The Bone Clocks

By David Mitchell

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Sometimes bad novels are so good.

I’ve just finished ‘The Bone Clocks‘, by David Mitchell.  It was a bad book, but not the sort of bad book that you resent having started.  It didn’t have the sort of badness which makes you angry at the author for trying, for his pretensions or mistakes.  It was the kind of bad book you love, that you tear through.  It was a Great Bad Book.

David Mitchell.jpg
David Mitchell

I’m not saying that David Mitchell is a bad novelist, or a bad writer (which are different things); he’s not necessarily either.  He’s definitely not a bad writer: his prose ranges from competent enough to ignore to quite good, depending on the book and the time.  I would say that he’s actually a decent writer.

And, though I have only read two of his other books, ‘Cloud Atlas‘ and ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘, neither was a bad novel.  ‘Cloud Atlas’, it’s true, hovered around the same kind of badness that ‘The Bone Clocks‘ possesses, but was original enough that, I think, managed to just avoid the downward spiral of real badness.

And ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet‘ was great.  It was a lovely novel, moving and human, one of the very few books that has ever made me cry.  I think, perhaps, the discrepancy between ‘The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet’ and both ‘The Bone Clocks‘ and ‘Cloud Atlas‘ has something to do with their genres.  ‘The Thousand Autumns’ is simply a little love story; it isn’t science fiction or fantasy, which the other two are.  I think that, perhaps, science fiction and fantasy (certainly fantasy) slide more easily into plotty badness.  Something about the genre tempts authors to the sort of over-written theatrics which make books bad but fun to read.  Novels grounded in reality tend to be a little bit tighter.

The Bone ClocksThe Bone Clocks‘ is, in many ways, ‘Cloud Atlas‘s half-baked little brother.  It is also a story which follows multiple characters, all supernaturally connected, through time.  But while ‘Cloud Atlas’ follows what seem to be incarnations of one or two people through many, many generations, ‘The Bone Clocks’ is about one long human lifetime, namely the life of Holly Sykes, as it is crossed, intersected over and over, by a, uh, group of reincarnating mystics at war over the harvesting of human children to feed their eternal lives.

It’s exactly the sort of grandiose and silly premise that Great Bad Books are made of.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ is the story of a magical war between good and evil, and like all such stories, the joy of it is in the ludicrous, and yet somehow absorbing, details.

In the world of ‘The Bone Clocks‘, there exists a class of immortals, called Atemporals, souls which involuntarily reincarnate 49 days after their deaths into the body of a dying child.  One group of these Atemporals, calling themselves the Horologists, are at ‘psychosoteric’ war with the Anchorites.  The Anchorites were once just regular mortals, but they have used dark technologies, gifted to them by the Blind Cathar, to achieve immortality.  However, in order to achieve this, they must routinely sacrifice a child.

Holly Sykes is a psychic, and so her life becomes tangled up in this psychosoteric war.  ‘The Bone Clocks‘ takes places in six chapters over the course of her long life, starting in 1984 and ending in 2043, in a very different world than ours.

And it’s just silliness, from beginning to end: joyful, diverting silliness.  David Mitchell has great strengths as a storyteller: he has a gift for the demotic (his characters sound and act like people on TV), and he’s great at constructing the elements of plot: pacing, building to a climax.  He gives scenes texture, but doesn’t linger – he’s very plotty.

And he’s just the right amount trashy, at least in his sci-fi/fantasy novels.  A multi-generational war of magic between the Evil Anchorites and the Good Horologists, which will culminate in a battle in the Temple of the Blind Cathar?  Come on, that’s almost unspeakably cheesy!

You know what it made me think of?  Do you remember that South Park episode, ‘Cartman’s Incredible Gift’, from Season 8, where Cartman pretends to be a psychic and ‘battles’ a bunch of other fake psychics?  Where all the psychics stand opposite each other and touch their temples and go, ‘Wa na na na’?

The whole book is like that.

