in history that will no doubt pass away – a moment of striving for an ungraspable solidity.*

– DF makes the argument that in Literature, apparent ‘fantasy’ is really a reference to a disguised reality – Rushdie and Garcia Marquez are talking about the real world through a series of metaphors. Fair enough – but what do you think that fantasy is about? I don’t just mean the obvious point, made already, that all the elements of a fantasy, like the elements of a dream, find their origin in our waking lives, but the more precise point, that authors classed as “fantastical” are just as interested in the world as any other authors – or at least there can be. Some, no doubt, are interested only in escape and delusion, as no doubt are certain writers of spy novels and historical romances; but it is a wrong to blackball fantasy as it is to blackball all novels that have elements of romance. Have you read the Book of the New Sun, and the Lord of the Rings, and Foundation, and A Canticle for Leibowitz – and if so, can you honestly, truthfully, honourably stand in public and say that their writers have no interest in real world themes, have no metaphors or messages in mind, have no desire to talk about reality through their works? If you can, I can only congratulate you on having achieved a simplicity in your views that must be the result of great personal effort, since no reader could be so tone-deaf as to fail to hear these harmonies purely by accident – only determination and grit could allow anybody to veer so far from reality without the slightest quaver of uncertainty.

– A fantasy is like a lucid dream that has been shared. It has the mechanics of a dream, and is no less useful for our psychology.

– If, returning to an earlier point, it is acknowledged that, for example, culture may have some influence upon the individual, and consequently that it might be interesting to examine culture – what other option is there but an experiment? A description of a single case is no examination, howeverso accurate. And in an experiment, for what reason must our tests be confined to the mundane, the ‘real’, the conventional, the known, the already-occured – no, there is some value to more ambitious, more problematic, analysis. And if it is to be allowed that we can indulge in fantasy – what, are we meant to suddenly eschew all reason? Some people seem to think that once we have abandoned the limits of reality (as paradoxically conceived for social purposes), we should abandon all limits – causality, coherency, consistency, continuity – and revel in our power of authorial fiat. Such chaos is exciting, but dull, and shows us little. The further we go from the sure ground of experience, the more care we should take with our footfalls – we should construct carefully in the wilderness if we are to create what is to last, because we are not sheltered by the lee of the surrounding buildings. Or to put it in a more naturalist way – when we experiment, we change one factor and keep the others all the same. No data derives from changing all of the conditions at once! I don’t think world-building needs to be so rigid as to limit itself to only one dimension at a time (indeed, it is not possible – each change makes other changes), but the general aesthetic should (for this motivation, which is only one of several – but a legitimate one, and not one that is to be trivialised as a clomping foot of any description) be one of restraint. when we ask “how does X affect Y”, we have to pay attention, greatly, to the details of X. [And this hold true both in ‘expansive’ fantasy, where the fantastic elements are themselves the protasis, and in ‘permissive’ fantasy, where the fantastic elements exist to allow the protasis to take effect more freely and clearly]

– it’s a tangent, but philosophically I think DF is on extremely shaky ground. It’s highly tendentious to claim that we can distinguish between “New York” as a ‘real thing’ and the “aspects” of New York that include all the facts about it (its geography, its freedom from werewolves, its history, and so forth). All these “aspects” can be taken away from an account of New York; all of them can be added to an account of Minas Tirith. When all the aspects have been transferred, what remains of “New York” to make it “real” and “setting”, and what remains of Minas Tirith to mark it as fantasy and “world-building”? The name? But the name can be transferred as well; the name can be transferred even more easily; it is only a trivial accident of history, an aspect of an aspect, the work of a single plebiscite or mayoral decree to alter; it is far more trivial as an emblem of the real than the presence or absence of werewolves. There’s an old philosophical analogy to theis view of “reality” as opposed to “aspects”, but I can’t remember who said it – Ramsay, perhaps? The “realist” in this sense is a man who tries to take the clothes off a stick-figure – when the skirt lines are rubbed out, we do not see the “real” woman beneath.

*[the literature/genre distinction is a pathology of a divided will – a will for truth expressed through naturalism and realism that scorns the fantastic and the problematising, and at the same time a will for truth through art that does not permit certain works to be entirely derided; consequently, that part of the undivided subject-matter that comes to the attention of the smaller, ‘artistic’ realisation of the social will is classed in one way, and made respectable (to the artistic, if not to the naturalist majority, who in general retain some respect for the artists themselves but very little for the work they praise), while that part that comes to the attention primarily of the larger, naturalistic realisation is classed in another, and derided]


Incidentally, last time this came up, here’s what I said. It takes a different approach entirely from this post, and is more personal; some of it may not be strictly compatible with what I’ve said here; blame this on rhetoric, complexity of personality, or the passage of time.


