Here’s a question: how many people live in Australia? About twenty-five million?
That’s right, but also wrong. Twenty-five million people don’t live in Australia; they live in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Darwin, Adelaide, and Perth.
Leave the coastal enclaves and Australia quickly becomes indistinguishable from Mordor: arid bush, thinly grassed plains, and wastelands of sand and dirt. We have ten deserts in total – two hundred years after white settlers made landfall they were still discovering new ones – and they’re every colour you can name. The Simpson Desert is blood-red. The Tanami Desert is orange. The Painted Desert (which contains mica) is white streaked through brown. I am comforted by the fact that although Australians might run out of water, oil, coal, and food, we will never run out of deserts.
Only fourteen percent of Australians live in remote areas…but these remote areas are virtually the entire country. This has engendered a decades-long cultural dialog about who’s the “real” Australians – the masses packed into coastal sanctuaries engineered to look like their European countries of origin, or the minority who actually live in Australia.
Wake in Fright is a particularly nightmarish depiction of life in the Australian outback. The main character is a schoolteacher, posted out to some flyspeck town, who has just received his Christmas pay packet. He obviously intends to return to Sydney, citydwellers view the outback like astronauts view the vacuum of space – fun to visit, but you don’t stay past the airlock a second longer than you have to.
En-route, he stops by the slightly larger flyspeck town of Bundanyabba (modelled after the real town of Broken Hill). Everyone – police, bartenders, miners – is superficially friendly in a way that’s scary, as though they’re all wearing masks. The town has secrets hidden in plain sight: moral depravity, suicide, and sexual corruption. Past nightfall the schoolteacher decides to go gambling, and loses all of his money. He is now dependent on the town’s generosity to survive…and the masks start to slip.
Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, Wake in Fright it was written in the 1960s, and achieved international fame through a movie. There the similarities stop. Picnic was oneiric and hallucinatory, Wake is blunt and stark. Hanging thrusts you maddeningly far away from itself, In draws you close. Rock is dainty and ladylike, Fright is like watching a blood and shit covered tapeworm being drawn from a cat’s asshole.
It’s a really vile book. There’s a scene in the middle as unpleasant as anything I can recall reading, and unlike something like American Psycho it achieves this feat while remaining believable. Even descriptions of harmless events seem coated in filth and poison. Riding a train and eating breakfast at a hotel are seen through an authorial lens that captures the dust-cauled sunlight and focuses it on filth, dirt, and unpleasantness. There’s exactly one moment where Kenneth Cook blurs the camera and stops us from seeing the action on the page (perhaps out of fear of censorship). But even here, he leaves enough clues that the motivated reader understands what’s going on.
Alcohol is the grease of the story, allowing the action to move. Everyone drinks all the time in Bundanyabba, and refusing to drink is an insult. Several times the protagonist tries to plead off the beers forced on him, and the nice bloke offering them turns into a spitting viper. You have to be an alcoholic in the ‘Yabba. To be otherwise is to violate a sacred pact.
This “get drunk or else” attitude is an authentic one. My father used to listen to Australian country musician Slim Dusty, who wrote dozens if not hundreds of songs about drinking, such as “You’ve Gotta Drink the Froth to Get the Beer”, “Love to Have a Beer With Duncan”, “My Pal Alcohol,” and (most famously) “A Pub With No Beer”. “The maid’s gone all cranky, and the cook’s acting queer / What a terrible place, is a pub with no beer.” Karl Marx famously described religion as “the opiate of the masses”. In rural Australia, the opiate of the masses is an actual opiate.
The outback doesn’t come off looking very good in Wake in Fright. It would be considered racist if the characters were brown or black people (see Dan Simmons’ Song of Kali, and Billy Hayes’ Midnight Express). To what extent it’s modeled on reality isn’t for me to say – I’m not sure that Broken Hill was ever the antipodean Gomorrah that Bundanyabba is. But there’s romantic depictions of outback life (“Waltzing Matilda”) that seem equally alien to me, based on my brief exposure to outback towns. Maybe the truth is somewhere in between. And it may be my privilege as a citydweller that I never have to learn it.
A doorstop-sized work of historical fiction from 14th century China. At eight hundred pages, nearly a million words, and a thousand named characters, it has broken hardier men than you. Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of those Mount Everest type books – can you possibly finish it?
It’s also the world’s first videogame. Explanation incoming.
Sometimes art has content that suggests it belongs to a different medium. For example, the first film directors had a background in theater, and the movies they produced are often stunningly derivative of stage plays.
Watch a film from the 1920s and you’ll see lengthy static shots, minimalist editing, flat and declamatory acting, etc. Only in the middle period of Hollywood’s golden age did the techniques and approaches of film qua film emerge. Early films didn’t leave the vaudeville behind: they’re well made, but…they’re not exactly movies.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms is like that, but instead of being a play disguised as a movie, it’s a videogame disguised as a book.