And it’s not that Mitchell is pretending that it isn’t cheesy – ‘The Bone Clocks‘ isn’t pretentious, not at all.  Rather, he simply doesn’t seem to care whether or not it’s cheesy, which means that, in a weird way, you don’t.  If he were looking down his nose, using the Anchorites and Horologists as some highbrow metaphor, then ‘The Bone Clocks’ would be insufferable.  But I, at least, didn’t get the sense that that was what he was doing.

Rather, ‘The Bone Clocks‘ feels like David Mitchell got a neat idea for a story and decided to tell it: wouldn’t it be kind of interesting if reincarnation were true, but only some people had the ability to do it?  And then some other people figured out how to do it, but they had to do something terrible in order to achieve it?

What terrible thing would you do to achieve immortality?  That is an old question, one that we ask ourselves over and over.  What price would be worth your boundless life?  At what point during that evil eternity would it cease being your life?  At what price, once paid, do you stop being yourself?

We are obsessed with that question not just because we are fixated on our own deaths, because we are devoted to avoiding them – we ask that question because it’s an essentially fun question to ask.  It’s a fun problem to think about, and it’s fun to think about it here.  It’s not sophisticated, it’s not ‘good’, but it is fun.

Sometimes, silly scenarios are the best way to explore the scariest and most important questions.  Sometimes, silly meditations are the best meditations.  But, honestly, it doesn’t matter, because they’re fun.

World War Z

An Oral History of the Zombie War

Max Brooks

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Any reader of books knows that the books you love, the books you proselytize, the books you recommend to people at parties and display proudly on your shelves, say almost as much about you as you might about them.  And, of course, some kinds of books are more rewarding, in terms of what they say about you, than others.

Masterpieces make for lousy social accessories.  These are the Books Everyone Thinks Are Great.  No matter how much you may love a classic, no one will think better of you for it, for the simple reason that they all also believe that they love the classics.  Loving these books is no feat, because it requires no personal judgement at all.  You won’t ever impress anyone by loving ‘Hamlet’.

Some books, it’s fun to love them because everyone knows that they ought to love them, but no one has actually read them.  We can think of these as the Books You Love So That You Can Show You’ve Read Them.  This is how people who actually like Proust get to feel all the time*.

*I’m not one of these people.

And then there are the books which no one expects anyone to enjoy, because they aren’t fun at all.  These are Books Which Show Character.  It’s really fun to love these books, because then people think that you have unexplored depths, that you must know something that they don’t know, or that you possess a tortured, artistic soul.  Imagine how fun it would be to announce that your favorite book was, oh, ‘The Anatomy of Melancholy’.

But my own personal favorite category, in terms of social accessorizing via reading list, is Secretly Great Books Everyone Else Thinks Are Trash.  I’m a little contrarian, so it gives me enormous (and, yes, extremely juvenile) pleasure to go to bat for books which everyone else thinks are Beach Reading, to argue that these books are, instead, Great Art.

World War ZSo here I go:  I think that ‘World War Z‘ is Great Art.

I’m not exaggerating for effect – I love this book.  I think it’s magnificent.  I’ve now read it three times, and I like it better every time I read it.  No, I love it better every time I read it, and I refuse to be ashamed of this fact.

World War Z‘ is, as advertised, the oral history of the Zombie War.  It is a collection of the personal reminiscences of the survivors, from all over the world, from the ordinary citizens who witnessed it to the presidents and generals who prosecuted it.  It covers the entire war, from the first few cases, the handling (or mishandling) of the outbreak by various nations, the desperate flight of millions of people from the cities, the overwhelming and near extinction of the human race, and the eventual beating back, the destruction, of the zombie menace.

I love this book.  I love this book because it is so smart.  It’s smart and it’s thorough, thought-out and careful and precise and imagined down to the last detail.

I’m going to land on this point with a little more emphasis, because I am sure that most people unfamiliar with this work (or, heaven forfend, people who saw the movie) would be surprised, perhaps, to hear ‘smart’ as the primary description of a book about, uh, zombies.  Literal zombies.