Appropriate, I think, to end the post with a quote from a fantasy (he goes so far as to subtitle it “A Nightmare”), where the hero, Syme, stands up for a particular mentality against Another Mentality. Although it was originally talking about the real world (or the real world of the Nightmare, which, we must all admit, is so far from the world we inhabit that it is deceitful to even call it reality, though it fulfills all the criteria of Literature), I think it stands just as well for fantasy (just as things said in a fantastical setting have signficance for the real world):

“‘It is you who are unpoetical,’ replied the poet Syme. ‘If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a time-table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!’

‘Must you go?’ inquired Gregory sarcastically.

‘I tell you,’ went on Syme with passion, ‘that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word “Victoria”, it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed “Victoria”; it is the victory of Adam.’ “

Reaction: Daughter of the Empire

“Daughter of the Empire” is the first novel in a trilogy by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts; I have always assumed that the former was a minor contributant, as the style feels quite different from that of his other books, but I am told that in fact the collaboration was quite balanced. In my view, that makes this possibly the best book Feist has had a major hand in.

Nonetheless, I returned to this novel with some trepidation: the sort of pulp fantasy I used to read is now often cringe-worthy, even painful, to me. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by the re-read.

The “Empire” novels are the story of Mara, who begins the first novel as a young girl (fifteen or sixteen, I believe) about to enter a religious, and seemingly monastic, order. Before she is able to do so, however, news reaches her that her father and brother have been killed, and that she is now the Ruling Lady of her family, the Acoma – an old and powerful family that has been laid low, near to death, by a long blood-feud with the stronger Minwanabi, and by the machinations of the theoretically more minor, but politically well-connected, Anasati. It becomes Mara’s duty to seek to bring her family back from the bring of extinction – but to succeed she must make bold and dangerous moves, and be prepared to offer up considerable personal sacrifice.

Unusually for the genre, these novels are not set in pseudo-Europe, but rather in pseudo-Orient (the obvious parallel is to Japan, but Wurts acknowledges that much of the “colour” of the novel is Korean in origin). At a stroke, this mitigates one of the greatest dangers of pulp fantasy: the repetitiousness and cliché of the setting, and its often transparent superficiality. No doubt this representation of medieval Japan/Korea is similarly superficial, but to an outsider this is somewhat less obvious than it would be if the setting were more familiar. Needless to say, much is made of concepts of honour, loss of face, karma (although not named as such), family, duty, expressionlessness, and other such hooks likely for a Western reader to be familiar in their preconceptions about the oriental other. The otherness is exaggerated by (often needless) use of fictional vocabulary to describe animals and plants, and by the superfluous, cliché and unexplored fact that almost all native creatures in the setting have six legs, humans being a later arrival to the planet.

This provides half of the originality of the novel; the other half comes from the femininity of the protagonist. Unlike many heroines in the genre, Mara is not a rebel against gender roles – although her father disapproved of her monastic intentions, they were perfectly respectable. She is not an exile from home and family, and although she strains at the bonds of tradition she does not break them. Consequently, her situation is more intriguingly alien to a male reader – although there are battles and assassinations in the book, there’s also pregnancy and seduction and marriage negotiations. Her sex gives her her allotted weapons; her culture sets the game in which she must fight. That game is a political game, centred around the impossibility of losing face or of being forsworn – honour, both in respect of custom and hierarchy, and in respect of vows and duties, is everything, as the only thing that keeps her society from falling into a war of all against all. Dishonoured individuals can only atone for their errors, and in doing so avoid the complete destruction of their families, through ritual suicide; yet honour does not demand goodness, only that “the forms” be observed. The result is the high-stakes “Game of the Council”, in which different families and clans struggle for power and prestige, enmeshed in relations of alliance, vassalage, enmity and blood feud. All this is overseen by the incongruously jovial and unfeigned, yet entirely callous, Warlord, voice of an invisible Emperor, and by a commune of magicians known as “Great Ones”, whose word is law – whether the Warlord has gained influence among the Great Ones, or whether the Great Ones are the secret puppet-masters who control the Warlord, is not known. At the sides of the game sit the insectoid Cho-Ja, the native species of the planet, who ally with human “landlords”, but who it becomes clear have never been understood by the humans at all.

This concept of a “Great Game”, “Game of the Council”, “Game of Thrones” and so forth is a staple of fantasy literature – but for once it feels viable here. It is true that there are no Machiavellian plotters in this Game, and that much of what happens is more a matter of exploiting chance than of complex machinations, but for once the plots are neither so paper-thin that we cannot believe anybody would fall for them, nor so convoluted and clairvoyant that we cannot believe in their success. Although the Game masquerades as chess, it seems far more similar to poker: the question is how much to risk on each hand, where the cards to be dealt are almost unpredictable. The Warlord, the Great One, the Cho-Ja, and simply the enormity of the Empire and the multiplicity of families, mean that a new card can be dealt at any time.

