A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.3

LESSON THREE

Forming the Plural

Like English, Rawàng Ata can mark nouns to show that they are plurals. Unlike English, this is done not through a suffix but through reduplication of the initial syllable.

lutà, ‘ball’ > lulutà, ‘balls’

hàni, ‘mat’ > hafàni [NB. sandhi: ah > af]

As seen in the last example, reduplication does not copy accents. However, it can copy coda consonants, diphthongs, and long vowels. When this occurs, an original long vowel may be shortened.

taita, ‘nail’ > tataita, taitaita

runta, ‘floor’ > rurunta, rundunta [NB. sandhi: n+r=nd]

fōna , ‘foreigner’ > fofōna, fōfōna, fōfona

Which of the possible plurals will be used will depend on the individual’s whim, dialect and register, but none are incorrect.

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Using the Plural

Unlike in English, in Rawàng Ata the distinction is not between a plural and a singular, but between a plural and a ‘non-plural’. The plural is used only to refer to multiple, distinct, definite objects, and only when that distinctness is important. It is not used for universals, for generalisations, or for abstracts.

datta wohola fofōna

the sailor strikes these foreigners here (though he doesn’t strike all foreigners)

datta wohola fōna

the sailor strikes the foreigner/all foreigners/foreigners in general/foreigners including these ones/most foreigners/typical foreigners

However, although the plural requires a definite, actual object, only one representative object must be actual – other objects may be out of sight or hypothesised. So, if, in this example, one foreigner is struck while the others are out of the room, the plural is still allowable. The important thing is the definiteness, and the suggestion of a group of similar things.

Confusingly, this means the plural can sometimes be used for singular objects. In these cases, the speaker is imputing membership of a group of similar things, even though the speaker knows or suspects that there is no such group, or has no such group in mind. The intention is to separate out this particular object, in this case a particular foreigner, from other objects of the same kind by imputing a sub-group: similar roles are fulfilled by English phrases like ‘their kind’, or ‘that sort’ (‘the sailor hates that foreigner and their kind’, ‘the sailor avoids that sort of foreigner’). In this sense, this usage is usually derogatory or dismissive.

“Singular” plurals also occur to give the idea of progression, taking things as they come: in this case, the implication would be that the sailor is going to strike every foreigner, or every foreigner of that type, that he comes across, even if only one is actually present and struck so far. An English translation would be “the sailor is hitting foreigners”, which we might say even if only one foreigner has been struck so far, if we believe the trend will or may continue.

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Forming and Using the Singular

Rawàng Ata also has a genuine singular, but it is far more restricted in use than the English equivalent. It is used when one and only one object is concerned, and only when it is important to make that singularity clear.

datta wohola fōnaònga

the sailor strikes this one particular specific foreigner

It may also be used more colloquially to refer to only a small part of an object: in this case, the sailor may have struck the foreigner’s hand or foot.

As can be seen, the singular is formed from the non-plural by the suffix –ònga.

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Forming and Using the Perplural

A final, marginal number used in Rawàng Ata is the perplural. This is formed by repeating the reduplication process that creates plurals, and the construction is used to indicate an immense, uncountable, overwhelming, or excessive number.

fōna > fofofōna, fōfōfōna, fofōfona, fōfōfona, fōfofona, fofōfōna, ‘a sea of foreigners’, ‘a surfeit of foreigners’, ‘an excess of foreigners’.

In normal speech, perplurals use the same reduplication method for both duplications. So, fofofōna, fōfōfōna or fōfofona are all likely to be heard, but fofōfona is not. However, elaborate and confusing perplurals are common stylistic features in writing and poetry.

In normal speech, any perplural is emphatic, almost histrionic. Theoretically, the excess can be further emphasises by multiple reduplications, but this is usually used only with comic intentions, or in literature.

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LAST NOTE

Number will be returned to later. The above notes only address number of inanimate count nouns, and the situation for animates and mass nouns is more complex.

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Vocabulary

taka = to collide with

This is the verb used for unintentional collisions, and collisions between objects without planned trajectories.

ruaya- = wipe, clean, polish

This verb is used for the result of methodical or sustained friction between a hard thing and a soft thing. It need not be intentional – it is also the verb used for the action of water on a stone, for instance.

baryōng = house, estate

The baryōng is the fundamental manifestation of family and class. It is a house – but that word does not do it credit. A single baryōng can house dozens of individuals – not only the extended family of the owners themselves, but also the families of their servants, and sometimes semi-independent client families. Each baryōng is in turn divided into several different sà runta, “collections of floors”, each a building in its own right, each elevated in most cases above the ground, as well as several garden areas, and the walkways that connect the piers. An individual’s class is a function of their location within the baryōng. Furthermore, the largest sà runta, those of the families owning the baryōng, are themselves divided into several different ‘wings’, synecdochally known as runta, for different parts of the family.

= ‘heart-post’

If the baryōng represents the family, the represents the baryōng. It is a single wooden post, usually the rounded, debarked trunk of a tree, which extends from the ground beneath the house to the highest peak of its roof, and represents the continuity of the people and the world, and of the present, past and future inhabitants of the baryōng. The is the family; in the Discord, revolutionary groups would burn and hack apart the of the house to end all debts and obligations owed to the family and to express its illegitimacy – an act of vandalism still punished by death and worse.    

A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.2

LESSON TWO

The Accusative Case

Rawàng Ata is a language with multiple noun cases. One of the most commonly encountered is the accusative case, into which the objects of transitive sentences are usually placed. This is usually indicated by the suffix –ma.

datta wohola lutàma

the sailor strikes the ball

However, Rawàng Ata makes use of a process named sandhi, in which the sounds of certain affixes may be altered by the sounds within the word they are added to. In this case, the case suffix can be affected by labial dissimilation sandhi, in which the sounds m, and w are replaced by n and h if the preceding consonant is b, m, l or r, unless the intervening vowel is long.

datta wohola kòmana

the sailor strikes the young woman

As can be seen in both these examples, the unmarked word order is usually Subject-Verb-Object, as in English.

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Topic

However, word order can often be disrupted by the concept of topic. The topic of a sentence is what it is ‘about’. It is usually something that has already been mentioned in conversation, or made clear through context, or considered to be something that is already known to the listener. In Rawàng Ata, the topic of a clause must be moved to the front of the sentence to make this role clear. In English, this often requires more explicit marking, usually involving pronouns

datta wohola kòmana

regarding the sailor: he strikes the young woman

kòmana datta wohola

as for the young woman, the sailor strikes her

Although the object has been moved to the front of the clause, it is still visibly the object, because it retains the accusative suffix.

It is important to note that there is only one topic, and everything else is not the topic: that is, once the topic is selected, the remaining elements are not ordered by topicality. Nothing is more topical or less topical – either it is the topic or it is not.