But that’s the thing about smart – it can work with anything, can make something brilliant out of starting material which is, well, stupid.

ZombieZombies have never been my favorite metaphor.  All the ghouls and goblins have their metaphorical purpose, the existential conundrum they were written to pose to us.  Vampires are about the price of immortality; werewolves are about our inner beasts.  Ghosts are about death (obviously).  Zombies are about humanity, what makes us human, whether it’s our bodies or our minds.  Zombies (usually) ask the essential question: when do our loved ones stop being themselves?  When can we let them go?  When are we willing to destroy them?  Could you shoot your mother in the face, to save yourself?  Your child?  Your spouse?

But that’s not what ‘World War Z‘ asks, not exactly.  ‘World War Z’ is a novel of geopolitics; it is a novel of logistics.  Its nearest analog, to my mind, is Asimov’s ‘Foundation‘ trilogy.  It’s a novel about how societies cope with unimagined and unmanageable threats, threats that come from within.  Arational threats.

I recognize that this is not ‘Walking Dead’-sexy, but it’s a lot smarter.  And it’s more interesting, more fun to read.  There aren’t any hand-to-hand battles with zombies here, no slow, wrenching transformations of loved ones.  This isn’t a book about people as individuals; it’s a book about people as nations, people as animals.

And it’s plausible, super plausible.  It’s the kind of the book that makes you feel as though, if a zombie apocalypse happens, it’ll look a lot like this.  Not the way it will look to you (or to a bunch of people way better-looking or tougher than you), but how it will look from above, how it will look on a grand scale.

Max Brooks
Max Brooks

This is so much more interesting than watching a bunch of grubby people scramble around in the woods.  Zombies just aren’t that interesting as an interpersonal problem, but as a logistical problem, they are fascinating.  They are both a disease and an enemy, a contagion and an infiltration.  And ‘World War Z‘ captures this so well, holding the problem up to the light and holding it this way and that, so that you can admire facets of it that you’ve never noticed before.

I’ll give you an example, perhaps my favorite example, of a really great tweak to the old zombie problem.  It comes in the middle of the book, as the tide begins to turn.

(Remember that the book is structured as a series of interviews)

“The biggest problem were quislings.

Quislings?

Yeah, you know, the people that went nutballs and started acting like zombies.

Could you elaborate?

Well, as I understand it, there’s a type of person who just can’t deal with a fight-or-die situation.  They’re always drawn to what they’re afraid of.  Instead of resisting it, they want to please it, join it, try to be like it…But you couldn’t do it in this war.  You couldn’t just throw up your hands and say, ‘Hey, don’t kill me, I’m on your side.’  There was no gray area in this fight, no in between.  I guess some people just couldn’t accept that.  It put them right over the edge.  They started moving like zombies, sounding like them, even attacking, trying to eat other people…Do you know that quislings were the reason some people used to think they were immune?…I think the saddest thing about them is that they gave up so much and in the end lost anyway.

Why is that?

‘Cause even though we can’t tell the difference between them, the real zombies can.  Remember early in the war, when everybody was trying to work on a way to turn the living dead against one another?  There was all this ‘documented proof’ about infighting – eyewitness accounts and even footage of one zombie attacking another.  Stupid.  It was zombies attacking quislings, but you never would have known that to look at it.  Quislings don’t scream.  They just lie there, not even trying to fight, writhing in that slow, robotic way, eaten alive by the very creatures they’re trying to be. (p. 198)

You have to admit, that is brilliant.  It’s better than brilliant: it’s correct.  It is a true observation about humans, but placed in an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context.  Or, to be more precise, it is an entirely fictional, terrifying, absurd context which draws your attention to a true observation about humans you had already made, but had never really understood.

That’s what science fiction is for.  That’s what it does: reteaches you things you already knew, or should have known.  This is also, by the way, what Great Art does.  And I will defend as Great Art any book which takes something you thought you knew, no matter how stupid, and then twists and turns it back around on you, so that you discover that you were looking at yourself all along.

