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Old 07-01-2011, 11:32 AM   #433
Darth InSidious
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Just finished The End of Mr. Y, by Scarlett Thomas, and...

Sigh. This is the problem with books like this. They entice you in with promises of Chestertonian surrealism and gothic adventuring, and you get... tawdry and humdrum sex scenes and banal characters boring each others' ears off for pages on end about Baudrillard and Derrida. No, really: the book is full of passages like:

I search my shelves for the book. Eventually I find it, and it tells me what I remember reading. In the furnace of the Big Bng, hydrogen was the first element to form from the hot plasmic soup of electrons and protons. It's a bit of a no-brainer: all you need for hydrogen is one electron and one proton. The mass of this hydrogen isotope is one - because it has one proton (electrons don't reall have any mass). In the incredible heat, hydrogen isotopes with masses two (deuterium - one proton and one neutron) and three (tritium and trialphium) also formed. Then helium, with mass four. But there is no stable atom with mass five. Because there is no atom with mass five, no one understood how carbon could ever habe been made. Each new element is made from fusing the elements that ame before it, but you can whi hydrogen and helium around in a cosmic blender for as long as you want and you won't make carbon.

That is a problem because...

And so on, and so on, and so on, for pages. The thing is, this is meant to be a novel. If I wanted to have a science textbook regurgitated at me, I'd take evening classes. It just fills up pages and attempts to make the author lookk clever. Except, of course, it's unbelievably boring. And as I say, other bits spend page after page wittering about Baudrillard and Heidegger until you want to throttle the authoress.

This isn't helped by a protagonist who must be the most artifically 'tragic' character ever invented. She's PhD student on the brink of starvation who engages in dirty sex to alleviate something-or-other and as a slightly less harmful version of cutting herself (aw, bless - are ya getting weepy yet?). The character, of course, never shuts up about any of this, either, and the sheer clumsiness of the authorial artifice is almost more nauseating than the execrable prose itself.

And every character has the same "issues", cookie-cutter design to them. Every one. It doesn't help that everything is filtered through the knowing, weary eyes of the protagonist. Partly, this is because of when it was written, in 2006, when it seems 'meaningful issues' were still things to discuss, and everyone wasn't yet sick to death of abortion threads.

The overall result is you get a glorified and rather **** thought experiment shoved down your throat, surrounded by some abysmal writing. If the book had managed to match its high-falutin' scientific pretensions with less padding and a structure closer to that of the more successful postmodernists - the plot of Foucault's Pendulum, say - it might have been something to write home about. But I doubt Foucault's Pendulum sold 150,000 copies.

This book serves as a stark warning against teachers of creative writing. Because of Scarlett Thomas is anything to by, they're people who shouldn't be writing in the first place, let alone their pupils.

I also just finished Newtons Sleep by Daniel O'Mahony.

Now, here the contrast is interesting between the diabolically awful but successful 'mainstream' novel and the really, really good obscure 'genre' work.

Newtons Sleep is part of the Faction Paradox universe, of which I have probably bored people enough already in this thread to repeat things again. What marks this book out from the likes of, say, Warlords of Utopia, is that it's a bit less of a Boy's Own adventure tale. NS takes as its premise the adage "as above, so below", and then applies it to English history between, roughly, the late reign of James I (reigned 1603-1625), and the reign of Charles II (r. 1630-1685), and the construction of the New St Paul's Cathedral (begun in 1677 and completed in the 1720s) and the building of six churches in London by Nicholas Hawksmoor.

The period was one of massive social and political change: from the execution of Charles I, the erection of the Commonwealth of England, the Restoration of Charles II, the brief reign of James II and the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688 which booted him out, there was a period of only 63 years. In the same period, major theological, scientific, philosophical and literary figures rise and fall, like Newton, Winstanley, Milton, Behn, Wren, Hawksmoor, Hobbes, Dryden, and so on.

And the premise of Newtons Sleep is that War in Heaven (in this case, between the Great Houses and their Enemy) is intimately connected with the goings-on of this period, directly as well as indirectly.

O'Mahony handles this brilliantly, managing to weave fact and fiction, the surreal super-science fiction and the expectations and prejudices of the 17th Century beautifully. The result is a tome of a book, which takes a long time to plough through (not least because the structure of the prose has a distinct and unhurried style to it), but which rewards persistence.

This is by no means an easy read, but it is a rewarding one, and one more than worth pursuing. By parts beautiful, fascinating, horrifying, revolting and amusing, it's a great piece of writing. Following two major characters and a host of minor ones, including the very much real Aphra Behn, the book as much examines 17th century ideas of magic, science, the order of the universe and its very direct relationship with the physical world as it does grandiose four-dimensional war. Anyone looking for fancy spaceship battles should look elsewhere, because this is something very different and far, far more fascinating.

I only have two complaints about the book. One, I found the sex scenes unnecessary, and thought they detracted from an otherwise superb book by dragging it to the level of titillation in those scenes. Two, I rather wish the author hadn't chosen Aphra Behn. Not because he mishandles the character - on the contrary, I thought her characterisation was lively and compelling - but simply because she's a character about whom there has been so much... fuss, that I think a less well-known person might have been more interesting.

The only other thing is that some readers may find the points where the book connects with its wider mythos a little vague on details and find it difficult as a consequence to work out what is going on in these scenes. I have to confess, once I finished the book I turned back to The Book of the War to look up a couple of relevant passages and remind myself of what's going on, but I don't think not knowing about this will render these parts of the book incomprehensible. Overall a very, very impressive novel that is well, well worth reading.
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