More specifically, a strategy game. It reminds me of a six hour Age of Empires II game fought between skilled and stubborn adversaries amidst a mounting pile of energy drink cans. Battles without end. Thousands of men thrown into a woodchipper, often gaining nothing, or winning a victory that gets reversed minutes later. Numberless acts of heroism, which you see from God’s perspective and soon don’t even notice.
It’s about the fall of the Han dynasty and the three kingdoms (Wu, Wei and Shu) that ascended in the aftermath, trying to fill the power vacuum. They do this through a complex and Machiavellian mix of marriage, wizardry, and battles so bloody that it seems the population of medieval China gets slaughtered three times over.
The famous opening line “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been” was not written by Luo Guanzhong, but was added centuries later. Nonetheless, it sums up his text: cyclical periods of destruction and renewal. Events are either meaningless or all-meaningful, depending on your perspective. There’s nods to “empty boat” style Taoist philosophy at times. The soil drinks blood. The soil then produces trees. The trees are used to make axes. The axes…
It’s hard to describe Romance without making it sound like the dullest book ever. It’s not. Nor is it the second dullest book. It’s actually interesting, once you crack the “code”.
The worst way to read it is like a traditional novel. Forget rising and falling action, dramatic climaxes, etc. Romance of the Three Kingdom’s intense moments come out of nowhere like monsoons, blow the lives of characters to pieces, and then end. Also, large parts are based on history, which is under no obligation to be satisfying to anyone. A better way is to view it like a growing plant: continually evolving in a way that’s no more and no less sensible than real history or the life of the reader.
And it’s thrilling. Despite the nihilism of the whole, you’ll still feel tense when Cao Cao fails in his plot to assassinate Dong Zhuo, and cheer at cunning method Zhou Yu uses to overcome an enemy fleet. Certain moments (such as the Battle at the Red Cliff) are as cinematic as Game of Thrones. And there are passages that would fascinate anyone with an interest in cultural anthropology and medical history. For example, the great hero Liu Bei’s reaction when he sees weapons inside his bridal apartment.
The bridegroom turned pale. Bridal apartments lined with weapons of war and waiting maids armed! But the housekeeper of the lady said, “Do not be frightened, O Honorable One! My lady has always had a taste for warlike things, and her maids have all been taught fencing as a pastime. That is all it is.”
“Not the sort of thing a wife should ever look at,” said Liu Bei. “It makes me feel cold, and you may have them removed for a time.”
Lady Sun laughed, saying, “Afraid of a few weapons after half a life time spent in slaughter!”
One wonders at what Luo Guanzhong is trying to depict here. Is Liu Bei suffering from what we today call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The biggest challenging to climbing Mt Romance is the colossal cast of characters. To reach the end, you need to develop a sixth sense as to which characters are important to the plot and which ones will never be seen again. A lot of the characters have similar names. It can be hard to separate Zhang Fei from Zhang He. Maybe I’m a racist colonial paleface who thinks all Chinese names sound the same. But maybe not – Luo Guanzhong seems to be winking to the reader at times, such as in this (humorous?) scene where a woman vows to only marry a man with the same name as hers:
“Why did you trouble your sister-in-law to present wine to me, brother?” asked Zhao Yun.
“There is a reason,” said the host smiling. “I pray you let me tell you. My brother died three years ago and left her a widow. But this cannot be regarded as the end of the story. I have often advised her to marry again, but she said she would only do so if three conditions were satisfied in one man’s person. The suitor must be famous for literary grace and warlike exploits, secondly, handsome and highly esteemed and, thirdly, of the same name as our own. Now where in all the world was such a combination likely to be found? Yet here are you, brother, dignified, handsome, and prepossessing, a man whose name is known all over the wide world and of the desired name. You exactly fulfill my sister’s ambitions. If you do not find her too plain, I should like her to marry you and I will provide a dowry. What think you of such an alliance, such a bond of relationship?”
Romance of the Three Kingdoms might also be an early example of the Draco in Leather Pants phenomenon. The antagonist of the tale is clearly meant to be Cao Cao of the Wei kingdom, but he’s probably the strongest and most interesting character in the story, and a lot of people seem to view him in a positive light. Tumblr, of course, has an active community of Cao Cao stans.
But Romance isn’t a character study, it’s a videogame. The market seems to back this idea up. Usually classic works of literature attract a slew of movie adaptations, and maybe a single throwaway text adventure game made in 1984 by Infocom. But according to Wikipedia, Romance of the Three Kingdoms has been adapted to film eight times, to television twenty-four times, and as a game fifty seven (!) times. The book keeps rejecting its paper and clothing itself in binary. There might be three kingdoms, but ROTTK truly belongs in the realm of ones and zeros.