The Power

By Naomi Alderman

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The PowerHere’s an unusual event: I’ve actually read the book of the moment within a calendar year of the moment itself!

I’m not a trendy soul, not in anything really.  My tastes have never been fashionable, not in music, not in clothes, certainly not in books.  My favorite authors are all dead: Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, writers who chronicled different times in old-fashioned language.

I tend to cast a leery eye on contemporary fiction.  To my mind, it has not yet been vetted, polished smooth by years of beloved readers, safely endorsed by generations.  It is risky, it has a too-high likelihood of wasting your time, and with so much to read in this world, I am loathe to waste my reading time on books which may turn out bad.

But every once and a while, (and quite a bit lately, it feels like) I end up picking up a new and trendy book.  And every once and a rarer while, I pick it up when it is still trendy.  And so it has turned out with ‘The Power‘, which I grabbed in the airport in a panic, worried that I was going through my other books too quickly and wasn’t going to make it through my vacation with enough to read (this is a particularly bad way to choose a book: airport reading, like airport eating, is almost always junky).

The Power‘ supposes that women a power.  It starts with young women, girls really, but young women can teach it to older women, and soon all women will have it.  This power, which originates in a new organ, a string of muscular tissue between their shoulder blades, allows them to send electrical current out from their hands, injuring and even killing other people with it.

This power will completely reorder the world.

First will come liberation, freedom from the restraints and authorities of men.

Then will come revenge: riots, gangs of women will swarm through cities, finding male offenders and brutalizing them.

Then, finally, will come control.  Women will take possession of a state, in Eastern Europe, and impose a set of state sanctions on men: all men must have an official female guardian, they will not have freedom of travel, they will have curfews.

I was deeply skeptical about ‘The Power‘ going in, and not just because it’s modern.  I don’t usually go for gender war stories – I tend to find them over-simplifying.  And ‘The Power’ threatened to simplify gender dynamics to the point of cretinousness: throngs of newly empowered women finding out men who traffic in sex slaves and roasting them alive.

But ‘The Power‘ is more than a novel of vengeance, more than just a imaginative bloodletting (although it does feel like that sometimes).  It is a meditation on power, and on gender.  It asks, and answers, the question, ‘Do men act brutally because they are men, or do they act brutally because they have power?’

Or, to put it another way, ‘Are men and women intrinsically different?  Are their differences differences of morals, or differences of strength?”

Or, “Are women really any better than men?”

The Power‘ answers this question clearly and emphatically in the negative.  Women in ‘The Power’ are no better than men, and, as they come to understand and coordinate their power, they will do to men, in short order, all the terrible things that men have done to them.

It’s always pleasant to read a book which agrees with your worldview.  This is not less true for me just because my worldview is dark, nihilistic and grim.  I like having my prejudices confirmed just as much as the next guy.  And so I enjoyed ‘The Power’ the way one enjoys seeing one’s own dire predictions played out in fiction.

As I mentioned, ‘The Power‘ isn’t subtle.  The metaphor is, well, it isn’t really a metaphor, is it?  It’s a parable, crystal clear and morally direct.  And I was prepared to be offended by the obviousness of the parable – I don’t like being talked down to by books.

Naomi Alderman
Naomi Alderman.  By the way, the Guardian has the best author photos.

However, sometimes the simpler a fictional moral problem is, the greater the force it has, and that is the case with ‘The Power‘ (this is also the case with the most rudimentary and effective moral tale of our time: ‘Star Wars’).  The truth is, despite my initial skepticism and my sense of being insulted, ‘The Power’ landed on me like a ton of bricks.  I didn’t even really notice how affected I was until I finished, until I put the book down and realized that I felt unsettled, implicated and guilty, contaminated by the things I had seen in the pages I just read.

I mean this as a compliment, an extremely high compliment.  The ability to elicit an emotional reaction from your reader is one of the reasons for a novel existing, and not all novels wish to make you feel good.  I feel pretty confident that Naomi Aldermen didn’t want me to feel good, maybe about anything, maybe ever again.

