Monday, 28 October 2002

The father-thing and The amber spyglass

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald, singing You took advantage of me, from the Rodgers and Hart Song Book:

I'm just like an apple on a bough,
and you're gonna shake me down somehow

Heh. If you do a Google search on “like an apple on a bough”, every link is to the lyrics above, but the little ads on the side of the results page are for people selling a particular brand of computer.

Just read:

Philip K. Dick, The father-thing.

This is a collection of short stories, all written in the mid-50s, making them from pretty early in his career. They're not bad, but the themes can be a bit repetitive. Dick was clearly obsessed with post-apocalyptic futures, mutants, psychic powers, and the evils of monolithic states. He's a big believer in the stereotypically American virtues of self-reliance, technological savvy, and general frontier-ship.

One of the stories is pretty racist (The Turning Wheel), and only slightly redeemed by taking the mickey out of L. Ron Hubbard. Most of the remainder are quite sexist too (women are mothers or sex objects). For all that, there are some good stories in the mix too, with some nice ideas amongst them. I liked Pay for the printer (benevolent aliens induce dependency culture among humans in apocalyptic future), The golden man (mutant human with no real brain, but precognition ability), Tony and the Beetles (human child learns about being the defeated oppressor), The last of the masters (perfect, ordered, society survives in a pocket after apocalypse), Foster, you're dead (cold war hysteria commercialised), and another, whose title I can't remember, about mutant hunting, featuring a man who grows a vehicle on a plant.

Philip Pullman, The amber spyglass.

This is the final volume in Pullman’s His dark materials trilogy. I read it very quickly, over the course of much of Sunday, and that fact is testimony in itself to its success. It’s an enthralling adventure story. There’s a whole pile of neat ideas in this volume and its predecessors, and I recommend the whole trilogy.

However. There are weaknesses in this grand finale. I thought that keeping the young Adam and Eve apart in the last pages was a bit cruel and arbitrary. I don't think it's up there with the ending to Captain Corelli's mandolin, because I'm sceptical about just how attached and earth-shatteringly in love 12 year olds can be, but it still seemed an unnecessary and forced ‘tragic note’.

A more significant problem rests in the structure of the plot. It suddenly shifts in focus: the real problem with the universe is not the Authority, per se, but rather the leakage of all the universe's Dust into holes cut by the Subtle Knife. The climax of the grand struggle against the Authority, the very heaving of the angel Metatron (terrible name!) into the bottomless pit isn't explicitly described. Instead, we hear about it after the event. We cut from an unresolved struggle on the pit-side to the Eden story.

This Adam and Eve bit in the putative Garden of Eden is well described, but we never get any explanation of why Will and Lyra are filling these roles. Yes, we're let into the secret and made aware of prophecies. So, we get to know it's going to happen, but we don't know why. Is it because the prophecies knew that the Authority was about to be deposed, and history was going to get a chance to start again? Even so, why Lyra and Will? It's not like there aren't millions of other humans in the universe.

But, just in case you think I hated it, let me list the good bits: the subtle knife is cool; the treatment of death is very good; the ice bears are way cool; the angels are neat (though I was a bit perplexed at how they managed to be both ethereal and vulnerable to stinging beetles). The miniature people are perhaps an idea too far, but they are vivid, and most enthralling of all: Mrs. Coulter and her evil monkey.

To read next:

Peter Carey, The tax collector.