The entire book is therefore about politics – although there are battles, they are only politics by other means. Much of the politics is so nuanced by the culture that it must be explained to us in hindsight; likewise, the stylised speech patterns are so elliptical and contextual that there is often lengthy exegesis presented through internal monologue. Combined with the distance of the political threat, this could easily be dull and alienating, but I felt it worked quite well. Even if the threat is not always clear, it is always clear there is a threat; similarly, the amount of data compressed into their words felt realistic for a ritualised culture – neither so obvious that it was obviously fraudulent, nor so dense that it was unbelievable.

Indeed, my largest problem with the book was the lack of faith that the authors have in the readers. Mara reels from crisis to crisis, gambit to gamble, constantly in danger – and the authors feel the need to hammer home the danger each time. Generally this takes the form of annoying little summaries at the ends of each chapter, explaining that one wrong move could mean the complete end of the Acoma. This was effective at first, showing the knife-edge nature of the Game, and how unprepared Mara was for the challenges – but as the book went on, it became repetitive and patronising. By the fourth or fifth such crisis, thank you, I think I know enough about the world to see that whatever problem she’s facing is really, really dangerous.  You don’t have to keep telling me.

Related to this is a problem with the structure of the book: while most of her incidents are effective, and may make sense chronologically, they are not correctly ordered in scale and significance to create an appropriately swelling motion in the book. There are, thematically and dramatically, two key “incidents” (the latter being a seemingly unsurvivable confrontation with Jingu of the Minwanabi, the man who arranged the deaths of her father and brother, in his own home), but these are placed at the middle and the end of the book. Dramatically, the middle portion of the book feels as though it needs to be moved closer to the end, both for its own sake (as it is, something that should be of immense importance feels too much like a stepping-stone) and for the sake of the novel as a whole (as its early resolution leaves a long lacuna in the second half of the book, filled by an interesting but far less dramatic or significant incident).

Many people would probably say that this misplacement reflects a wider problem: the randomness of threats. Problems emerge out of thin air for no apparent reason – that is, there are reasons for the problem, but no reasons why it occurs then. Why does a bandit attack happen at one point, or a particular invitation arrive at another? I have no objection to this, however – to me, this simply reflects and intensifies the real chaos that underlies the perfect serenity of the Game. Just as Mara and her compatriots struggle to hide their emotions behind formalities, so too their society attempts to portray itself as an elaborate mechanism, deep and sophisticated, when really it is only an undignified scramble for the scraps of opportunity handed down by chance.

Similarly, I have no problem with the fact that the novel ends with a deus ex machina: because we know all along that the “gods” are watching. The ability of external powers to interfere is known from the beginning, and it is also known that while this ability may be unpredictable and unstoppable, it is not arbitrary. Almecho (the Warlord) and his Great Ones have an interest in the game, but do not wish to break it – consequently, when they act at the end it is only because Mara has given them the opportunity. [That Mara survives with the help of higher powers is not, in my view, any great spoiler – the Great Ones are a gun on the mantelpiece throughout, and it is repeatedly emphasised that Mara, however ingenious she is, cannot win without extremely good fortune]

However, the deus ex machina does demonstrate a difficulty: although most of the plot makes sense thematically, it does not always feel dramatically justified. That is to say, the extreme constant danger Mara faces makes every moment of survival an implausible success, and this can feel as though everything is, paradoxically, too easy for her – how terrible a situation would it have to be to kill her? She’s like a political Bruce Willis – staggering from fight to fight, constantly being hurt, she’s somehow still standing at the end of the film. Although none of her individual wins feel implausible, the cumulative effect of winning so much all the time (because her threats are big enough and frequent enough that anything less than massive constant winning would mean her death) is to cheapen and even parodise the conflicts – not helped by the aforementioned melodramatic chapter-end voiceovers.

Yet Mara doesn’t have it all her way. There are serious injuries done to her (albeit more psychological than physical), people die, and she is forced to learn quickly from some bad mistakes. The problem is not so much that she is inviolable, but that she looks inviolable: very rarely does she seem to grieve as fully or as lengthily as her setbacks would demand. In part, this is necessary – were she any more prone to grief, she probably couldn’t survive – but I think a greater factor is the limited ability of the authors. In a better book, the constant success of Mara would be matched by constant losses that were not only theoretical but that also felt psychologically real.