“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse, and rough, and irritating, and it gets everywhere,” – Albert Camus
Western horror relies on convention – Bram Stoker’s vampires, Shirley Jackson’s haunted houses, and Romero’s zombies. By contrast, Japanese horror more often relies on free-standing symbols and images – Kôji Suzuki’s rings of light, Junji Ito’s spirals, and Shinya Tsukamoto’s metal sculptures.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. Art rooted in convention is easier to understand: the audience automatically comprehends Slasher Movie #23532 in light of Slasher Movie #23531 (or the last one they remember). But it’s boring, and makes you a slave to the past: modern horror film is consequently a cesspool of spooky dolls and cars that won’t start and ghosts in mirrors and clanging ADR. By contrast, Japanese horror (at its best) achieves a monolithic starkness: I gave up looking for things like Suehiro Maruo’s Paranoia Star because I couldn’t find any.
The Woman in the Dunes is an eerie psychological novel about…sand.
An amateur entomologist is seeking a new kind of insect in rural Japan. He ends up trapped in a deep pit of sand. He has food and water and even female companionship (although she seems odd), but no way of escaping. This is not an accident. Someone just out of sight has planned this fate for him. He has a little shack that he spends hours each day sweeping clear of sand (uselessly; the wind blows it straight back in). He can’t contact anyone from the outside world. They’ll declare him dead and maybe they’ll be right to. His horizons are made of sand.
The Woman in the Dunes might not be a horror novel, as I don’t think Kobo Abe was trying to frighten. Kafka’s a better comparison. Nonetheless, I’m now aware of “ammophobia” – fear of sand. More specifically: fear of sinking into sand, swallowing sand, having sand grains between your toes, and so on. Just as Uzumaki left me uncomfortably aware of spiral shapes, I put this book down and was plagued by thoughts of sand.
It’s creepy stuff. Silken, fluid, deadly. Viewed under a microscope, sand is beautiful, but it’s inhospitable to human life, and defiant of mankind’s attempts to control it. You can sculpt a castle of sand on the beach, but the next day, it will be gone. But won’t the house you live in be gone someday, too? All of mankind’s buildings, on a long enough timescale, will become sand.
This is sort of how Kobo Abe’s protagonist rationalises his fate. The outside world is just temporarily rearranged sand and dust, so there’s no reason to want to go back. Being trapped in a hole is probably a privilege; he gets to see the truth. Ozymandias’s kingdom wasn’t overtaken by sand, it was sand.
There’s a livestreamer called Dellor who plays Fortnite and other videogames. He has a PO box, and if you mail him a package he’ll open it on stream. Occasionally, he receives sand. I’m not sure if a single person is behind this, or if it’s a shared joke among his fans. He’ll rip open an envelope, and sand will spray across his apartment. He gets keyboards with sand packed in between the letters. Once someone sent him an airsoft pistol with sand stuffed into the barrel. This annoys him, because (as the narrator of The Woman in the Dunes could confirm) sand is extremely hard to remove. No matter how much you vaccuum a carpet, in six months you’ll walk over it barefoot and feel the bite of a silica tooth: a reminder of our fundamental lack of control.
Western horror can be likened to a vine, which can be followed back to its root no matter where it goes, and J-horror to a series of mushrooms, which sprout out of the ground with no visible connection to each other. Or perhaps particles of sand. The Woman in the Dunes exemplifies the J-horror approach, even if it might not be J-horror. It has one idea. One single idea. It could have been written even if no other book had ever been published. It does not want to be the first book in the series, or to answer questions raised by another book, or to get adapted into a movie.
The Woman in the Dunes doesn’t even want to be entertaining (and frequently, it isn’t). It exists to exist. No matter what momentary order we impose on sand, in the end, it has no purpose other than to be sand.
The supposed eighteenth chapter to Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock, revealing what happened to the three missing women.
“Supposed” because the internet is rife with conspiracy theories that Joan Lindsay didn’t write it, that it’s a hoax, et cetera.
I’m not convinced. The number of parties necessary to orchestrate such a fraud (Lindsay’s estate, editor, publisher, and so on) would be huge, and the prose definitely reads like Lindsay’s (note, for example, the frequent usage of “little” in its diminutive/feminine sense.)
Until someone presents evidence otherwise, I take Secret at face value: as the unpublished work of Joan Lindsay.
It’s understandable that people want to decanonize The Secret of Hanging Rock. Everyone who reads it reacts the same way: with disappointment. I don’t know of a single person who thinks it improves the book. It’s a few pages long, and much of its text was retrofitted into chapter 3 of Hanging Rock. In short, the girls disappeared into a rift in time. There are some allusions to quantum cosmology, as well as Aboriginal “dreamtime” and therianism. That’s it.
It’s a stupid ending. Maybe any ending would be stupid. Hanging Rock was like a crossword puzzle in a newspaper: fun until you solve it: then it becomes a fish-wrapper.
Secret was so threadbare and underwhelming that I started pondering other things: such as the ethics of publishing a dead writer’s unfinished work. Nirvana fans are familiar with this game: every few years someone finds a shoebox of tapes and we’re subjected to yet another posthumous Kurt Cobain “album” of unfinished material that he definitely wouldn’t have wanted the public to hear.