This is not a reason not to read her book!  On the contrary, it is a reason to read it right away!  Most grim-natured books don’t get it quite right, they aren’t emotionally effective somehow.  They either swing too hard at your fear, or yank too hard at your heart strings, or build a world too bleak, marked by violence too frenzied.

IMG_0014
One of the book’s rare illustrations (p. 180).  ‘The Power’ is science fiction, and part of the story takes place thousands of years in the future.

The Power‘ doesn’t do this.  It rarely over-plays its hand – there were only one or two moments in the entire book when I thought, ‘That might have been a little much’.  Mostly, the book communicates not through violence but through a sense of building dread, of disaster rolling inexorably toward you, a hope that humanity will save itself and a sure knowledge in the pit of your stomach that the hope is vain.  And when the storm finally breaks, you feel the confirmation as a low blow, not painful exactly, but dreadful.

Partly, Alderman does this through her use of spare, direct language.  The ridiculous blurbs on the back of the book say garbage things like, “gorgeously written” (Ayelet Waldman) and “Will knock your socks off!” (Margaret Atwood, to whom Alderman is being compared – I suppose the comparison to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale‘, which is facile, is too easy to resist).  This is nonsense – it is not gorgeously written – it is bleak, and effectively written, and that is much, much better:

“They start by rounding up the young man.  They go tent to tent, pulling them down or setting them on fire so the occupants have to run out or burn.  They’re not neat about it, not methodical.  They’re looking for any halfway-decent-looking young man.  She was right to send Tunde into the forest.  A wife, or perhaps a sister, tries to stop them from taking the pale-skinned, curly-haired man who’s with her.  She fights off two of them with precise and well-timed jolts to the chin and the temple.  They overwhelm her easily, and kill her with a particular brutality.  One of them grabs the woman by the hair and the other delivers a bolt directly through the woman’s eyes.  Finger and thumb pressed against her eyeballs, the very liquid of them scrambled to a milky white.  Even Roxy has to look away for a moment.” (p. 315)

As you can see, there is no hiding from prose like this.  It’s unrelenting, and at the end you feel as though you’ve been chased down and forced to look at something ugly, and real, and all the uglier for being real.

But it’s highly worth doing – I’m glad that I did it.  If there weren’t ugliness in the world, books like ‘The Power‘ wouldn’t have any effect at all.  And as long as they are effective, that is a sure sign that we should be reading them.

Seveneves

By Neal Stephenson

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It’s been a long time since a book has upset me this much.

I mean that as a compliment.  Novels elicit a very few, predictable emotional states from me: intellectual appreciation, amusement, the fun of learning something new, and sometimes, when they are really excellent novels, anger or sadness at the unfairness of the world, the cruelty of people.

But it is rare that a novel makes me feel the way ‘Seveneves‘ has: dreadful, afraid, oppressed, a little grief-stricken, and, I think, even rarer that the novel should be End-of-the-World science fiction, a genre which normally moves me little*.  Most apocalypse scenarios are far-fetched MacGuffins; they have very little emotional resonance in of themselves, at least for me.  You are meant to care about the characters – the apocalypse is there only to put them in extremis.

SevenEvesBut ‘Seveneves‘ is different.  The premise of this novel is that, one day, one normal day, in our world in our reality, a rapidly moving cosmic event, perhaps a small black hole, causes the moon to shatter into seven large pieces.  The pieces have the same center of gravity as the intact moon, and so remain in orbit around the Earth.  As they begin to collide with one another and fragment, astrophysicists figure out that their collision and fragmentation rate will accelerate.  Eventually, the pieces will begin to fall to Earth in an ‘Hard Rain’; they will super-heat the atmosphere, setting it alight, killing all life on Earth and boiling the oceans.  At the time of the initial event, the Hard Rain will begin in approximately two years.

Seveneves‘ is the story of humanity’s preparation for the Hard Rain, its desperate attempts to put as many people on the International Space Station as possible, and the sequelae, in space, of the extinction of life on earth.