Relatedly, Mara has very little personality development. I say “personality” rather than “character”, because there is some development: she learns a lot, often from her mistakes. Yet it is always the same Mara who gains new knowledge and skill. Although the plot demands that there is something in her suitable for rule, it nonetheless feels as though she does not demonstrate the full sweep of change that should be required for a teenage girl to turn into a successful ruler of a powerful family; nor does she flail sufficiently when first given that problem. Yes, it would be difficult for her to go more wrong at first without destroying her family entirely – but a better author would have found a way.

A second problem raised by the deus ex machina is one of world-building. Although it’s easy enough to buy Almecho as Warlord, a ruler almost but not quite beyond law itself, and it’s possible to accept the Cho-Ja, both because of their passivity and because their motivations and values are so clearly alien to those of humans, the Great Ones are a serious crack in the façade of the world’s believability. Why are the Great Ones so powerful? Why are they so withdrawn from society? Why are they so completely unified – surely even a small schism would have devastating consequences for the world? How, in short, can a world function when there is a small cadre of people so powerful, both magically and legally, that they could overthrow everything instantly? How is this miraculous stasis achieved? It is true that this may be revealed in later books – and I should maintain the semi-fiction, during this re-reading, that I haven’t read those later books. Nonetheless, I felt this to be a serious blow to the suspension of disbelief.

A second world-building and dramatic difficulty is the “Riftwar” – Almecho’s allies have created an interdimensional gate into another world (the pseudo-Europe of Feist’s “Midkemia”), and are pursuing a titanic war on that planet, mostly for the acquisition of precious iron and other metals lacking from the geology of Kelewan. I can’t help but wonder how confusing and/or absurd this must appear to a reader who has not read the Midkemia books first, since there appears to be no in-world reason for it, and the world is otherwise almost entirely free of the supernatural (although magic exists, it is very rarely used, and on all occasions it is a physically unremarkable magic, even if important in consequences – a great contrast with the world-spanning of the riftwar). We must also wonder why, if the Great Ones will aid Almecho so far, they will not go further and take over the war themselves…

Finally, the writing. The prose is… not bad. The dialogue is bad, but in a paradoxical way: although it is extremely stilted, unemotional and archaic (all things we can expect from pulp fantasy dialogue), it actually does feel appropriate. No, this isn’t what anyone would say if they were saying what they thought – but because everybody is formulating everything in their heads into a preconceived pattern of what language would be appropriate, the ‘unreality’ of their words feels real. Their speech is MEANT to be stilted, unemotional, and archaic, and whether this is intentional, or merely a happy coincidence deriving from the inabilities of the authors is not really relevant.

Adrenaline: 3/5. Despite the heavy-handed melodrama and problems surrounding Mara’s apparent invulnerability, I did find it reasonably gripping. I read it a lot more quickly than I thought I would…

Emotion: 2/5. It’s set in a world where overt displays of emotion are frowned upon – and the authors aren’t good enough to make me really feel the pain Mara must go through at certain points. In any case, the hectic pace doesn’t allow her much time for emotional reflection. That said, you’ve got to feel a little sorry for her.

Thought: 2/5. It’s not a 1, because it is in a reasonably alien setting and deals with things like honour, duty, and saving face, all seen from a female perspective. However, the possibilities for cultural contemplation are mostly passed over in favour of plot. Although Mara at severable points challenges tradition, she does so out of necessity, and we do not yet see many consequences of it.

Beauty: 2/5. Not a 1, because the various cultural concepts are aesthetically intriguing enough to provide some interest in this dimension. Also, while the prose may not be beautiful, it often describes beautiful settings – if it were a film, it would look like Hero.

Craft: 3/5. Sturdy. The prose is probably never noticeable, which is a good as well as a bad thing. As I’ve explained, the dialogue would ordinarily be bad, but it rings true to the formality of the setting. I’ve identified numerous problems with the structure of the novel, but it should also be said that this sort of political/familial novel is often hard to ring excitement out of, and they do surprisingly well. Also, several of the incidents of the novel are plotted really quite tightly (others are loose and dependent upon chance, but I’m not convinced that isn’t intentional).

Endearingness: 3/5. I wouldn’t say I disliked it. Then again, I can’t say I’m powerfully drawn to it – it was a reasonable enough read, and I’ll probably read it again some day, but it’s not going to go in my favourites pile. Comfortable, but perhaps a little hollow.

Originality: 3/5. The combination of setting and protagonist drag it up to the middle-point, which neither is striking enough to do on its own.

Composite: 2.57.

Overall: 4/7: Not that bad, really. What it says, really. Quite enjoyed reading it. Will defend it to people who say Feist is always terrible. Not going to give it pride of place on by shelves.

