by Neil Walsh
[Editor's Note: Here you will find the other Books I've Been Avoiding: Overlooked or Over-hyped? columns.]
A Happy Correction about Martha Wells
In a previous column, while praising Martha Wells' regrettably overlooked Fall of Ile-Rien series, published by Eos, HarperCollins, I mentioned that the second book in the trilogy had been remaindered before the final volume was published. I was in error on this point. HarperCollins' Executive Editor for Morrow/Avon/Eos very kindly informed me that "all three books in the trilogy are in print, in stock, and shipping, and have been since they were published." Great news! I am very pleased to be corrected on this matter, as this is truly a wonderful series that deserves to be more widely read.
I had purchased my copy of volume 2, The Ships of Air, from one of those bookstores that sells neither new nor used books, but only deals in remaindered books and publishers' overstock. I mistakenly assumed it was the former, whereas it was in fact the latter. This just means some new-book bookstore was unable to sell all the copies they had ordered and dumped them at a lower price via this overstock outlet. However, the key message here is not that I was wrong (because that happens a lot) but that the whole Ile-Rien series is happily still in print and available. If you've overlooked this fantasy series, I highly recommend you track down all three, The Wizard Hunters, The Ships of Air, and The Gate of Gods by Martha Wells.
The Great Reckoning
In my household, every January ushers in "The Great Reckoning." This is when I count how many books I've read in the past year and compare it to the number of books still waiting to be read, and compare that to the number of books I had waiting to be read at the same time last year. On January 2, 2007, I had 424 books on my unread stack... er, stacks. Although I managed to read 129 books in 2007, on January 2 of this year, I had 430 books on my unread stacks. Even if I'm losing the battle to get ahead in my reading, it's a creeping loss and I refuse to be discouraged. This year's Great Reckoning indicates that I'm reading more or less the same number of books that I bring into my house in a year, but more importantly, it also suggests that if civilization were to end tomorrow and I were unable to acquire any more books, I'd still have a solid three years of reading ahead of me before I would need to leave my house to brave the nuclear winter in search of new reading material.
Doublethink and Bear Blindness
With the Great Reckoning behind me, I decided to start fresh this year with something I've been meaning to read for about 20 years now. You see, I had to read George Orwell's 1984 when I was in high school. So of course I didn't. For me, high school was a place to express my individuality and my rebellion against the establishment, rather than a place of learning. Consequently, I learned very little there. Ironically, 1984 would likely have resonated with me at the time, since it has got quite a bit to do with expressing your individuality and rebelling against the establishment.
And to balance this long-awaited classic, the other book I decided to start off the year with, is one I had completely forgotten about. In counting my unread books for the Great Reckoning, I discovered a copy of The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle. I had no recollection of where this book had come from, why I was ever planning to read it, or what it might be about -- a bear, presumably. What the hell, I thought, let's follow the bear over that mountain.
1984 is an iconic novel, a towering monument of dystopian literature. That much is clear. But it should be remembered that, like any good speculative fiction/science fiction, it never attempted to make accurate predictions about the future. Orwell was clearly not, in 1948-49, predicting what the world would be like in 1984; he was merely commenting on (or speculating about) totalitarianism taken to extremes. When he wrote 1984 (the book), 1984 (the year) was still 35 years in the future. Probably he had no idea at the time of writing that his little book would become so important and that it would still be read long after the eponymous year had come and gone. But what a lame title. I understand he originally considered calling it "The Last Man in Europe" which would have been a far better and more meaningful title. If I were an editor and I saw this new manuscript come across my desk today, the first thing I would do would be to suggest the author find another title. How about, for example, "We Are the Dead"? Or maybe "Oranges and Lemons." Or what was wrong with "The Last Man in Europe"? As a title, 1984 doesn't really tell the prospective reader anything. OK, maybe in 1949 it told the reader that it was going to be a futuristic kind of book, but it sure doesn't say much today. The author makes a point early in the novel of emphasizing that Winston doesn't know for sure if it really even is 1984 or just somewhere in that ballpark, and yet Winston works in the Ministry of Truth with newspaper articles dated from 1983 and 1984. If they date the newspapers, you'd think that surely people would know what year it was. Except, we quickly learn just what it is Winston does with the newspaper articles, which makes his doubt about the precise year a little more understandable. In that sense, I suppose 1984 would have been an adequate -- perhaps even a clever -- title in 1949. But it was not going to be an enduring title.