Stephenson
Neal Stephenson

I’ve been trying to figure out why ‘Seveneves‘ is so effective.  It isn’t because it’s perfect.  Neal Stephenson has great strengths as a writer, and some weaknesses, most of which are on display here.

For example, he has trouble with endings, and the ending of ‘Seveneves‘ is emblematic: the book wraps up suddenly and anti-climactically after nearly 800 pages of vividly-imagined plot, as though Stephenson, after saying what he wanted to say, got bored and wandered away from his writing desk.

And not all of it is equally well-imagined.  Stephenson loves physics and engineering: there are pages and pages of loving, fastidious descriptions of orbital mechanics and robotics programming, so long and so detailed that they come to feel almost punitive.  No detail of physics is left unelaborated.

However, much of the second half of the book hinges on a small miracle of biology taking place, on a revolution in gene-editing technology which would require that genes work entirely differently than they, in fact, do work in real life.  The future of humanity relies on, and cannot be understood without, this miracle, but it receives only a paragraph of Stephenson’s attention.  He doesn’t even posit a mechanism of action – he simply asserts that genes work this way, and that scientists may manipulate them thus, with such and such results.

It goes like this:

“…the point is that I can get a digital record of its DNA.  Once that’s in hand, it turns into a software exercise – the data can be evaluated and compared to huge databases that shipped up as part of the lab.  It’s possible to identify places on a given chromosome where a bit of DNA got damaged…It is then possible to repair those breaks by splicing in a reasonable guess as to what was there originally…if it’s a disease – something on the books, defined in the medical literature as such – I will fix it…Once all that is done, each of us gets a free one…one alteration – one improvement – of your choice, applied to the genome of the fertilized ovum that will grow into your child.  And your child only….So, Camila, if you think it would improve the human race to get rid of its aggression, why then, I will search through the scientific literature for a way to reach your goal genetically.” (p. 552- 562)

Habitat Ring
A graphic from the novel – you can see that, when he cares to, Stephenson really thinks things through.

Maybe it’s because biology is my day job, but this unevenness bothered me.  The point of hard science fiction (well, one of the points) is the science; to just gloss over the parts you’re not interested in so you can rush back to describing robot movements cheats the reader.  This is especially glaring when they are crucial to the plot, when they represent far and away the most important scientific advance depicted in your science fiction book!

But this unevenness doesn’t blunt the emotional effect of this novel, which springs, I think, from two things:

  1. There is something viscerally upsetting about the disintegration of the moon.  The effect on the reader of imagining a moonless earth is primitive and unsettling and super-effective.  And Stephenson achieves it with very little fuss – there are no long passages of devotional description of the moon, no exploration of its place in our cultural imagination.  The novel begins when the moon ends, and, like the old cliche, you discover that you had been unaware of what you had until it was gone.
  2. According to Stephenson’s premise, humanity has two years in which to confront its own annihilation.  Some authors would have taken that opportunity to show a depraved humanity, a burning, anarchic world, man’s heart of darkness let loose.  Stephenson does not, and the mostly calm manner in which his world walks towards its own destruction is more affecting than mayhem and evil could have been.  Most people continue to live lives which very much resemble their old lives, but why?  What meaning can your routines possibly have when, in the near future, you and everyone you love will die in flames?  For that matter, what meaning do they have now?

I didn’t enjoy this book – that verb is inappropriate.  In fact, I spent much of it in the grips of a morbid agitation, unable to relax or be cheerful.  But I was completely glued to it; all my free time went to reading it.  If you’re looking for a feel-good romp, this is not your book.  But if you’d like to be freaked out, to work hard for the privilege of being unsettled, if you want to spend some time absorbed in a genuinely dark, movingly dark, future, this is your book.

*Although, now that I think about it, the only book which has unsettled me in this way in recent memory is, weirdly, also sci-fi: ‘The Reality Dysfunction‘, by Peter Hamilton, which describes a vision of the afterlife which made me want to run screaming into the nearest church.