Is it right to do this? Release all of a famous artist’s outtakes once they’re too dead to complain?
I can see the opposite argument; authors don’t have unlimited fiat to declare that nobody read their work, particularly for something of public and literary importance (like Picnic at Hanging Rock). If someone wrote the cure for cancer on a piece of paper and commanded the world to never read it, we probably shouldn’t honor that request, either.
At the end, Hanging Rock was about time, and how time blurs reality. Reading the book is a maddening experience: you know that whatever happened to the girls, it’s knowledge out of your reach. Knowing what happens yanks the story back down to earth, and destroys its appeal. Hanging Rock left you like Aesop’s fox, snapping at grapes that are just out of reach. Secret cuts down the tree and lets you gorge on grapes until you’re become violently sick. Enjoy your stomach-ache.
One of the final books in Gemmell’s Drenai setting, White Wolf introduces a new hero called Skilgannon the Damned.
It’s all here: the fast pace, the brutal fight scenes (Gemmell knows sixty adjectives for an axe splitting a skull), the terse and efficient characterization, the unabashed heroism, and the tension between ideals of good and evil and the complexities of reality. I truly believe that nobody ever did it better.
But “it’s all here” doesn’t feel like an unalloyed compliment, not after twenty five books of mostly the same stuff. Gemmell was an excellent but limited author, and here he paints within the lines, offering up mostly familiar pleasures. The result is a book that, while fun, doesn’t particularly need to exist.
All the usual baddies make an appearance – the Nadir, werebeast “Joinings”, assassins, shamans – as do the typical Gemmell action setpieces (here we get three fights in a tavern as opposed to the usual one or two). Once again, a character renounces their violent ways and tries to become a monk, with predictably disastrous results. And the final encounter, while exciting, couldn’t be more of a videogame boss battle if “One Winged Angel” was playing in the background.
The protagonist Skilgannon poses a particular problem: he’s just a jumble of traits from past Gemmell heroes and never emerges as a compelling and unique character. He has Waylander’s dark past, Druss’s demon-possessed weapon (the actual Druss appears in this novel, muddling things still further), Jon Shannow’s sense of having outlived his time, Tenaka’s sense of being ill-used by someone he trusted, etc. He’s supposed to be an antihero, but he only commits evil acts because of a pair of mind-controlling swords, a bit of thematic oddness that Gemmell never addresses.
Gemmell doesn’t do anything new here, but he does turn up the emotional intensity in a few places. The scenes depicting Skilgannon’s youth were fascinating, linking past Gemmell figures such as Gorben and Michanek and adding a host of new ones. Druss the Legend steals the show every time he appears, to the point where I wished the entire book was about him. And the title’s full meaning is actually pretty interesting, particularly in light of the sequel, The Swords of Night and Day.
I enjoyed White Wolf, both when I read it here and when I read its various bits and pieces in earlier books like Waylander et al. It was probably for the best that Gemmell spent his final years writing quasi-historical fiction (re-telling the Iliad). It forced him outside of his comfort zone. Gemmell incapable of writing anything but a Gemmell novel, but many of his best stories happened when he at least tried.
Did you buy this book expecting to learn about the Roman Empire? If so, I have good news – there’s stuff in here that not even historians know.
For example, that Caligula’s sister died at age twenty three due to a “surfeit of buggery” with her brother and “seven outrageously well-endowed studs” (p34). And how when Caligula travelled he “amused himself by taking potshots at the dull-witted peasants in the roadside fields, wielding a sort of projectile-shooting bazooka” (p38). Or how, in the arenas, skilled gladiators could decapitate a man and then direct the pumping jets of blood to spell “Caligula” on the sand, with the falling head forming the dot on the letter i. (p74).
But it wasn’t all fun and games. The most prized animal in the arenas was the “Libyan lion…eleven feet in length, with enormous paws armed with razorsharp (sic) claws of sabre-size dimensions, even their engorged testicles were as large as a man’s head”. Scary. The only way the Romans could subdue the Libyan lion and its engorged testicles was for a “particularly handsome slave to present his shapely, exposed anus to the lion’s mighty sexual apparatus; then, once the act of copulation (which invariably proved terminal for the unfortunate slave, due to unsustainable blood loss) reached its critical point and the lion was momentarily distracted, a gang of a hundred or more whooping slaves would wrestle the lion to the ground and throw a net over it”. (p83)
Divine Carnage is hilarious; one of the funniest books I’ve read in recent memory. I’m fighting (and losing) a battle just to fill this review with my favorite parts. Nearly every page of this book has entertainment value: which is good, because it’s a bit light on history. And literacy.
What’s this book supposed to be? A hoax? A work of surrealist metafiction? A parody of the “edgy history” trend? One of Creation Books’ typical scams?
