Sunday, 28 September 2008

Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees

A gentle fairy tale with allegorical overtones, this is written in a slightly naïve style that suits the subject matter. The allegorical side of the tale is deliberately understated (and wisely so). It would have been a very different tale, otherwise, and a great deal less convincing.

Through the personal journey of one man to save his daughter and his son from the land of Faerie, Mirrlees also shows how a world that is too ordered and in the grip of Law can be a dull, stagnant place. Dorimare is, on the surface, a rural heaven. Yet it lives too much in its own past. Rather it lives too much in a fantasy of its own past, never questioning the validity of decisions made in a time that has long gone.

The advocates of law and order come to accept that life needs a little chaos, a little wildness; that it needs to embrace the unknown rather than shun it. Yet this is not some epic fantasy, but a quiet tale, told within the confines of one family and focussing on the characters and relationships.

I’m not sure I fully understand Neil Gaiman’s gushing enthusiasm for this book. I am not sure it is a novel that has ever been forgotten (even if hard to get at times), nor is it the single most beautiful novel of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is not even unique. James Stephens, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and P L Travers all spring immediately to mind and there are many others.

This places Lud-in-the-Mist within a tradition that is both long and renowned. I suspect the enthusiasm that is often found for the text derives from my parenthetical comment. It isn’t always easy to find a copy and thus it acquires the aura of a cult work. However, it is well worth reading, simply because it is part of that tradition. And any book that belongs to a tradition given scant regard by today’s literati is worth lauding.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Billion Year Spree - Brian Aldiss

This book is a history of science fiction. Partial, personal and, in places, thin. But it does not pretend to be anything but personal and partial. It is Brian Aldiss’s view of the history of science fiction. As a major practitioner of the field, however, he has written with a great deal of understanding and insight.

His objective, as stated in the book, was to put the genre in perspective. Starting with a definition of science fiction which he accepts not everyone will agree with, he traces the roots of the genre. From there he surveys the major developments through the decades up to the point of writing (in the early 1970s).

Its main point of interest is that it does not give undue attention to the ‘big names’. Indeed, many of them are rightly treated as hack writers – a profusion of works and popularity does not necessarily mean these writers are actually any good as writers. Aldiss is interested in the development of sf and very often the ‘big names’ are responsible for halting that development.

As a guide to the genre, it is a good place to start, provided you are prepared to explore further (and there is a comprehensive bibliography). And, of course, another thirty-five years have passed since this was written and a lot has happened in that time.