Reaction: Only You Can Save Mankind

When I recently read Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals and found in myself a sense of tiredness, I had to wonder how much of it was my own tiredness with the author’s style, and how much was genuinely a loss of vitality in his work. Well, for a quick read a few days ago I grabbed his Only You Can Save Mankind – and now I have no doubts at all. The vital, fizzing Pratchett of my memory was not only nostalgia speaking. He really was good.

Only You Can Save Mankind was a stand-alone short novel, later the base of a trilogy (with unrelated plots, but the same characters), currently marketed for younger readers. The youth, however, is mostly in the characters, rather than the book itself, which is almost suitable for all ages – the exception perhaps being some simplicity in plot resolution that seems more fitting in a children’s book. It’s not a well-known book, I don’t think – Discworld has become synonymous with Pratchett, and any additional readership is primarily drawn to the Bromeliad trilogy. The three Johnny Maxwell books are therefore often forgotten – but, in this case at least, that is a terrible shame.

Mankind is set in the here-and-now (or, strictly speaking, the here-and-then of the early nineties), and it honestly feels it – not only is the atmosphere authentic, but it deals with modern concerns (computer gaming, the Gulf War, the postmodern condition, family breakup) in a way which feels natural, not the forced modernity that certain writers adopt. It is the story of Johnny Maxwell, a ‘nerd’ or ‘dweeb’ – a social outcast by virtue of his patheticness and slight weirdness, whose parents are undergoing Trying Times. The chief background characters are his outsider cohorts: Wobbler, the fat computer geek who loves breaking game encryption; Yo-less, the uncool black boy who dreams of being a doctor and who speaks like a lawyer; and Bigmac, the war-fixated kid from the estates who is secretly brilliant at maths but who hangs around with car thieves getting drunk. Appearing later is the slightly older, and entirely un-dweeby, Kirsty, a born competitor who lives in a perfectly tidy room in a perfect mansion, surrounded by trophies in everything from chess to rifle shooting to long jump, and who keeps all her pencils sharp, but who fantasises about being Sigourney Weaver and shooting aliens. These five children, theoretically aged 12 to 13, but who actually feel several years older, are almost the only human figures in the novel.

One day, Johnny is playing a computer game, ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’, in which he plays a fighter pilot shooting down alien attackers – only this time, they stop shooting at him, and try to communicate. In games, dreams and hallucinations through the following days, Johnny is confronted with how grimly real the game is for the aliens, and eventually determines to save the alien fleet from humanity single-handed – and though the humans have a word for the aliens, the aliens themselves use a word best translated as ‘mankind’. Meanwhile, his friends deal with the dichotomy of their self-images and their real place in their world, Johnny’s parents’ marriage collapses, the boys suffer through an almost ritualistic schooling system (Johnny has a standard ‘what it was/is like to be a peasant in X’ essay that he reuses between subjects), and they are constantly bombarded with images of “Stormin’ Norman” and his computer-guided smart missiles, night after night.

This may be a novel for children – it’s very short, its protagonist is a child, it’s clearly didactic, and it’s quite simplistic in execution – but it is not only that. This book has Themes, and Issues, and other things so often missing even from adult popular fiction, let alone books for children. Mankind is a book about reality and simulation – all sorts of simulation, from the strange dreams Johnny has, to the simulated learning at school, to the simulated personalities of his friends, to the games that simulate war, to the war that itself appears more like a simulation. Everywhere, Pratchett says, the line between simulation and reality is becoming thinner – we are entering, if you’ll forgive the jargon, a postmodern world of the ‘hyperreal’. If this is postmodern, Pratchett’s response is taken directly from Nietzsche: maybe even dreams should be taken seriously; perhaps even what we do in games matters. If there is no distinction any more between the real and the unreal, all there is is what we do, and what we do not do, however real or unreal the place in which we do it. Suitably for these themes, Pratchett adopts what would in other places be considered a magic realist approach: he makes no clear claims regarding what part of Johnny’s experiences are real. Indeed, whenever one conclusion seems to be advancing, he adds a complication that makes us think again. Many of the important sequences therefore occur in a perspectivist demi-world where reality and experience are ontologically unclear, and seemingly pliable; and we see how irrelevent such details of reality are to our moral and emotion engagement with the actions of the protagonists. Many of Pratchett’s books dabble in philosophical idea and pretend to elevated themes: Mankind is one of the few where these concerns are legitimately central to the book, and do not appear tacked on.