The back cover has the words “ORGY OF DEATH GLADIATOR KILL”, with all capitals and no punctuation. The copyediting was done by someone stabbing a keyboard with a gladius; there are typically several spelling and grammar errors on every page. The phrase “plebian scum” is used so often it becomes a tic.
Also, the book was written by time travellers: James Havoc’s foreword is copyrighted 1999, but it mentions the “recent” Russell Crowe movie Gladiator, which came out in 2000.
Much of Divine Carnage was clearly composed while drunk – you can see the author’s mind wander down an alley and start free-associating while staring at an empty glass. For example, we’re told about the Imperial “thumbs up for life, thumbs down for death” custom, with an aside that the emperor’s thumb was actually penetrating a slave’s rectum. (But…er…then you can’t see which way the thumb’s pointing…)
Who are the authors of this masterpiece?
Jeremy Reed is a “Jersey-born poet, novelist, biographer and literary critic”. Stephen Barber is a longtime Creation Books hack-for-hire who has written a dozen titles along the lines of “transformative future sex death semiotics in the films of Uwe Boll”. Neither is a historian, but they attack the project with gusto. At the end, Jeremy Reed heroically cites four books as “…an invaluable sources of reference (sic)”, though his final sentence is candid: “There is no definitive life of Heliogabalus, and I have attempted to resassemble (sic) aspects of his character most likely to resonate in the current times.” Stephen Barber cites no books at all, just the “newly-excavated” Butrinte Caligula, which must be newly excavated indeed, considering that Google offers no evidence of its existence.
Divine Carnage is the first in the Blood History series that marked Creation Books’s twilight years as an actual publisher. The second book was Flesh Inferno by Simon Whitechapel, and the third was The Bloody Countess, which is a reprint of a 1960s title by surrealist poet Valentine Penrose (whether Creation Books obtained the necessary rights from Penrose’s estate is an open question). The fourth book, sadly, exists only in our imaginations.
It’s likely that Divine Carnage was meant as a continuation of Tinto Brass’s Caligula, which shares its extemporized take on history and lack of good taste (James Havoc mentions this film in the foreword). Surely there’s a kid somewhere who relied on Divine Carnage as research materials for his O-levels. Hopefully that kid did alright.
I’d be remiss not to quote my favorite line from the book, on p96. “Commodus was certainly the first post-modern Roman emperor”. When I read that, it made my entire day. Creation Books ripped off a lot of people, but they did not rip off me. Not here.
Terry Goodkind doesn’t seem particularly good or kind, although he’s definitely a Terry, so one out of three isn’t bad.
He is also not a fantasy author. It’s very important that you know this. Despite where he’s shelved in bookstores, despite what mythical creatures appear on his covers, he is not a fantasy author. Sample from this non-fantasy novel: “Magic!” the dragon gasped in mock fright. It put a claw to its breast. “Oh, please, brave man, don’t slay me with your magic sword!” It made a smoky rumble that Richard took for laughter.
In an infamous 2003 interview with USA Today, Goodkind responded to a question about Robert Jordan with “If you notice a similarity, then you probably aren’t old enough to read my books”. Jordan’s wizards, magic, and dragons are expressions of juvenilia, while Goodkind’s are an exploration of human truth, or something. Massachusetts-based grindcore band AxCx wrote a song called “Face it, You’re a Metal Band”. I wrote the previous sentence for no reason.
Goodkind is inseparable from early 90s fantasy, and a time when the genre was never more tedious, bloated, or unnecessary. Terry Brooks, Raymond E Feist, David Eddings were producing retreads of their past series, and Robert Jordan had begun work the massive monument to dead trees known as the Wheel of Time. So many huge fantasy books were released that bookstore shelves probably remember the era the way Cambodians remember the Khmer Rouge – a time of great suffering, where only the strong survived. In this market, Goodkind’s 900-page doorstoppers immediately found readers.
But what about the book?
The plot establishes a typical monomyth: young Richard Cypher is appointed as “Seeker” and must save a woman from the villainous Darken Rahl, who may need to work on his branding.
When I read it at age twelve, I was soon bored. The story wasn’t moving, and Goodkind has an astonishing ability to create confusion: a wizard character infodumps for thousands of words about what, exactly, a Seeker does, and I left the passage more perplexed than ever.
But then the pace picks up, and Wizard’s First Rule shows its colors as a violent, gritty human interest story of the kind that bloggers ten years later would call “grimdark”. It lacks the impact and power of George RR Martin’s books (in particularly, it’s not believable that the comically evil villain gets so many people on his side), but it’s still well beyond Jordan.
In particular, Goodkind seems to like rape. I don’t believe there’s a single female character in the book, if not the entire series, who isn’t raped or threatened with rape at some point. Two thirds of the way through, the plot takes an excessive but audacious turn into outright Gor territory, with Richard enslaved to a leather-clad dominatrix. This is probably the moment where Goodkind finally lives up to his “mature Jordan” claim. I’m conflicted on this part: it strangely works, giving Richard some of the most severe but effective character moments I’ve yet read in a fantasy book. But it also reads like a Gor book.