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Vocabulary

runta = floor, floor module, collection of floors

A runta is a floor – but it is a social entity, not an architectural one. The houses of the speakers of Rawàng Ata are typically elevated, and their floors are constructed of wooden boards resting on beams, in turn resting on plinths and piers and stilts; but these floors, only ever seen from beneath, are not runta. The runta is the floor as seen from inside the house – and this is a superstructure constructed from light wooden box-frames. These runta play a key role in the organisation of the house and its inhabitants – the boxes can be arranged in many different ways, and can be of differing heights, so that differences in runta colour and areas of different height (sometimes as great as a six foot height difference) divide the internal area into psychologically and socially distinct spaces, minimising the need for walls. The runta is not only every individual piece of this floor, but also every distinct space – and those spaces in turn combine to form larger spaces, and ultimately the entire house. The runta can therefore be used as a metaphor for a family or a household. Only separate buildings, or entirely distinct storeys are counted as having different runta – and these are usually avoided, by making upper stories into mere mezzanines, joined by broad stairs that remain conceptually united with the base runta. Furthermore, the runta can serve many functions that would otherwise require distinct objects: most tables are merely higher parts of the runta, as are beds, while the most luxurious seats are formed by including recessions in the front of higher sections of runta. Finally, the runta, being composed of modular units, is not a fixed thing, but may be modified to reflect changes in station, fortunes, or fashion, or to meet different requirements when hosting guests of different numbers and stations. The ‘floor’, for speakers of Rawàng Ata, is not merely a soulless plain, but the changeable, interest-filled, value-laden soul of the house itself.

hàni = mat

The runta, wooden and hard, would by itself be somewhat unforgiving a surface, were it not for the hàni, the traditional mat. The hàni does not cover the entire floor, but is reserved for informal and family areas, and thus provides another important social cue. The hàni is not made of fabric; instead, it is made of certain dry leaves and bark that have been mulched together, compressed, dried, and aged. The result is a thin but surprisingly heavy sheet that breaks at once if folded, but which can be gently rolled for transport; the surface is solid, but slightly yielding, not dissimilar from corkboard, making walking (and falling over) rather more comfortable; the hàni is also effective at absorbing spilt liquids. The nature of the material is such that it cannot easily be dyed, although a variety of shades of brown can be created by altering the manufacturing process slightly, and the material can also not be easily cut or shaped. As a result, the hàni, which comes in rectangular mats that are laid side-by-side to cover the floor, is a symbol of honesty, tradition, and austerity. In previous eras, it was banished entirely from the homes of the wealthy because of its dullness, replaced by expensive rugs, carpets, and cushions, but since the Discord two centuries ago, it has returned universally, as families vie to prove their greater humility.

However, the hàni is not confined to the home. It may also be carried by travellers – a thick hàni can make a tolerably soft mattress to lie on, and can remain dry overnight even when placed on wet ground. However, rural travel is not commonplace on the island, and so this use of the hàni has become associated with vagabonds, rebels, brigands, adventurers and monks – the latter of whom carry a hàni with them whenever they travel, even if they do not intend to sleep outdoors. Hàni are also used as sleeping mats by the poor, who cannot afford softer, stuffed mattresses. Metaphorically, it may be used for sleeping mats in general, but this carries connotations of poverty, humility, or depravity.

Because the hàni cannot be folded tightly without breaking, it must be carried rolled around a haniyàttu, a light wooden-frame cylinder. These cylinders are symbolic of journeys and of monasticism.

taita = nail, bolt

The taita is a cylinder of hard material (wood, stone, metal, etc) that is used to join items together by piercing them. In general, they are made of wood, as it is both readily available and easily shaped, but stone or bone taita are also found. Metal taita are a mark of wealth, as metals are rare on the island and most be imported. Taita include not only small household nails but far larger items of the same function – the wooden taita that are used to hold ships together may be immense.

fōna = foreigner

The fōna is anything that is not native to the island, and specifically to its major tribe. In its older use, it is anything that has unwantedly penetrated an area or a container – dirt, dust, rain, and so forth. It is also colloquially used as a derogatory term for a rapist or adulterous man, or for a traitor. The term has the connotation of inhumanity, even inanimacy.

A Course in Rawàng Ata: 1.1

UNIT ONE.

LESSON ONE

The Alphabet

Although Rawàng Ata has its own script, which will be dealt with in a later lesson, it will be more convenient for now to transcribe it into the Latin alphabet.  In doing so, we will use the following letters: a, b, d, e, f, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, ng, o, r, s, t, u, w and y. In general, the pronunciation of these should be clear from their English usage, with a few notes: the vowels are pronounced cleanly, with Continental values, as in Spanish, rather than either their long forms in English or their clipped short forms. Phonetically, that is, they are pronounced as the X-SAMPA vowels /a e i o u/. The letter j is pronounced as X-SAMPA /Z/ – that is, as the sound in English ‘illusion’, ‘measure’ or ‘mirage’. The couplet ng is treated as a single letter; when it is not followed by a vowel, it is pronounced as /N/, which is the final sound in ‘sing’, or ‘bang’;  when it is followed by a vowel, it is pronounced as that sound followed by a g-sound, as in English ‘finger’ or ‘linger’, never as in ‘singer’ or ‘flinger’ (in accents that pronounce the latter two words in a different way from the former).

These pronunciations are only approximate, and the details should vary depending on context, which will be discussed in a later lesson, but these values will do for now.

It should also be mentioned that the vowels may appear with gràvè àccènts above them. This affects the pitch and intonation of the word in ways that will be discussed in a later lesson, but does not affect the quality of the vowel. They may also be written with mācrōns written above them: these indicate that the vowel is to be pronounced with the same quality, but with greater length.

All written letters should be pronounced.

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Vocabulary

lutà = ball

A lutà is typically a man-made roughly spherical item. The larger it is, the less exactly spherical it must be. It includes any ornamental bead, and any small ornament that does not have a more precise word for it. Amongst other things, it also includes a child’s toy, slightly larger than a fist, formed of a plant gum and an aggregate (sand, dirt, sawdust), wrapped in fabric; the result is soft and pliable. It is heavy for its size, so young children are confined to rolling it, while older children play throwing games. It is able to bounce to some extent when hitting something with force, but this bounce is unpredictable and small.

datta = sailor

Rawàng Ata is an island language, and its speakers mostly cluster on the coastline, shunning the wild, confusing interior. Their culture revolves around the sea, and most men will serve on ships at some point in their life, from small fishing boats to the great trimarans that protect the nation’s interests. Some women also work on boats, but they are never considered sailors.

wohola = to strike, to collide with intentionally and forcefully

This verb can be used for most forceful comings together. It is not used for collisions between careening or wobbling objects, only those travelling in straight lines or intentionally, and it is not used when both objects are equally affected – there must be a clear striker and a struck.

kòma = a young woman

Originally this word applied to children, but as time has passed, and as marriage ages have risen, it has come to be applied to any woman who is an adult but not yet of marriageable age. Like men and children, they wear their hair extremely short (often shaven), as the hot, humid climate encourages those who labour physically (like men) or run around unnecessarily (like children) to do as much as possible to allow sweat to disperse.

A Course in Rawàng Ata: Introduction

This is probably a bad idea.

As you may know, I create languages. The one I’ve spent an unprecedented time on is Rawàng Ata. I’ve posted on it a fair few times – and most of those posts have contradicted each other. I don’t work progressively, you see, I keeping re-doing things. It’s like pruning a plant: you’ve got a vague control over how it looks, but at some times it’s been cut back too heavily, at other times it’s grown too far beyond where you want it. So every year you have another go at it, and hopefully the overall shape takes form over time, through trial and error.

My current error is a series of lessons in the language. The idea is that they should be less boring, and more understandable, than a simple grammar – and I’ve never found a grammar that simple, anyway. In all fair warning: these will probably not be repetitive enough, slow enough, to be real ‘lessons’ in the sense of allowing anyone to learn to speak it. For a start, I’m not going to concentrate on vocabulary. What they should do is present some features of the structure of the language, with examples, in what is hopefully a coherent format.

These lessons are likely to contradict everything I’ve previously said about Rawàng Ata. Never mind.

Finally: the idea is to have discrete ‘lessons’, clumped together into ‘units’, each unit ending with a little exercise. Each lesson will give some grammatical information, and a few words of vocabulary, with cultural explanations. Unfortunately, the lessons vary widely in how much information they contain.

I’ve currently written twelve lessons, which should be three units, though I’ve only written the exercise for the first. I think I’ll post a lesson a day until the end of a unit, and then wait until I’ve got a buffer before moving on to the next. So, this may take quite some time to finish. And I’m going to violate that format today, because the first lesson is so small and worthless. So, two up today.

Hope somebody finds it intriguing – or useful for their own projects.

The H.P Lovecraft Omnibus (part 3)

Two more Lovecraft tales!