Alongside the sophistication of theme, Pratchett gives us his inimitable prose – and in this book it’s the real thing, the original that some of his later writing seems to be a simulation or an imitation of. It has wit, it has acuity, it has feeling and fizz. It isn’t the most uncompromisingly hilarious book he’s written, but it is genuinely funny, and employs its humour throughout in a way that keeps the reader on their toes. Where sometimes Pratchett seems to seek to be biting and urbane for the sake of it, here the irony seems to serve a critical, almost Socratic, purpose. It isn’t a relaxing, fluffy humour – it’s a high-volume, on-edge humour that drives the book along.

The book is let down in two areas: the weakness of the antagonists, and the weakness of the ending. Both could be put down to the intentional simplicity of a children’s book, rather than to inability. It is only really the children around Johnny who have flesh and bones – neither the aliens nor the enemy human pilots are really explored. In particular, the final antagonist is neither as frightening nor as sympathetic as they would be in a better book – it rather feels as though somebody has been elected by lot to become Final Villainous Enemy, and been given a moustache to twirl, which is a betrayal of what little characterisation they had been given. In terms of plot, there are really three endings: the resolution of the overall dilemma; the resolution of the outstanding personal issues; and the epilogue (which is not marked as such). These improve in quality: the epilogue  is good (the unexpected final page is brilliant), while the personal climax is rushed but generally satisfactory (the worst element is the slight anticlimatic hiatus between the high point and the epilogue); the resolution of the ostensible plot of the novel, however, is frankly terrible, and is a waste of a good opportunity. I don’t wish to say what happened, but I was left wondering why it had not happened earlier – and there was not even the slightest attempt at an explanation offered.

These problems let down what could otherwise be a great – if simplistic – book, but they do not ruin it. I greatly enjoyed reading it again, and now regret that I don’t have immediate access to my copies of the sequels; I may even have enjoyed it more than when I read it as a child, or at least I enjoyed different elements of it. It’s inspired me to read (or, mostly, re-read) more of Pratchett’s earlier work – certain key Discworld novels, certainly, but also his less famous books, where he seems to write with greater freedom and vitality.

Adrenaline: 3/5. It’s fairly simple in plot, and the ending is weak; consequently, my heart wasn’t racing. However, my interest never sagged for a moment.

Emotion: 3/5. There are some affecting moments, and in general I sympathised greatly with the characters; but I’d be lying if I said I was choked up at any point. There’s always too great a distance to the characters – the simplicity makes it feel less real and immediate. The entire novel is a simulation, and does not hide that.

Thought: 3/5. As I hope I’ve explained above, the novel does address interesting philosophical issues. Unfortunately, although it does so with sophistication, it does not really do so with depth; nor with breadth.

Beauty: 4/5. Feels a bit odd giving this score, since the book is hardly a work of art – but beauty is about more than high art, and Pratchett is an appealing stylist, when he’s actually working at it and not just reciting. Some of the overall concepts are also aesthetically pleasing to me.

Craft: 3/5. Again, Pratchett’s prose can rarely be criticised, and for once he seems completely to have mastered the subplots; unfortunately, the book is let down by the plot itself, which not only ends weakly, but also seems uneven in pacing throughout the novel. If anything, a little too much time is given to the background elements, and not enough to the plot itself.

Endearingness: 4/5. I really liked this book. Although I can’t identify myself with any individual in Johnny’s group, it does speak to me, as a book written for, and to a degree about, me. I like the audacity of the plot and its blasé approach to reality; I like the perspectivism of it; I like the fact that it feels honest, rather than written to please.

Originality: 3/5. The central conceit is the sort of clever idea that Pratchett is so good at, and that few others would have thought of; the plot direction, however, is a little too sturdily conventional, and the characters, while convincing, are not memorably original.

Overall: 5/7: Good. Yes, I do feel a little silly giving this the same overall score as Dhalgren, which is clearly a work of much greater scope and artistry. On the other hand, I think it is important not to get fixated on ambition: Only You Can Save Mankind may only attempt a fraction of what Dhalgren does, but it does what little it does extremely well. Surely it is right to value execution as much as ambition? In some ways, it reassures me in my scoring system, that two such diametrically different (in style and form) books should be given the same score.

Reaction: Dragonsong

I confess: I have read… at least a dozen, and almost certainly more, of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. I have not, however, read any of them for quite some time now, as I’ve always felt that they are somewhat childish books (and because the last one I read rather disenchanted me). Recently, however, finding myself nostalgic and in need of a very quick and easy read, my hand fell to this book, the first of a trilogy of short novels focusing on Harper Hall, the series’ guild of musicians, teachers, advisors and occasional spies.

Dragonsong (indeed, the whole of this trilogy) is a children’s novel even by the standards of the setting – it is simplistic, predictable, centred around a child protagonist, and largely lacking in perspective. The whole trilogy should probably be seen as a child’s introduction to Pern, as indeed I suspect it may have been intendend. It was, however, rather better than I was expecting.

