August 12th, 2004

tolkien

August Books 5) After the King

5) After the King: Stories in Honor of J.R.R. Tolkien, ed Martin H Greenberg, introduction by Jane Yolen

I picked this up for €5 or so, remaindered in the Leuven bookshop, and was very pleasantly surprised. Nineteen short stories by various fantasy authors, all more or less in the Tolkien vein; two or three clunkers (Dennis McKiernan, Mike Resnick), but the average being very good and several excellent - Stephen Donaldson, Gregory Benford, and a particularly impressive foray by John Brunner, who eschewed the fantasy setting chosen by most of the others and wrote a piece set in England in 1921. I had read the Terry Pratchett piece somewhere else ("She's always going on about billy goats. I have no knowledge whatsoever about billy goats") but I am surprised not to have encountered any of the others before - this collection was published in 1992 for the centenary of Tolkien's birth. Perhaps that just shows how little fantasy I read as compared to sf.
politics

August Books 6) Way Station

6) Way Station, by Clifford Simak

I think I'd read about this book in Stephen King's novel/collection Hearts in Atlantis, and then found it on various lists of important sf books. A really charming story. Reflects very much the Cold War environment when it was written, but also pulls in themes recognizable from a lot of other sf before and since - the galactic civilization judging Earth, also from The Day the Earth Stood Still and Have Space Suit, Will Travel; immortality crops up again in Simak's "Grotto of the Dancing Deer"; the disabled child who turns out to be the key to everything, of course a much older theme but one I can remember from More Than Human and Martian Time-Slip; and the posse from the village that comes to destroy Enoch's house is obviously from Frankenstein. I wonder if Neal Stephenson's immortal Enoch Root owes his first name to Simak's hero? I was fooled by a couple of points - Enoch gives his visiting alien friend the name Ulysses, after "a great man of our race", and of course I thought this referred to the much-travelled Greek hero, but it turns out to be Ulysses S Grant. Also I guessed wrong about how the mysterious Talisman would appear on the scene. Anyway it all adds up to a pleasing and mercifully short package.
earthsea

August Books 7) Don Quixote

7) The Ingenious Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha (Part I), by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

I decided to read this because the Norwegian book clubs survey put it at the top of their list of the 100 best novels of all time. It's surprisingly approachable, for Great Literature, but very long at almost 1000 pages in the Penguin edition, so I've given myself a break after finishing the first part, as published in 1605 (almost 400 years ago), and will leave the second part, of 1615, for some later time.

It reminds me of nothing so much as Tristram Shandy, except that it has a far more coherent plot (this is not saying much of course). Don Quixote himself is gloriously delusional, and of course unwittingly plays a satirical role in exposing the workings of society. Interesting too that the distance between his society of 1605 and ours of 2004 seems much less than the distance between 1605 and the medieval world of chivalry which he imagines himself to inhabit. Of course Quixote's medieval world is a creation of fantasy, and his 1605 is rooted very firmly in contemporary reality.

Apart from the narrative frame of Don Quixote himself and his delusions, there are lots of romantic sub-plots - actually so distinct from one another that you could almost call them novellas - some of which eventually get tied together in a way that is reminiscent of Wodehouse. Added to that, the geopolitical tension of Spain vs the Islamic world of North Africa is eerily reminiscent of another modern genre - the beautiful Zoraida almost seems like an ancestor of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

For all that, I'm not utterly convinced that this really is the best novel of all time. I'm sure it deserves honour and celebration as being the first (or among the first) attempts to write a novel per se. But to say that is a bit like Johnson's remark about a woman preaching being like a dog walking on its hind legs, the impressive thing being not that it is done well but that it is done at all. Perhaps if I ever get around to the second half it will make more of an impact on me.