The Colour Out of Space continues the themes and style of The Whisperer in Darkness, and takes them to a purer extreme – which is odd, because chronologically it sits a year after The Call of Cthulhu and a year before The Dunwich Horror. However, Lovecraft himself considered this story to be his best; perhaps, after a time of attempting to continue in the old way, he intentionally re-oriented himself along the lines of his most successful story. Certainly, it has more in common with later pieces like Whisperer and At the Mountains of Madness than it does with The Dunwich Horror, for all that they are given similar settings.

As usual, Colour takes place in the wild places of New England, at a site where a new reservoir is to be built. An engineer with the water company visits the area and discovers a strange, desolate patch of land; later, he inquires as to its origin. The bulk of the tale is therefore taken from the account of an old local man, Ammi Pierce, although it is mostly told through the voice of the anonymous traveller, who remains refreshingly sober about things, all things considered. The story that is told is that of the arrival of a strange meteorite on the farm of Ammi’s neighbour and friend, Nahum Gardner; it takes its name from strange bubble-like formations in the rock that display an impossible and incomparable colour.

In some ways, Colour is both the antithesis of the Cthulhu Mythos and its apotheosis.  Throughout the Mythos, Lovecraft attempts to summon up the unfathomable, the indescribable, the incomprehensible, the truly alien – but again and again, he lets slip enough hooks that we are able to get a grip on the stories. Far from being unknowable, the actors of the Cthulhu mythos are well-known. Entire books can be written on their origins, purposes and interrelations. They are shrouded in rumour and folklore in the stories, and out of the stories they have developed a life of their own. The Colour out of Space seems both a rejection of that baroque superstructure of the myth, and a fulfilment of its basic premise: the threat of the truly alien.

There’s no doubt that this is a science fiction story, plain and simple. Myth and folklore and magic play peripheral roles if they occur at all – though it is science fiction dressed up as something else. Lovecraft plays with the expectations of a Dunwich-like story – some reawakened horror from before the dawn of time as spoken horribly of in generations of dark legend and rural superstition – but what actually plays out is pure SF. Ridiculous SF, it is true, which doesn’t stand up to modern scrutiny, but it has that core of plain, straightforward scientific thinking, a certain coldness and matter-of-factness that most of his stories lack. That coldness actually accentuates the horror of the story, rather than detracting from it. In that respect, I think it is probably the most successful of his stories, thematically. Indeed, it’s one of the most successful SF stories of all time, in one respect: the sheer, limitless, inscrutable alienness of it all. Lovecraft disliked pure SF on the grounds that the aliens were always humans with masks – he tries his best in many of his tales, but this is the only one where he truly succeeds in avoiding that, and as such it has been an inspiration for many writers since – most directly, Stephen King, never embarrassed about his deep debt to Lovecraft throughout his career, has admitted that Tommyknockers was based on this story (though it seems that narcotics may have played quite a role in the interpretation process…). More generally, Lovecraft combines the alien with themes of disease, madness, brainwashing, mutation, and the fear of contagion into an extremely heady mix which has helped inspire much later horror and SF (The Thing, for instance, while ostensibly based upon At the Mountains of Madness, seems to me to get a lot of its animating force from Colour).

All that said, it’s not a perfect story. It’s not frightening – the ‘horror’ of the genre name is not a relic in this case, as it horrifies rather than terrifies. It’s a little detached – which is essential to the tone, but which stops it from hitting home as hard as it might. It’s also, frankly, not as well written as The Whisperer in Darkness, in terms of prose style.

——-

The Haunter of the Dark, alas, is a step back to something more stereotypically ‘Lovecraftian’. In fact, much of it feels nine-tenths of the way to parody. There are, I think, two reasons for this. Firstly, by this stage of his career, Lovecraft was moving beyond the basic premises of his mythos, and trying to use them as the basis for more conventionally horrifying stories; this has the upside that his stories were now being given genuine pay-offs instead of ‘ah! the horror!’ moments… but it also has the downside that the mythic basis has to be dumped on us very quickly, in case we’re not au fait with it. And by now, Lovecraft feels almost bored with these infodumps. In consequence, the “horrible forbidden manuscripts telling of horrific ancient rites” section of the story is physically painful.

Secondly, this story WASN’T entirely serious. It was written in response to a story by a young fan, Robert Bloch, in which a character based on Lovecraft met a horrible fate, and in turn sets out to give a nasty ending to the admirer, in the form of a “Robert Blake”. Blake is also clearly a vehicle for Lovecraft’s own gentle self-mockery, and there are subtle references not only to Bloch’s works but also to Lovecraft’s friends and colleagues, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth.

However: it isn’t just a parody, and it isn’t entirely familiar, either. The conceit of the story is ingenious, and the ending is both exciting and unnerving. It is also, alas, rather confusing, since Lovecraft is experimenting here with leaving conclusions unsaid – what happens can be worked out if you’ve been reading carefully, but the practised Lovecraft reader used to hysterical revelations may not have been paying enough attention up to that point. Lovecraft is also taking the opportunity to experiment with narrative structure, interweaving the reports of Blake’s diaries with second-hand anecdote and reconstructed narration told as though by an omniscient narrator. At times, the junctions are too visible, but in other places, the mix works well to build up tension.

Overall, as the last story written under Lovecraft’s own name, there is a fitting note of retrospective about this tale; yet Lovecraft was not yet expecting to die, and there are signs of further experimentation and possible new directions [the danger of the Haunter, for instance, is far more sophisticated and promising than the danger of being eaten, from stories like ‘Pickman’.

Adrenaline: 3-3. ‘Colour’ never hits a peak of being truly exciting – but it builds the tension up pretty steadily throughout, and kept me reading easily. ‘Haunter’ doesn’t built up tension well, but the ending really picks it up.

Emotion: 3-2. There’s not enough engagement with the characters to be exceptional here, but there IS horror and revulsion. However, in ‘Haunter’ that revulsion is a bit too familiar, and the characters are TOO forgettable, to the point of nonexistence.

Thought: 2-2. The antagonist of ‘Colour’ is so alien that we can’t think too much about it. The images and ideas are compelling, but they are intentionally uncognitive. That of ‘Haunter’ is perhaps too unalien, and although it has some interesting possibilities, they are only hinted at.

Beauty: 3-2. Some imagery in ‘Colour’ is beautiful, but it lacks any expanse of beautiful prose. The prose overall doesn’t hit the heights of Whisperer, but it’s also more reliable, more sensible. In ‘Haunter’, it is all entirely forgettable, and parts are irritating.

Craft: 4-3. The combination of lower-risk prose style, more sober narrator, and the very simple plot outline make ‘Colour’ perhaps the most respectable, unobjectionable Lovecraft story I’ve read so far. It isn’t perfect, at it feels a bit archaic at times, but overall it’s very well done. ‘Haunter’ is lazy and slipshod, only elevated by its ending.

Endearingness: 4-2. Not sure why, but I really liked ‘Colour’. It’s memorable and effective, and not hard work. There’s not enough to it to really demand repeat readings, and nothing to love about it either, but it’s a story I know I’ll want to re-read in the future. I can’t think why I would re-read ‘Haunter’ – the ending is memorable, but not worth waiting for unless you’re a Lovecraft, Bloch or Cosmic Horror aficionado.

Originality: 3. ‘Colour’ is historically inventive, but too simple and straightforward to be too unique by today’s standards. ‘Haunter’ is far too predictable, with but has a bit of ingenuity in the final nature of the beast, and in the narrative structure.

Overall: Good; Bad, but with redeeming features.

Not After Midnight – Daphne Du Maurier

I’ve never read anything by Du Maurier – and to be honest, I doubt I ever would have done, had I not stumbled upon/been given a couple of old editions of her work. Seemed a shame to throw them out, I thought, or to keep them if I detested her work, so I decided to give her a chance, starting with this collection of her short stories. I’m glad I did.