The heroine of the story is a young girl, Menolly, who is tall and awkward, and rather direct in manner, and who desperately longs to follow her talents, but who is prevented from doing so by virtue of being a girl. So far, so cliché. Unusually for the genre, however, Menolly’s tomboyishness does not express itself through a love of fighting, or similarly physical endeavour, but rather through a talent as a musician and composer – unfortunately for her, an exclusively male preserve.

This may be a twist, but the basic set-up will be painfully familiar to experienced readers: Menolly’s parents are foolish and stubborn and tyrannical, and do not attempt to seriously convince her, or to accommodate her desires in their needs; Menolly is desperate to escape, to the point of deciding to run away from home; Menolly falls into a number of difficulties, from which she escapes by virtue of being brilliant at everything and of having everybody on the planet, other than her parents, be desperate to help her; Menolly is eventually recognised as wonderful and is adored by all the planet’s parental figures.

Regarding the plot, there are three large problems. Firstly, the antagonism of her parents, and of her elder sister, never feels real: although there are vague gestures in the direction of a reason for their behaviour, their case is never argued (either in dialogue or by the author) with enough vigour to make them seem understandable, and in particular their emotional attitude seems to vary considerably between chapters as the plot demands – strict but concerned at one point, barely caring whether she lives or dies at another. Their behaviour is made even more troublesome by the fact that it is so out of line with that of the surrounding society, which is universally pro-Menolly;  this is to a degree necessary, as the plot is largely one of escape from a small town into a more liberal culture, but although it is mentioned that her Hold is quite conservative, there is never any serious explanation of why the gulf is so large. Indeed, the entire foundational conceit, that Harpercraft is an exclusively male expertise, is neither explained nor really in keeping with the rest of the series, where no such limitation seems to exist; it is retconned in the sequel that Petiron (the old Harper at her Hold) is conservative in that way, but in a later novel we see that he himself was married to a female Harper. There are hints that Menolly’s perspective may be flawed or partial, but given just how unsympathetic Mavi and Yanos are, these hints are only confusing – why, for instance, does the otherwise perfect Manora seem to have a great respect, even friendship, for Mavi, when we can all see how horrible she is? The book makes a lot more sense from the perspective of a child, where the unfairness of adults is simply taken for granted, rather than from that of an adult, who may wish to actually understand the actions of his peers.

Secondly, Menolly is so perfect that it grates. It is essential for the plot that she be a talented composer (though the elaboration of just how talented she is in this field is left for the sequel – here, she need only be talented enough to draw the attention of senior Harpers) – and so I do not object to this. I object somewhat more to her brilliance in related fields – singing, instrumental playing, and the making of instruments – although these are at least things she must have studied, and we do not really know how good she is (her singing is adored by everybody, for example, but we are also told that nobody else in the Hold can carry a tune at all, so her own talent need not be that great). It’s a little more vexing that she can, for instance, invent a particular oil with little effort, or create clay pots between paragraphs, but let’s just say that she was just well-trained in such useful skills by an very particular mother in self-reliant times. But there is surely no reason at all why Menolly must also be a truly outstanding runner! And to top it all off, she’s also got a natural talent for attracting and dealing with ‘fire lizards’, a small species of dragon – and though it may appear to be luck, the fact that it is actually talent is repeatedly hammered home by those who really do seem to know what they are talking about. [The fire lizard plot is rather superfluous in the book, and indeed the trilogy, and seems to be there only to make her seem cool; in the wider series, the sudden appearance of fire lizards is truly incongruous. In this book, we are told that they are almost legend, and that every boy grows up trying again and again to catch them, but nobody has ever succeeded; a few books later, and it seems that everyone on Pern has acquired one as a pet. While I actually quite like the concept of fire lizards, they represent an anomolous and off-putting dimension in Pern’s plotline]

Thirdly, Menolly never has to do anything. The book does not end with her struggling nobly to freedom; it does not end with her facing up to her parents; it does not end with her accepting their views and buckling down to the life they choose for her. Any of these could demonstrate character; instead, Menolly essentially has only to find her way to the world outside her hometown, and she is instantly loved universally and told how wonderful she is. Even getting to that world is more a matter of luck and outside assistance than of personal struggle. This makes it hard to really feel too strongly about the book. Nothing is really accomplished, and at no time does any threat feel really real. Everything is just too easy.