Even at its best, Goodkind’s work are foothills to GRRM’s mountains. His worldbuilding makes no sense: it’s established that fire is forbidden in Darken Rahl’s kingdom, but they seem to have no problems forging weapons, making pottery, cooking food, and so on. Writer’s convenience abounds: the typical way you escape danger in Goodkind’s books is to use or discover some new piece of magic that was never mentioned before.
I don’t recommend the books after three or four, which delve ever deeper into mumblecore obscurantism and Goodkind’s political opinions (he likes Ayn Rand). But the early ones do, in fact, have entertainment value, although I appreciate them as spectacle more than literature. Terry Goodkind might not be a fantasy author, but he’s not an entirely bad one, either.
It’s an odd idea to write books for people who never read them, but it’s worked for Mr Reilly so far. Ice Station is a brutally fast-moving action thriller novel that seeks to be a movie on paper – probably one directed by Michael Bay.
Like all of Reilly’s work, it barely exists as literature: it’s a screenplay with cover art and an ISBN number. The typical paragraph is one line long. The typical adverb is “suddenly”. Descriptions are sparse and visual. There are comic book sound effects whenever someone has their head blown off, which is often.
The book stars US marine Shane Schofield, whose unit has been dispatched to a remote Antarctic research station (are there any Antarctic research stations that aren’t remote?). A metal object has been discovered in a 100 million year old layer of ice: it could be an alien spacecraft. Since nobody “owns” Antarctica, a number of foreign nations are attempting a snatch and grab mission to seize the discovery.
We get about forty pages of backstory (meaning, Reilly setting up dominoes so they fall in the most destructive way possible), then the action begins and never stops. Schofield ends up fighting French soldiers, British soldiers, his own unit, the environment, killer whales, frostbite, etc,
You could probably build an Antarctic research station from the combined metal of all the ejected bullet casings in this novel. The story’s so addictive and streamlined that it’s hard not to read in one go, in fact, experts say the average person reads at least seven Reilly novels per year in their sleep without realising it.
The obvious movie cliches appear: a nerdy scientist who plays Captain Exposition, a cute little girl with a pet, a traitor on the team, a rushed romantic subplot, etc. Reilly doesn’t know how to write anything except action, but it’s amazing action. A high-speed hovercraft chase and a tense battle in a killer whale infested pool particularly stick in the memory. He also knows the media his audience might be familiar with, and includes nods to Die Hard, Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, and the X Files in all the right places.
Reilly’s plotting is often cited as incompetent, but it’s actually entirely competent – it’s just geared to something other than making perfect sense. Basically, whenever “cool” clashes against “logically plausible” (or “physicially possible”) cool wins. This is the Rosetta Stone to making sense of Ice Station.
For example: Schofield breaks a rib in this story. In the real world he would have great difficulty accomplishing some of his later feats in the story (such as swimming hundreds of meters), but that’s irrelevant. Reilly is the God of Cool, and sometimes he allows the mortals in his universe to break the laws of physics. Schofield needs to keep doing cool stuff, so he does it with a broken rib.
It would be funny to read a “self aware” hero who knows he’s in a Reilly novel (think Scalzi’s Redshirts). He’d try to stay alive by doing the most outlandish and ridiculous things possible. He’d dash to the nearest pet store and buy a cute dog. In fact, he’d wear body armor made of cute dogs stapled together: nobody would dare shoot a bullet at him. He’d also hire a plastic surgeon to make him look like an A-list Hollywood actor (Schofield’s physical description is a dead-ringer for Tom Cruise).
A realistic depiction of the story’s events would also make an interesting novel. Legally, Antarctica is not an ownerless waste, it’s a condominium – jointly owned by twelve nations. If an alien spacecraft was discovered, nobody would send special forces to capture it. Such a “capture” would be worthless – a huge metal object can’t realistically be transported or removed by twelve guys with guns, and it would stay in Antarctica, no matter who wins the shootout.
In Ice Station a group of bad guys hatch a plan to free the spacecraft (if that’s what it is) by detonating thermonuclear charges, creating a new iceberg with the spacecraft inside it, and steering the iceberg north to their sovereign territory. But then it would be pretty obvious what’s going on, and since the Antarctic treaty forbids the detonation or testing of weapons, you might as well declare war with half the world.
I read Ice Station at fourteen (the correct age), and it remains my favorite of Reilly’s work. It’s efficient, the prose is as tight as the wires in a Hong Kong action movie, and it avoids the goofy GI Joe cartoon feel that spoils some of his later work. It’s obviously nobody’s idea of a literary treat, but you don’t need spaceships to fly, and Ice Station proves it.