Du Maurier’s work is… peculiar, to say the least. The stories defy easy genre classifications, and indeed that seems to be a large part of their design: placing her plots on the fine edge between supernatural and mundane, romantic and prosaic, tragic and hopeful (though mostly tragic), she gives the reader no warnings, no time to get comfortable. Some stories will seem realistic, only to veer into fantasy; others will appear to aim for the supernatural, only to slide into the perfectly ordinary. These are stories of suspense – but to a large degree, what we are suspended by is not concern for the characters, but concern for the story itself: the reader is in the position of watching a literary game of three card monte, sometimes not knowing what sort of story they have been reading until the concluding paragraphs.

Not After Midnight contains five stories. They’re big stories – all five have the heft and form of novellas, albeit short ones. They tell a whole story, rather than simply showing us a moment; and ‘telling a story’ is the operative phrase. Du Maurier is very much, at least in this case, in the storyteller mould of author – her prose is not bad, but she is not aiming at aesthetic qualities, and she may in passing address themes or explore the human condition, but these are not what the stories are for. These are stories to thrill, intrigue, and surprise. They should be prefaced with the words ‘are you sitting comfortably?’. Yet even here there is an element of duality – the short, sensational story seems to war against the sober, realistic, slice-of-life detailings.

As a result, it’s no surprise that the writing did occasionally give me pause. It is never, strictly speaking, bad writing; though I don’t think there were more than a handful of sentences that I actually enjoyed for their look or their sound. Rather, it has a tendency to the functional, and this amplifies the datedness of some of it. In particular, a lot of the dialogue feels stilted, old-fashioned, unrealistic. It is a cosy, Victorian sort of style. But in all honesty, this was not much of a problem for me – the prose did its job, and was obviously not what the reader was meant to be there for.

The collection was published as Don’t Look Now in America, and it’s easy to see why – it’s a catchy story, later made into a successful film, which plays on the edges of a ghost story, with obvious suggestions of the supernatural counterbalanced by a sensible, skeptical narrator. It’s very tense, and misdirects well throughout – it took me a long time to realise even what direction it was headed, let alone predicting details of the plot. It’s also backed up by a rather clever, albeit not entirely original, idea – but unfortunately, the execution was rather too light, not able to take the smug shine off the gimmick. In particular, the ending was poor – attempting to unite multiple strands, it lacked sufficient build-up, was far too abrupt, and was too reliant on co-incidences to wholly convince. On the other hand, the flaws are probably integral to the plot – the lack of build-up is a by-product of the author’s technique of hiding important foreshadowing in the middle of dumps of other, irrelevant, colouring information.

Not After Midnight itself, on the other hand, is a misshapen little grotesque of a story that is hardly going to appeal to the widest audience. The ending is even more ridiculously abrupt, and provoked confusion and a vague sense of being cheated. It felt like an elaborate pearl secreted around a core of nothingness. I can’t deny the pearl was beautiful – a complex mystery story that twists and turns with admirable suspense – but the resolution was frankly off-putting.

A Border-Line Case seemed to be, by far, the most sincere and heartfelt of the tales. After a brief glance at some facets of Du Maurier’s (fascinating) life and personality, it’s hard not to read a great deal of her into the strangely two-natured actress heroine of the story – especially when the reader arrives at the final page; on the other hand, given her alleged fondness for fantasising, roleplaying and deceit, I also can’t shake the idea that perhaps this ‘obvious’ self-insertion is a joke told at our expense; the stories she tells about fictional people intersecting with the stories she told, perhaps true, perhaps false, about herself. Yet this is not a coy or capricious story. The plot is light, but the sentiment is heavy, and of the five this has the most piercing examination of real thoughts and emotions – right from the opening death and the agonies of bereavement, in which it is difficult to avoid seeing the memories of the death of the author’s husband, only a few years before the collection was published. From then on, the plot bounces around chaotically; in this story, the author’s dichotomous approach to private is most strongly displayed. On the one hand, her characters can be very straight and direct, in thoughts and in speech; on the other hand, the author hides, or only hints at, a considerable amount, forcing the reader to pay close attention. It is perhaps only a fancy, but I have to wonder whether this selective vagary is in fact connected to the pre-occupations with story-telling and sleight-of-word: sometimes, it seems as though the present is unspecified to allow the character to select their own past; when the heroine tells another character what she was thinking when a certain event happened, we do not know whether she is telling the truth or not, because we were not notified at the time, and it seems as though the author is suggesting that there is no truth of the matter. The thoughts and feelings are only given conscious, concrete, form at a later date.

As a side-note: I particularly liked the many layers of meaning hidden in the title.

The Way of the Cross is more disappointing. It’s a story of a visit of a small group of people from a small English village visiting Jerusalem for a day, told from the perspective of each protagonist. Their characters are presented, and are then gradually demolished, showing how slight the foundation on which they have built their lives truly is. It’s an ambitious and worthy idea – but she doesn’t pull it off. The characters are simply too boring to interest us, too two-dimensional to surprise us, too unreal to inform us. If the intention was to undermine comfortableness by putting a cast of people into a crucible, the reality reads more like putting a set of obnoxious stock strawmen into the stocks to be uncharitably stoned. Showing how pitiable are a coterie of, in essence, background characters from an Agatha Christie novel packs very little punch unless you believe that Agatha Christie accurately captures the subtleties of English village life in the first place. She gives little credit to her opponents, and this weakens her own case.

The Breakthrough is a weird little story, and the author doesn’t seem to feel entirely comfortable with it. It doesn’t really go anywhere, is more eerie than tense, and it suffers particularly from the necessity of a massive info-dump. Far too much of it feels like set-up – and set-up of the kind particular to supernatural and near-supernatural stories, where an excessive degree of simultaneously credulity and calmness is required on the part of the characters. On the other hand, it IS eerie – and the characterisation of the narrator is particularly impressive. His character is never complex or original, but the vividness of it, and the ease and brevity with which that vividness is created, is something to be admired. The plot doesn’t particularly make much sense. Overall, it’s not a very satisfying story to rest a collection on, but as an interesting little morsel (and it is the shortest of the five, I think) thrown in among the rest it’s not a bad space-filler.

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Numbers per story:

Adrenaline: 4/4/4/2/2. The first three stories are all more than averagely gripping. The Way of the Cross is dull and pointless and predictable. The Breakthrough isn’t dull, and has a bit of foreboding about it, but couldn’t honestly be called exciting.

Emotion: 2/2/3/1/2. Being emotive is not her forte. Don’t Look Now should score more highly, but the rather cold, sensible narrator reduces the potential for empathy; A Border-Line Case stands out as being more human, but the detached style and ever-changing plot are limiting factors. The Breakthrough OUGHT to be emotional, given its content, but is only slightly so.

Thought: 3/3/3/2/2. No great conundra, but the stories keep the reader thinking ahead, and have some interesting moments. I thought the penultimate story bland and obvious, and the final story too nonsensical and farfetched to engage the brain much.

Beauty: 3/3/3/2/3. Not the most elegant, but bits of striking imagery; nothing terribly bad beyond a bit of stiltedness.

Craft: 4/3/4/2/3. The Way of the Cross is let down by its heavy-handedness, but all the stories have sophisticated storytelling, adequate prose, and skilful misdirection. In general, her endings are rather too quick. The Breakthrough is let down by weight of exposition (which is also felt in the imbalanced dialogue), but given the difficulties that the story idea poses for the writer, the author does a good job with the challenges her imagination has set her.

Endearingness: 3/2/3/2/3. Not the warmest, most friendly stories, but some are reasonably likeable.

Originality: 3/4/5/3/4. This is definitely a strength of the author – genre-teasing and unpredictable plots make each story one-of-a-kind. Don’t Look Now and The Way of the Cross are quite recognisable types of story; A Border-Line Case is unique.