The more important question, though: is it an enduring novel? Is it, in fact, worthy of all the hype it has received over the past 60 years? Well, to begin with, it has certainly had an impact. Even though I had never previously read it, I had heard of and understood the concepts of Big Brother, Doublethink, Doubleplusungood, and the Hate directed at a person (possibly fabricated) who was not just an enemy, but THE enemy of the state. It's the kind of story that has permeated our culture to the degree that you don't have to have read it to know about it. In the same way, I grew up in a household of atheists, never went to church or Sunday school or read the bible as a kid, but by the time I was 9 I knew all about Noah's ark, Adam and Eve, and the crucifixion and resurrection. There's simply no avoiding certain cultural icons. I'm not saying that Orwell's 1984 is as big or as influential as the Bible, but in a similar way, you just can't avoid hearing about Big Brother and learning that it's a reference to intrusive surveillance -- whether or not you ever read the book. So at least in that sense, I think it's pretty indisputably had an impact.
But is it any good?
Actually, yes. It's still a good read, still quality literature, still excellent speculative fiction. It's not flawless, but then very little is. Most people I know who more or less worship Tolkien still skip over entire sections of The Lord of the Rings when re-reading their beloved classic (the songs, for many; about 60 pages of Sam & Frodo slogging through the swamps, for others). And similarly, over the years whenever I happened to mention I was considering picking up 1984 and finally reading it, people would say "when you get to the point in the novel where the guy reads the book, just skip over that." Well, I finally understand what they mean. The biggest flaw I think is "the book." It's about two thirds of the way through the novel when you get this awkward info dump. Except you've already figured it all out by this point, so it's just 30 pages of boring.
Apart from that 30-page section that could have been almost entirely cut, it is really a very good book. It's obviously
somewhat dated (for example, hidden microphones can't be hidden in a stand of young saplings because of course a
microphone would be too big to hide in such a skinny tree!), but it's all too easy to see parallels between the novel
and the world evolving around us. Obviously, at the time of writing, Orwell had Stalinist Russia in mind. There are
also echoes of Nazi Germany. The message, of course, is not that Communism is bad, but that Totalitarian Regimes of
any kind are bad -- Russia, at the time, was just the emerging bad guy (from the Western perspective). I said earlier
that Orwell wasn't trying to make accurate predictions about the future. He wasn't. He may have been issuing
warnings, however. And it wasn't long before the Ingsoc Party methods and ethics of this very disturbing novel
echoed uncomfortably in America under McCarthyism. The cool thing about 1984 is that you can still hear the
resonances of Orwell's novel in the world around us today -- and it's just as frightening right now as it ever
was. That, I think, is what makes it a viable and vibrant classic. It has and will undoubtedly continue to endure.
Kotzwinkle's novel is a story about a university professor, frustrated with his life in academia, who is trying to make his escape by spending his sabbatical in a cabin in the woods writing a best-selling novel. Unfortunately, his manuscript is burned in a fire. Determined, he starts over again and manages, with the enforced re-write, to create something truly wonderful this time. Leery of fires, but having to temporarily leave the manuscript behind, he safely places it in a briefcase and buries that under a tree. A bear witnesses the hiding of the manuscript and, hoping that it might be food, digs up the briefcase and makes off with it.