This may sound damning – and indeed it is. But Dragonsong does have redeeming features. For all her perfections, Menolly is, to me at least, quite likable as a protagonist, perhaps precisely because there is so little real struggle needed: her talents are therefore not often used to overcome obstacles, and can be treated as adjuncts to her character, rather than as central to her progress. I have, I must admit, weaknesses both for oppressed tomboys (see my review of Dark Heart) and for composers, so Menolly is, if not close to my heart, at least the object of general feelings of goodwill and affection. Although too much of the novel relies on the power of things looking cool, McCaffrey does do cool quite well – in both dragons and in music, she manages to bring forth charismatic elements. Her prose is not noteworthy, but is unobjectionable – straightforward, but not too clunky or repetitive – and is probably better than average for pulp fantasy. Her only problem in this regard is the dialogue, which is not strictly bad, but rather too bland – a great many characters sound far too similar to one another, and nearly everybody in the novel has their speech pervaded by an unrelentingly jovial flippancy. The setting, meanwhile, is easy to be blasé about, now that we have known it for forty years, but it remains appealing nonetheless, familiar in many elements, yet not afraid to be alien at times, and tinted with hints of a very different, futuristic, setting lying behind the medievalisms. The flatness of characters and tendency to inconsistency and superficiality in background plot elements prevents the author from living up to the potential of the setting, but that should not cause us to ignore what is good in it.

An interesting thing to note in this respect is the troubled relationship between this novel and others of the series, not only in terms of inconsistencies, but also in its dependence: although it feels like an introductory novel for younger readers, it also forms part of the overall patchwork of plot developments. For those who read this book without having read the previous books of the series, much confusion and frustration are likely, and similarly some events that occur are not explained, or do not have the importance they are allocated justified, until later novels not strictly part of this trilogy. Its worth as an introduction is therefore hindered – a good example being the amout of time devoted to the story of Brekke, which seems to require considerable foreknowledge if we are to care about it, and which does not feel resolved; the brief cameo of Jaxom, meanwhile, is likely to be baffling to many, with much importance attached to something seemingly trivial. At the same time, readers of the main sequence of novels are likely to be perplexed and disappointed by the radically different focus, and more child-oriented delivery, of this trilogy, damaging its worth as a full member of the series. It is thus not really clear what this book is meant to be.

Also, the author follows the old tradition of putting extracts of in-world fiction at the beginning of each chapter, and chooses to use poetry (/song lyrics). Once or twice, these are vaguely clever or pretty lines, but most of them vary from uninspired, to mawkish, to painfully bad. The author should not attempt to write poetry for each chapter unless the author happens to be a capable poet; this one is not. A snippet here and there would be no problem, but by the end of the book they were little pellets of pain waiting for me after each chapter number.


Adrenaline: 3/5. Not that much happens; what happens is predictable and involves little dramatic struggle. However, the book is executed well enough that I can’t mark it down on adrenaline: somehow, it manages to exploit the periods of inaction and waiting to increase a tension that has no rational reason for existing whatsoever. Really don’t know why, but it works – or at least, it fails to fail.

Emotion: 2/5. Execution delivers excitement, but in this case it couldn’t deliver engagement. I like Menolly, I really do (though I’m not sure why, as she’s annoyingly whimpery and short-sighted), but she’s not put into enough drama to make me care too much.

Thought: 2/5. It could be worse. There’s a little bit of interest in the behaviour of the adults and just how wrong they are, and there are also vignettes of thought, like the Brekke subplot. Overall, though, there’s nothing much to provoke reflection here.

Beauty: 2/5. The prose has some good bits, and the presence of dragons and music and the powerful image of Thread all buoy up the aesthetics, but the predictabilities, and the flatness and repetitiveness of many characters, are all a little repellent.

Craft: 3/5. Mostly unobjectionable. I observed some structural problems above, but these seem to me more decisions of the author than accidents of craft. The writing is generally sound, and the fact that she wrung tension out of something so devoid of it naturally demonstrates how well she is able to construct larger structures. However, I wouldn’t recommend the book on the basis of its craft.

Endearingness: 3/5. Dragons, composition, defiance of social expectations… I can hardly mark it down. On the other hand, Menolly is a little too perfect, the world a little too simple, to mark it up.

Originality: 2/5. Has the advantage of an interesting setting, and makes the interesting decision to focus on music as the chosen excellence. However, little else in this novel of teenageness is original or distinct.

Composite: 2.43.

Overall: 3/7: Bad, but with redeeming features. This sounds a bit harsh to me – there’s nothing really wrong with this book. I enjoyed reading it, and after the opening few chapters had no intention of stopping at any point. On the other hand, there’s nothing really good about it either – I can’t think of any reason to recommend this book, other than ones related to facts about the potential reader rather than facts about the book itself. So perhaps we should see it as bad, but with ‘too solid to be terrible in any way’ as its redeeming feature?