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Scores for the Collection

My review of Borges last year has forced me to think about how to score short story collections, as I think I was rather too hard on him. This, I think, is because I judged the collection as though it were a novel – but many people will not read it in one sitting. So perhaps a collection’s value is more about the value of the individual stories. Or to put it more directly: I think that that ‘in total’ view effectively weighted all the stories equally to find an ‘average’ score, when in fact, when it comes to our opinions of a collection, we tend to weight the good bits higher. We’re more likely to recommend a collection with one genius story and four rubbish ones than one with five mediocre stories – at least, I am.

So, my new idea is to score the best in each category, and then remove points for how unrepresentative that story is of the collection as a whole. For each category, I will take the top score, and then subtract one point if it is unrepresentative, or if there is a significant number of bad stories, and a further point if it is entirely unrepresentative (but not if this brings it to an unrepresentatively low score), or if most stories are bad. “Bad” stories here will be those that score 1 or 2 in that category AND that are ‘bad’ overall, in order to take into account the way that a collection can contain stories with different objectives – reading a brilliant story that is terrible in one dimension drags the book down less than reading a terrible one. So:

Adrenaline: 4. Highest score, and thoroughly, thought not entirely, representative.

Emotion: 2. The peak is 3, but only one story got this, so 2. Could argue that it’s entirely unrepresentative, but subtracting a further point would be equally unrepresentative, as only one story got 1.

Thought: 3. Representative high score.

Beauty: 3. Ditto.

Craft: 3. High of 4 not representative – less than half the book got it.

Endearingness: 3.

Originality: 4. 5 was not representative, but 4 is.

Overall: 4/7. Not Bad. A collection of competent, intriguing, imaginative stories. Not mind-boggling, however, and may feel a bit dry and archaic to impatient readers. Traditional-feel ‘storytelling’ approach. I’ll probably try one of her novels.

Roundup

Just  few things to say. First off, my thanks and surprise to the people reading this. I’m not sure why you are, given that it’s been almost dead the last few months. Sure, readership has dropped off, but the fact that anyone hangs around is quite pleasing.

Second, I’ve been banned from the ASOIAF forums. I’m not entirely sure why this is – I wasn’t given any warnings, nobody told me that I had been banned or why, and although I’ve attempted to communicate by (civil! short!) e-mail with the people in charge, nobody’s even replied telling me to fuck off. If it hadn’t come on the back of a (very minor) spat I had where I made the mistake of mentioning that a prior post had been deleted (board policy is to pretend no moderation occurs), I would have assumed it was a board glitch.

It’s a bit weird for me, in over ten years on forums I’ve never been banned before – it’s a new experience, and quite peculiar. I’ve never been a non-person before. Frankly, that’s what it feels like – suddenly, I can’t talk to people I talked to before, and I’m not sure anybody even knows I’ve been banned yet, as all traces have been covered up. Some people have their e-mails visible to the public, so that’s something, but others don’t, and I’ve no way now to ask what they are so that I can keep in communication with them. I’ve also lost all the conversations that I’d had by PM, which I hadn’t thought to save. [I’ve had literally one other argument in over a year there, and had been reassured the mods were cool with me, so it’s pretty out of the blue and I hadn’t prepared].

I guess I’m also kind of pissed off over the affair, particularly since I thought I was being pretty altruistic there – most of my posts were offering advice and information, I think, and I put in a fuck-load of free time calculating results for a poll I ran for them. On the other hand… *shrug*. I think this is a good example of why it’s important that the only person whose opinions you do things for is yourself. If you do things for the approval of others, sooner or later you’re going to get fucked over like this, and you’re going to feel really angry about it – ‘how could they betray me after all I did for them?’ and all that. If you only do things you feel good doing, you’re not waiting for any payment, and if people tell you to fuck off, you’ve still got your own good feelings. So… yeah, I’m pissed off, but more in the vein of ‘if I’d known this was going to happen, I’d have been posting somewhere else all this time’. That and sheer bewilderment and disgust and the insanity/incivility of the mods over there, who permit daily flaming by the favoured but who ‘disappear’ people, without any discussion, who they dislike personally, on the slimmest pretext.

Of course, all that doesn’t mean be selfish. Selfish people are often more concerned with the opinions of others than anyone else – they’re just frightened of them rather than hopeful. So, I try to care about the interests and happiness of others (because… why not?), and to ignore what they might think about me, or say to me. Because some people just aren’t going to be fair to you, and it’s better to deplore that from an impartial viewpoint than to feel personally betrayed by it.

I’m keeping the link to them on the left, however, because it’s still a brilliant board – at least, the literature section is. It’s been so long since AFFC that I’ve long since tired of the ASOIAF-specific subforums, and the general board is too quick-moving, and too ill-tempered, for me to get into. The Literature forum is one of the web’s best venues for genre discussions – there’s a wide cross-section of tastes, and any book you can mention has been read by at least a few of them. Great for recommendations, particularly of new stuff – lots of early readers there, and they tend to give a pretty un-hyped view overall. Unfortunately, it’s one of the forums where the mods are a danger rather than an asset – they seem to think the forum exists for them, rather than vice versa – and some of them are prone to wild excess. There’s no appeals procedures (you CAN PM the admin, but it seems that gets you banned), no discussion of moderation allowed, no criticism of moderators (even their non-moderating actions), and seemingly no code of practice (they’re free to moderate their own threads, to edit people’s posts to say things totally different from the original wording, and they don’t have to distinguish mod-voice from normal-voice). So if you’re actually going to contribute, be very careful. I’ve been told that it’s best to send PMs and profile-posts to the high-ups to suck up, but I don’t know whether that actually works. That said, if you limit yourself to reading, and the odd question, it’s a brilliant resource and a reasonably friendly community (some favoured oldbies excepted).

And, third and most important of these items: searches. I get a little thing saying ‘top searches’, and at the moment, one of the top searches (ie one of the only searches) for this blog is “ursa + kitiara sex’. I’m appalled, and impressed. I mean, even Kitiara is a minor character from a series twenty years ago or more. And Ursa? Does Ursa even appear outside of “Dragonlance: The Meetings Sextet: Volume III: Dark Heart”? That’s damned obscure fanfiction you’re looking for, my mysterious friend.  And what’s more – why Ursa? Of all… not only of all the characters Kit has sex with in the Dragonlance corpus, but even of all the characters who appear in Dark Heart, Ursa is the most boring and pointless.

Obviously, the best slash from that book would be Kit/Colo tomboy-on-tomboy action. Failing that, there’s Kit/Patric shy-but-feisty-girl-with-experienced-yet-vulnerable-man romantic lovemaking. Or, if you want something a bit stranger, there’s Kit/El-Navar big-black-menacing-werepanther borderline-racist semi-bestiality. Kit/Ursa!? Set your sights higher, man!

Hmm. I’ve never read slash, that I can remember, and never written fanfiction. But in honour of our nameless curious friend, I hereby decree: if ever I DO write pornographic fan fiction, Dark Heart material will be among the first attempts!

[Don’t worry people. (Almost) absolutely not going to happen]

The Ontological Argument

Most of you probably know what the ontological argument is. Technically, an ontological argument is a proof of the existence of God from reason alone, but in practice, the term is more specific. It originates with Anselm’s argument that there must be a being, a being greater than which cannot be conceived, but is more famous in Descartes’ form, in which he likens theology to geometry. Just a we are certain that a triangle’s angles add up to 180 because we cannot conceive of triangle with other angles (any such object would not be a triangle), so too we can be certain that a perfect being exists, because we cannot conceive of a perfect being that does not exist – because existing is part of being perfect.More generally, we might call something an ontological argument if it tries to prove existence from a definition. Another argument is the more recent one drawing on impossible objects – just as we know that all round squares are round, whether or not we believe them to be possible, just so we can know that all existing Gods are existing, without requiring any preconceptions about whether God is real, or even possible.