At this point, the story diverges and becomes increasingly comical and bizarre. The bear, disappointed that the briefcase doesn't contain food, is nevertheless struck by the compelling style and content of the novel. He decides to head into town and find a publisher for the work. The true author, meanwhile, is understandably distraught at losing the precious fruit of his labour for a second time. The bear puts on a suit and enters the human world with remarkably little difficulty. At no point does anyone ever look at him and say, "Hey I think that guy is a bear." Occasionally, someone will consider him to look a bit large or perhaps even obese, but there is never any question about his acceptance as a man, nor as the author of a brilliant best-selling novel. Never, that is, until there is. But even then it doesn't really matter, because it's already too late. Once the bear has been accepted as a person, there's no going back to a life of beardom.
And while the bear becomes swept into the world of fame and fortune and human affairs, the true author becomes more reclusive and wild and, well, bear-like. As I'm sure you can imagine, this is all patently absurd. But that's hardly relevant -- other than to enhance the humour of the situation. And it is a humorous novel; I frequently found myself chuckling aloud. But it also has some toothsomely satirical comments about academia and academic publishing, popular fiction and the publishing industry that supports it, the pace of life in the big city, the opposite pace of country living and the stoicism it can engender, the legal system, money and fame and their corrupting influence, how our society views the wealthy and famous, and of course our inability to see what's right under our noses (or snouts).
The title of this novel obviously evokes the children's song of the same title. The lyrics (minus the repetition) are as follows:
The bear went over the mountainThe ending to the novel is rather like the ending of the children's song. It's logical once you get there, although nothing significant has really changed. The novel doesn't have a "just" ending, but it is, at least for the reader, a satisfying conclusion.
Overlooked or Over the Mountain?
In spite of a lame title and one 30-page section of tedium, 1984 is not over-hyped. If, like me, you've been avoiding it, then I recommend you give it a go. It truly is a good book, although not a happy one.
If you're in the mood for something happier, say a bit of light-hearted satirical fun, you could certainly do far worse than The Bear Went Over the Mountain. It's a quick, enjoyable read, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who had overlooked it the first time around. All too often the award runners-up are overshadowed by the award winners. I mean, yes, that's kind of the point; the awards are given for the works that are, at the time, considered the best. But that doesn't mean the others weren't also good enough to warrant our attention.
Big Brother and the Bear
It's funny. I've heard people complain that you can't go anywhere in London (or, place your city's name here) without your every move being caught on camera. Big Brother is watching all of us. And yet, people voluntarily share their most intimate selves on live journals and blogs and Facebook. Look at me! Don't look at me!
How many of us, I wonder, are really just naive, bumbling, perhaps neurotic animals in disguise, living in the cages we've built for ourselves. Will there ever come a Great Reckoning to balance our base animal impulses with our higher human absurdities, our need for privacy and our desire for fame?
Probably not. But in the meantime, at least there are plenty of good books for us to enjoy.
Neil Walsh annually considers hibernation, but rejects it in favour of reading until his eyes dry out like tinder. Apart from the two books discussed above, he's also read several others in the past month. Collections: The Surgeon's Tale and Other Stories by Cat Rambo & Jeff VanderMeer (2007), all too brief, but highly recommended and worth it for the title story alone; Dangerous Space by Kelley Eskridge (2007), an excellent collection with only one dud and several highly memorable ones; Facets by Walter Jon Williams (1990), some good stories but nothing world-shakingly brilliant. Novels: One For Sorrow by Christopher Barzak (2007), a hauntingly well-written first novel; In a Town Called Mundomuerto by Randall Silvis (2007), spare and evocative and recommended reading; Vol de nuit par Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1931, nouvelle édition 2007), with all the verisimilitude of an author who has lived the experiences he describes; Alan Quartermain by H. Rider Haggard (1887), a fun adventure story that's totally not politically correct. Graphic novels: Ex Machina, Book 6: Power Down by Brian K. Vaughan, et al. (2007), some intriguing twists to maintain interest; It Ate Billy on Christmas by Roman Dirge (2007), bizarre and funny. Non-fiction: The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean by John Julius Norwich (2007), packed full of fascinating detail, but without the novel-like qualities of his 3-volume series on the Byzantine Empire which is possibly the best non-fiction work Neil has ever read. And by the way, Big Brother is watching you RIGHT NOW!
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