This book arrived bedecked in heraldry as The Next Harry Potter (every children’s book released 2000-2005 was officially The Next Harry Potter, just as every modern David Bowie album was “his best since Scary Monsters”). It doesn’t live up to that, and doesn’t want to: it’s something else entirely. It hardly feels like a book for children. The action is fast and kinetic, the writing is as taut as the wire-work in a Hong Kong action film, and the concept is pretty clever: a mixture of Lord Dunsany fairytales and Die Hard.
The plot sounds outright stupid in summary: like it was created by a desperate screenwriter in the 8th season of a show. “There’s a twelve year old supergenius called Artemis Fowl, and he’s also a criminal mastermind, and has a scary bodyguard who kicks ass like Bruce Lee, and he discover fairies exist…wait, don’t go! They’re high-tech fairies! They have gadgets and guns! He kidnaps one and holds it for ransom, but then the fairies stop time, and…yes, I DID past the office drug test. Stop asking!”
But the book is better than its synopsis, too. There’s storytelling ideas at work here that I haven’t ever seen attempted before or since (even in the book’s own sequels). Want another book like Artemis Fowl? Go to your local bookstore, find the fiction section, look up “Colfer” under the Cs, and purchase Artemis Fowl again. Now you’ve got two copies, and that’s the best you’re going to do. Sorry.
The plot is essentially a kidnap and ransom story, but Colfer’s masterstroke is in the details: particularly centering the story on its villain. Later books would turn Artemis into a good guy: they soon devolved into repetitive, uninteresting capers where Artemis and his fairy pals go gallivanting off to bust the Villain of the Week, and I got bored of them. In the first book, Artemis is genuinely sinister and unpleasant, and a great character. Hell for the company.
Here (as in many places), the book takes cues from Die Hard: that movie developed its villain to the point where he stole the show – you wanted to find out exactly how Hans Gruber would pull off this ridiculous heist, with all the odds stacked against him.
Colfer kicks it up a notch by pitting twelve year old Artemis against a supernatural police force who can do anything from make themselves invisible to removing memories. Of course, the fairy police are as bumbling and bureaucratic as Die Hard’s LAPD, sometimes almost comically incompetent. And they are bound by magical rules – if they enter a dwelling uninvited, the instantly lose their magical powers. And when you’re a guest in someone else’s house, you have to obey the host’s commands. This makes life interesting when the host decides you can’t leave.
The book becomes a fascinating conflict between an almost omniscient race of fairies…and a really smart, really evil kid. That adds to the rising drama: it’s genuinely unclear who will win at the end, and again we see the necessity of Artemis being a bad guy. Nobody would write a children’s book where the hero loses. But a villain…?
Artemis Fowl has flaws (some of which would metastazise like a cancer and kill the later books in the series), and often succeeds more on shock and awe tactics than amazing writing. Tip: read it very fast. That way you won’t have time to think about the finer details.
Details such as how the fairy cops are called the Lower Elements Police Recon, or LEPrecon (leprechaun!). That gets a laugh, but why do fairies use English words, when they’re explicitly described as having their own language? And how did “leprechaun” (a word dating back to the 17th century), come from “recon” (a military abbreviation of “reconaissance” that apparently dates back to the 1940s, if Ngram viewer is correct)?
Artemis apparently possesses magical powers of his own, such as when he uses a household magnet to unscrew a screw (magnetic torque can’t operate on a uniform substance such as a metal screw). This is also one of those books where a character translates a text in an ancient language, and it comes out in perfect rhyming English couplets. Sometimes Colfer just loses track of his own rules. A “bio bomb” is described, which explodes and turns living tissue into “a cloud of radioactive molecules”…but a group of characters journey into the fallout zone of one expecting to find bodies.
The Artemis Fowl books never gained the mass fame of the Harry Potter series. In my opinion, they’re collectively not as good. Harry Potter had an arc that continued from book to book, but Artemis Fowl didn’t even feel like it needed a sequel. The premise was fully explored, and afterwards there was nowhere left to go. The kid-friendly trappings held it back a bit: it feels like a story for grown-ups at its core, and it would have been improved by a bit more of an edge. Marketed wrong, promoted wrong, and developed wrongly by its own author, in isolation Artemis Fowl is an extremely good piece of work.
Action! Adventure! Uncomfortable ethnic stereotypes! The Story of Dr Dolittle has everything you want in an early 20th century children’s book.
This book (the first in a series) introduces John Dolittle, a scatterbrained doctor with the ability to talk to animals. The first few Dr Dolittle titles follow a predictable format: Dolittle goes adventuring, gets into trouble, animals rescue him in a funny or interesting way, all of this happens again about ten or fifteen times, and then the book ends. As Lofting grew in sophistication as a writer the books focused more on the animals themselves, with the human characters vanishing entirely for long periods.
There’s surprising philosophical acuity in the Dr Dolittle stories. Wittgenstein said “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him”, and Hugh Lofting goes on a long walk with this idea: humankind is cut off from the animal world by language, and it’s our fault.