These arguments have cropped up many times. They never go away. And they are continually refuted.

It occurs to me that both sides are missing the point. There is no need to argue over whether these arguments are valid. In my opinion they are, but this concession should not cost anybody anything.

Why do I think they are valid? Because I can’t see any reason to reject them that is not motivated by a dislike for their conclusions. In response to the argument “‘God’ means a perfect being. Therefore God is perfect. Not existing is a flaw. Therefore a perfect being cannot not exist. Therefore God, which is perfect, cannot not exist, therefore God exists”, many things can be challenged – but none unproblematically. Obviously there is the theological point about whether existence is ‘more perfect’ than non-existence, but that is easily avoided by specifying the meaning of perfection in advance, or using some similar argument that bypasses the term. That aside, we can:

a) Say that ” ‘X’ means a thing that is Y” does not entail “X is a thing that is Y” – that is, “1+1=2” is not justified by knowing that “2” means the number to which 1+1 sums. This, it seems to me, is an arbitrary assault on our use of definition.

b) Say that “All X things Y” does not entail “This X thing Ys” – in this case, ‘perfect things do not not-exist’ doesn’t entail ‘God, which is perfect, does not not-exist’. Again, an assault upon meaning.

c) Say that “God is a perfect being” is not true if God does not exist. This is failing to understand what ‘God’ means in the language. When people say “I love God”, they are thinking of a perfect being – they are not thinking that they love either a perfect and existing being, or else a being that does not exist and is not perfect. To demonstrate this further: if a person says ‘I want to try to be like God – perfect!’, a proof that God did not exist might dishearten him, but it would not cause him to think “oh, well God doesn’t exist, so now I want to try to be imperfect!”. Or another way: when people say ‘God’, even if they are thinking of a being that they think might or might not exist, they are not thinking of a being that they think might or might not be perfect.

d) Say that God not being non-existant does not entail God being existant. This, unfortunately, does not appreciate the meaning of ‘existance’. Either something exists or it does not. If something doesn’t exist, it’s non-existant, and that’s a flaw -and if it’s not non-existant, it exists, and even if there an intermediate state, this too would be an imperfection.

e) Say that we’re so annoyed by it all that we won’t let people say “God is perfect”, just on the off-chance of god not existing. That is, to say that we just can’t talk about non-existant things, or,with Russell, that anything we say about them is false. Now, first off, this is clearly an ad hoc stitch. Russell’s approach totally denies the reality of our language use: it says that ‘God is perfect’ and ‘God is not perfect’ are both false. That ‘pink unicorns are pink’ is false. That ‘the king of france is the king of france’ is false; that ‘no unicorn has ever been seen’ is false. That ‘Gandalf is a wizard’ is false. This theory is obviously false. There’s no reason to even think it up except as an answer to ‘how can we avoid the ontological argument (and some similar paradoxes that emerge in similar fashion)?’.

The first option there is a little better, but it’s still wrong. We CAN talk about non-existing things. We do it all the time. “Gandalf is a wizard” – look, there, I did it again! I said something, and what’s more it was true. And look, I can even build an argument on it! “Gandalf is a wizard. Aragorn is not a wizard. Nothing is both a wizard and not a wizard. Therefore Gandalf is not Aragorn.” That’s a pretty valid argument, despite it being about things that don’t exist. So why can’t we say “God is perfect”?

Because, let’s face it, it’s true. If you’re talking about something imperfect, you’re not talking about God. And we can’t replace it with something more cautious like “God is something that is said to be perfect”, because although that’s true, it’s insufficient – there are lots of things that could be SAID to be perfect without actually being God. And a person can still believe in God even if nobody says that anything is perfect. And if you use ‘something I believe to be perfect’ -well, the first objection still stands, and if a person says “I want to believe that the true God is perfect”, they DON’T mean “I want to that the being that I truly do believe to be perfect is perfect”. If that were what they meant, they couldn’t fail to live up to their desires! No, we just have to lump the fact that when people say ‘God’, they mean a perfect being.

Similar problems face the objection to the argument that “All existing things exist”. It’s pretty basically true that “All things that X, X”. Changing this to “All things that X and exist, X” is ungainly and arbitrary.

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No, people shouldn’t worry about showing that the argument is invalid. As Russell himself admitted, it’s hard to really say why – and such arguments have rarely, if ever, persuaded anyone who didn’t already not believe in God. No, we should just not look at validity as being everything.

If you don’t want to accept that God exists, don’t try to disprove the argument that “God is perfect, therefore God exists” – just don’t talk about God. An argument does not exist in the abstract- an argument has to be made. So don’t make it. And if somebody else does make it, say that you’re not interested in it, because the topic doesn’t concern you.

This isn’t advice about conversations – it’s not putting your head in the sand. It’s getting to the heart of why ontological arguments are divisive. They put the proof in the definition that is present in the premise – so to reject them, you must not accept that definition.

BUT: there’s more than one way of not accepting a definition. Traditional attempts to disprove the ontological argument rely upon “that’s not the right definition” – on the basis that definitions are right or wrong, and that’s that. Yet that is not always that. You can also simply refuse to define something in the way that people suggest. Think of a definition as saying “let X equal…” – at which point you should leap up and say “no! I won’t!”. Every definition is a request, and every request can be denied.

Or, if you want it put in terms of existence: say there are two types of existence. One meaning of “X exists” is “X is a valid term in our discussion”; another is “X is an entity within the real world”. The key feature of “God” is that if it is a valid term, it must refer to an entity within the real world. Likewise terms like “entities within the real world” – either the term is invalid, or it refers to entities within the real world. The ontological argument demonstrates this implication – but rather than take it down, we can also simply deny that “God” is a valid term. On what grounds? We don’t NEED any grounds. The word ‘alalss’ is not a valid term in normal English arguments. We could easily (in theory) take the word ‘fish’ out of our valid English terms, just by not using it. And so, if we no longer talk about God, it is no longer true that it must exist. If that sounds odd, rephrase that ‘it must’: if we no longer talk about God, we no longer have to accept that God exists. Where atheists go wrong is in agreeing to talk in terms of “God” at all – they’ve conceded the ground in their first step.

Again, this might sound very odd – but consider it analogously to discussions about morality. You are accused of being unchaste for having sex before marriage. Well, maybe you’ve given some thought to the matter, and might try to show that sex before marraige was unchaste – or, you could just say ‘don’t talk to me about chastity’. That’s not an admission of being unchaste, that’s simply denying that there’s any reason to talk in those terms. Denying the significance of those terms. You are accused: “you’re lustful!”. Rather than saying “well, being driven by a desire for sex isn’t lustful…” just say “why thank you.” Or “I don’t know what that word means”.

To make it clear: I’m not saying people should say “I don’t want to use the term ‘God'”. Obviously, this would just be sticking their heads in the sand. Because saying you don’t want to use the term admits that there IS a term. No, say “I’m sorry? What’s this ‘God’ word you’re using? I don’t believe you have the right to go around using those sounds as though they meant something.” Deny that it’s a word in the language.

And here I’ll bring in chastity again. You can not talk about chastity – or you can redefine it. Why redefine it? You only do that if you think there’s some valuable use of the word ‘chastity’ that you want to salvage. And if you don’t believe in God, what use of “God” would you want to salvage? Just throw the word away! Deny that it’s a word in the language.

But of course: theists will object: “but it IS a word in the language! Look, I’m using it! We’re using it!”. Well yes; THEY are using it. It is a word in THEIR language. But who said that that was your language? In a very real sense, people who believe in God are speaking a different language from the rest of us. Although, of course, that does not mean that people cannot be bilingual…

I would draw an analogy with mathematics. I can invent a new mathematical function, k, such that kX is undefined for even numbers. The proper response should not be ‘The k function doesn’t exist’ or ‘the k function cannot be applied to even numbers’ but simply ‘what the hell are you talking about this nonsensical ‘k’ for? What USE is that?’ And if I can’t show you any use, don’t bother being annoying by the undefined values, just don’t use the function in the first place.

Or to simplify: you can have a theist worldview or a non-theist worldview, but once you introduce the concept of deity as a meaningful, coherent, applicable concept, it has no coherent place other than at the top.

Now, it might be objected: but this doesn’t change anything. It doesn’t stop it being true that there’s a God when a theist says it. No, it doesn’t, that’s quite true. And I can’t even say ‘God doesn’t exist’ to counter it, because I can’t have that be true, unless I define ‘God’ in a way that’s got nothing to do with what the theist is talking about. But so what? There is no concession here. Because the ‘existence’ of God has no practical importance if you don’t believe in God.

Again, take mathematics. If I and my countrymen speak a language in which 1+1=3, my entire body of mathematics is going to look completely at odds with yours. But I can still admit ‘yes, accepting your definitions, 1+1=2′. That doesn’t mean I’ve got to abandon MY mathematics, because I don’t have to accept your definitions. And the ‘truth’ of your claim that 1+1=2 has no consequences for me – because the conclusions of your mathematics are all equivalent to the conclusions of mine, if we just translate from one to another by changing numerals. Your premise don’t add anything to my conclusions, they merely suggest that I rephrase them.Of course, to you, 1+1=2 is enormously important, and it’s the wellspring of your arithmetic.

Just so, saying that, accepting the definitions of theists, God does exist, has no implications for me. It has implications for theists, who base all sorts of things on it, but anything a theist says can be said by a non-theist as well. They can even say things for ‘the same’ reason – only with different phrasing.

The point, then, is that the existence of God is not a game-changer, even though its of vital importance to believers (and I mean genuine importance – not just that they THINK its important). An analogy: the keystone of an arch is of vital importance to the arch. Yet a different keystone could have been used, and then THAT keystone would have been vital to the (or rather, a very slightly different) arch. In just the same way, nothing can be derived properly by theists from the existence of God that could not be derived properly by non-theists from other premises.

And if to some theists that sounds rather dismissive – well, actually it’s dogma. As the Catholic Encycopedia puts it:

“The Church, on the contrary, recognizes the capacity of human reason and grants that here and there pagans may have existed, who had freed themselves from prevalent errors, and who had attained to such a knowledge of the natural law as would suffice to guide them to the attainment of beatitude. But she teaches nevertheless that this can only be the case as regards a few, and that for the bulk of mankind Revelation is necessary.”

That is: yes, the same conclusions can be reached by non-believers, it’s just harder for them. That is: the theistic worldview allows us more easily to arrive at the truth.

Well, that’ their viewpoint, and I think it’s hard to prove it one way or another – and in any case, what’s true for the many need not be true for the particular individual, so I’m happy to leave matters with Catholicism settled on that ground.

So, perhaps I’ll end with: before getting into any argument about whether things exist, first ask: what are the practical consequences of whether this thing exists or not? If there are none, perhaps you’re just disagreeing over what language to speak to describe the same things as each other.

The Carpet People, Terry Pratchett

The Carpet People is a short book. Very short. If I wrote a long review, I’d be in danger of writing more than the author did. So I won’t.

The Carpet People is unusual, in that it was written twice – once by a teenager, and then again by a massively successful author. The result is something neither would have written alone – but that’s not where the problems come from.

The problem is: the book is altogether too slight. Events are essentially a series of vignettes, mostly very stylised, sometimes quite cliché. When any thought is put into the plot, very little sense can be extracted from it – and the same is true of the worldbuilding, where it seems inadequate proofreading has compounded the sloppiness of inadequate development. The conclusion is a deus ex machina, and also is strongly reliant on implausible tropes, and as a result is unsatisfying and over-familiar. Regarding the style, the teenager and the self-collaborator have colluded to produce exuberant but often quite self-conscious writing – it reads like a teenager who is trying to be Terry Pratchett. Much of the humour will be familiar from his other works, and here it is less developed, less sophisticated. The fantastic elements are… limited. The central conceit, of a civilisation in a carpet, is beguiling but lacks substance, and is not particularly well developed, although there are some smile-inducing moments here and there. In that regard, it stands up poorly next to (my memories of) the Bromeliad Trilogy; the second conceit, of a sort of Rome-analogue and its interactions with kingdoms and tribesmen, is weak and patchy; the third conceit, Pratchett’s traditional ‘trousers of time’ metaphysics, is merely invoked glamourously, not presented coherently, and is closer to a series of speeches from a self-help manual than an effective element of setting or plot. The book is too short to include an exposition, development, and conclusion: instead, we have an exposition of reasonable length, including an Adventure unrelated to the plot, followed by a couple of ‘incidents’ to fill in time, and a finale that requires no preparation, exacts no heavy toll, takes up the requisite number of chapters, but is almost entirely uneventful and feels written by numbers. There is zero character development, zero explanation of backstory, and more or less zero reason why any of it was worth writing about. In short, the entire thing feels childish – immature, unsophisticated… and frankly lazy, as though it were a piece of juvenilia rushed out with a little editing to make a quick buck off the author’s sudden fame.

That said: I’m being harsh because I’m disappointed. I liked the book as a child. I still think it’s not a bad book for children to read. Because it’s so lightweight and flimsy, I wouldn’t want any child of mine to have a diet solely of this kind of book – but as a side-order, it’s not bad. Yes, it uses very broad, gestural brushstrokes, but children are good at extrapolating from hints to imagine unseen wonders, and if you tell them something, they’re more likely to believe it without having to be shown. And it’s not badly written, in a technical sense. I read it through and felt kind of bored and underwhelmed and wanted to pick at various inconsistencies, or points not really thought through, but at no point was it so bad I was tempted to put it down. Unlike some writing, its problem was there wasn’t enough of it, not that there was too much – although perhaps the knowing tone might be a bit grating for adults, particularly if they’ve already read a lot of Pratchett, since this isn’t his best.

So: tired, lazy, immature, not thought through. May still seem wonderful to inexperienced readers. An introduction to Pratchett for children, perhaps, or a lighter course between Discworld novels or after the Bromeliad – but unlike much Pratchett, this one, I think, doesn’t have much to offer to adults.

Adrenaline: 2. Could be more boring. But incidents are too short, too flippant, and to childish to invoke real concern or curiosity.

Emotion: 2. Characters likeable, but too lightly sketched and too undeveloped (and unthreatened) to care about much.

Thought: 2. Hints at things.

Beauty: 2. He can write nice passages, and it’s a nice idea, but it’s too formulaic in plot and the prose can seem tiresome at points.

Craft: 3. I guess, for what it is, it’s not too badly done. As I say, the prose is a bit overdone sometimes, but it’s not that bad, really. The lightness is a result of its nature. My only real concern here would be balance – the buildup seems to call for a more substantial ending. As it is, the ending takes quite a while, but not a lot happens in it.

Endearingness: 3. As a child, I’d have put this 4 or even 5, but as an adult I’m more critical and jaded.

Originality: 2. There’s just not that much that’s unusual. The conceit is clever, imaginative – but hardly bizarre or unprecedented – and the plot is formulaic. Because it’s Pratchett, there are idiosyncratic moments, but they are far too few, subordinated to familiar jokes and parodies.

Overall: 4/7. Bad, but with redeeming features. It’s not really terrible in any way, it’s quite likeable, and it will probably appeal to children.

The Skystone, Jack Whyte (I)

I wrote this before finishing the book… which is why it’s been written at all, since I still haven’t finished the book. I wrote this, and promptly stopped reading. I’m sure I’ll finish it at some point… but I’m giving up on keeping this review until I do; I may as well through this up now.