It’s the height of arrogance to believe that animals don’t talk. Have you heard how incessantly birds chatter? How much dogs bark? Animals are always talking, constantly sharing thoughts and ideas, and we refuse to listen. The Dolittle books get very didactic on this point, and the latter ones feel written by a temporally displaced PETA activist. Often they verge on expressing outright contempt for humanity.
We have a good guess as to where this antipathy comes from: the Flanders trenches.
The Dr Dolittle tales started out as letters, scribbled and sent home from the front. Lofting’s traumatic wartime experiences hang over the Dolittle tales like a flag’s shadow: never touching the story, but always present. The Great War was a bad one, the industrial revolution alchemizing the battlefield, and a generation of writers witnessed entrails slithering out of bullet and bayonet wounds, faces melting like wax before mustard gas, dreadful mobile hospitals where the shrieking never stopped and the ground stank for weeks after.
In particularly, Hugh Lofting was struck by the gallantry of horses and mules, and was embarrassed at how little his fellow humans could do for them. In retribution he created John Dolittle, a physician capable of giving them the care they seldom received in real life.
Other writers for children – JRR Tolkien, AA Milne, CS Lewis – also served in the war, and were influenced in various ways. Tolkien rejected modernity altogether. Milne tried to wallpaper over reality with fantasy and whimsy (is it sweet or disturbing that he named his son “Christopher Robin”?). CS Lewis retreated into spiritual nihilism: nothing matters because the world shall soon dissolve like snow; the sun forbear to shine. Hugh Lofting became a misanthrope.
He believed that humanity was a mistake, that we do not deserve our place on the planet. As the Dr Dolittle books progress, they get blacker and angrier, increasingly given to polemics about the irredeemable evil of humanity. I never finished Dr Dolittle and the Secret Lake, it was too depressing. Lofting’s disgust becomes a suffocating hand, strangling life from his own stories.
But that’s many decades away. The Story of Dr Dolittle is delightful read, with only tiny shades of future despair.
As with the best children’s books, it invites you to ask questions about its world. For example, when does the story take place? The opening passage says that it happened “when our grandfathers were little children”, and the parrot Polynesia (who claims to be either one hundred and eighty one or one hundred and eighty two years old) describes seeing King Charles II hiding behind an oak tree, an event that happened in 1651.
This dates the book to no later than 1832, and makes aspects of it anachronistic – John Dolittle wouldn’t be able to vaccinate the monkeys, for example. There’s clues that the book might be set even earlier – the doctor is menaced by Barbary pirates, who had been pacified for over fifteen years by that point. But that would throw still more story elements out of date: such as an Italian organ grinder with a monkey. The monkey in question later tells stories passed down by his ancestors about “…lizards, as long as a train, that wandered over the mountains in those times, nibbling from the tree-tops.” This was interesting. People in 1920 knew about dinosaurs, but apparently didn’t know they lived in a different time to primates.
The story’s…dated handling of race might discomfort the modern reader. John Dolittle ends up at the mercy of an African tribe, whose prince, Bumpo, wishes to become a white man. In return for freedom, the ever-resourceful John Dolittle uses medicine to bleach the prince’s face.
Well, make of that what you want. My two krugerrand: Bumpo’s desires are abnormal and are described as such in the story (one character calls it a “silly business”, and another thinks he looked better as a black man). And given that skin-lightening is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars (with over 70% of Nigerians using some sort of skin-lightening product, according to WHO), a desire for paler skin clearly isn’t an idea that sprung wholesale out of Hugh Lofting’s evil, racist brain.
The book’s imaginative, but sometimes I wish it went a little further. The episodic “adventure / problem / escape” format can get repetitive, and there’s fascinating possibilities left unexplored. Long chunks of the book involve the doctor trying to bring a rare beast back from Africa – a “pushmi-pullyu”, which has a head at each end of its body (there’s an argument that Dr Dolittle inspired Nickelodeon’s Catdog). The Doctor plans on exhibiting the animal as a sideshow, thus saving himself from financial ruin.
Hello? You can talk to animals! There are thousands and thousands of ways you could become rich! Use mice to steal the crown jewels! Use paper wasps make casts of the locks to the Bank of England! Use dolphins to patrol the sea floor! If the Doctor wanted to, he’d be running the British Commonwealth within twenty years.
Ah, but those things would be amoral. That’s the problem with John Dolittle: he’s too saintly. I wish he had a Moriarty: someone who shares his zoolinguistic powers but uses them for evil, not good.
The Dr Dolittle series enjoyed a good run, but it doesn’t seem to be remembered alongside Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland. Do the racial elements make the books unsalvagable? That would be a shame. Although in 1998 it was loosely adapted as big budget Hollywood comedy starring Eddie Murphy. If you’re a fan of the latter, then let me finish this review in a way you’ll understand. “If you’re suffering symptoms of boredom, then this doctor has the prescription for you!!!”