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Unusually, I’m starting to write this when I haven’t yet finished reading the book in question: I’m about two-thirds of the way through. In the case of “The Prestige”, I started writing early because I could not contain my excitement; this time, I’m salvaging my thoughts, because I don’t know whether I can finish, or, if I do, when that may be.  And yet The Skystone is by no means a terrible book.

The Skystone is the first volume of a multi-novel epic retelling the story of King Arthur – or so it says on the cover. In fact, it’s one of two volumes telling the story of Publius Varrus, a native of Roman Britain shortly before the withdrawal of the legions, and of his experiences as a soldier and a smith. Together, the two books form the foundation of Whyte’s Arthurian retelling, in which we see Arthur and his companions as the last light of Rome lingering on into the Dark Ages, but the Arthurian connexions are at first sly and easily missed. As a teenager, I read and enjoyed the first two novels, but for some reason never ventured on to the rest of the series.

The first thing that strikes the reader on opening the volume, after a dull authorial essay establishing some facts about Roman Britain that are later explained explicitly or implicitly in the text itself anyway, is the prose style, which is intriguingly straightforward. The quote on the cover calls the prose ‘as straight and clean as a Roman sword’, and it is – but the quote does not mean quite what one might think. The prose is not basic, sensationalist, or unobtrusive: instead, it is precise, measured, even self-conscious. It is the voice in writing of Publius Varrus, a man of evident intelligence and considerable knowledge, but not of literary education, and it reads like the writing of a man determined not to embarrass himself, but also to be honest and to tell all – not unlike the sort of curious speech one sometimes sees in courtroom dramas, when sordid incidents are recalled with delicate language. So, Varrus employs the largest number of instances of the word “phallus” that I’ve ever seen in one novel, and has no difficulty, for instance, telling us about how agonising his bowel movements are after a painful injury, yet does so in a dispassionate manner that manages to be both direct and roundabout simultaneously.

The prose style perfectly captures Varrus’ character: self-consciously cerebral, but often in the thick of the action, whether personal or military; and at the same time it supplies a solid fundament against which other elements of his character can be established: while he is not an ‘unreliable’ narrator in the normal sense, he can be a misleading one, as his careful writing style often belies his less civilised elements – he drinks and fornicates excessively at times, and he clearly has a furious temper when provoked. He does not lie about any of this, but we see him, as it were, through the eyes of his own better self, which puts us right in the heart of his dichotomies even when there is ostensibly little dramatic material to base his complex character upon.

If I like the writing, then, why am I struggling with the text? Because there is so little dramatic material. The early part of the novel, I found greatly enjoyable, if a little slow, as we see, in convolutedly nested flashbacks, various incidents from Varrus’ military career, which serve to establish the character of Varrus, of his friend and commander Caius Britannicus, and of their antagonists, the Seneca family. This section of the novel compels through its fractured narrative and full stock of incident, which animate the slow prose and distract from the novel’s wider flaws. Once this introduction is out of the way, however, the narrative gradually slows to a halt: a series of episodes fail to give overarching direction, and the ostensible plotline set up to motivate the characters plays such a quiet second fiddle to the urge to exposition that it lacks the dramatic tension it requires. The third plotline, which will take us through the final third of the novel, is impersonal and hard to empathise with.

The key word to explain what is wrong with this book is ‘exposition’. I do not mean that there are long speeches explaining backstory – although there most certainly are. I’ve sat through two different lectures by Varrus about the principles of ironworking already! But no, the problem is that the entire novel is exposition. It serves to introduce us to key characters and move those characters into the necessary positions for the drama of the second novel (at least, so I hope – I remember the second volume having a far more dramatic pace to it), and as a result it often has a mechanical, railroaded feel to its progression. Most of this set-up is unnecessary in the strictest sense – most could be told through flashbacks in an expanded second novel – but it feels as though Whyte is being too respectful of his characters to compress their lives in that way. There are two instincts fighting against one another here: to tell the story of Arthur, which requires this little Roman introduction, and to tell the story of Publius Varrus; in consequence, Varrus gets more time than the first purpose requires, but less than the second purpose would suggest.

Now, I like Varrus, and I think the second purpose is the more interesting – but in a way, I’m glad Whyte didn’t follow it entirely, because there’s just not enough of Varrus to talk about at length. That is the second problem with this novel. There is little dominating plot, because that comes in the second book and this just sets things up, so we’re left with a vignette of a Roman life – but that life is not interesting enough. These are characters to serve a narrow purpose, and they could serve it well – they’re likable, and more importantly easy to empathise with – but as the book goes on and the uncompelled attention is allowed to linger on them, it becomes increasingly clear how flat and dull they are.

Publius Varrus is a Mary Sue. He’s a brilliant soldier – a skilled fighter and leader, helping his general construct one of the finest military units in the world. He’s also intelligent, with an inquiring mind. He’s also clearly well-educated on many subjects, even if not formally. He’s also devoutly religious, though not to the extent of it interfering with his life in any way or making him off-putting for any non-Christians in the audience. He’s a brilliant smith, naturally. He’s seemingly liked by, without exception, absolutely everyone he meets, aside from a couple of Obvious Villains. Oh, and he’s an incredible archer, by the way. He’s also a paragon of virtue (barring a little uncouth manly indiscretion here and there, and some anger issues), but he’s devastatingly humble and never realises how wonderful he is (though everyone else does). No woman can say no – mostly they have to throw themselves on him, though, since he’s far too polite and selfless to ask. He does pick up a distinctive injury early on, but it never seems to really debilitate him. He is, as will become apparent, central to the ‘reality’ of the Arthurian myths, and along the way he and his friends and family introduce a whole wave of innovations, including the Celtic Cross, and the Welsh/English longbow (the explanations for those two are individually perfectly fine and believable, but they feel unnecessary and together enhance the ‘Publius Varrus – Wonder God’ problem).

It’s not just Varrus. All of his friends are similarly wonderful and perfect, while his enemies are without any redeeming features. He ponders repeatedly whether the Senecas are actually the perfect personification of all the evil of the Empire, and Britannicus the personification of everything good – and it’s hammered home that this is due to ‘breeding’, and that the Seneca family has no ‘good’ members, and hasn’t for centuries, if ever. They are almost supernaturally evil.

If that strikes you as a worryingly right-wing approach to character traits, you won’t be surprised by some of the political views expressed by the ‘good’ characters. In essence, Varrus and (particularly) Britannicus are Libertarians – they repeatedly complain about government regulations, which are apparently the only really bad thing about the Empire, and would never for a moment consider that slavery might be good or necessary (though everyone else thinks that Rome was built on slavery, these two believe that slavery is destroying the Empire –though clearly it’s taking its time!), though the issues arising from the fact that Britannicus is unbelievably fantastically wealthy and employs a great many servants never impinge their consciousness. Britannicus believes that Rome will fall, and advocates a sort of paramilitary militia movement that will defy corruptly controlling governments and protect its people against foreigners and brigands when the government collapses.

Fortunately, the simplistic and unrealistic (in the sense of being anachronistic in the mouth of a Roman) politics is kept to a minimum here, too light to sink the book – and if the characters happen to have a certain admiration for military strength and discipline and distaste for civilian impurity, well, the word ‘fascist’ was inspired by Rome, after all. Frankly, I’d rather see more offputting politics from the characters, as it would give them some more colour and ambiguity. As it is, there is no ambiguity or complexity at all, which means that most of the attention lavished on the characters is wasted – there’s nothing more to see than can be seen at first sight, so the second, third and fourth sights are superfluous.

And there IS a lot of sighting. The novel is nearly 700 pages long, and with the heavy prose style is feels longer. In the final analysis, that’s far, far too long for a novel with little character development and no real dramatic plot.

That said, I do hope that things may pick up a little before the end of the book, and I’ll leave off giving any scores until I’ve finished it.