Though a bit later than promised in my last blog post, A Literary Update, I have come to write to you a little bit about two of the latest books I’ve read on my (seemingly) never-ending quest to read all of the classic science fiction works! My apologies for the relative brevity; I am still trying to get back into the regular blog-writing business.
The two books in question – Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night and Alfred Bester’s (no, not the telepath from Babylon 5; his namesake!) famous classic The Stars My Destination (originally serialized as Tiger! Tiger!) both… disappointed me.
Let’s start with the more disappointing of the two, The Stars My Destination. I suspect that I was more disappointed by this than Clarke’s novel because I had much, much, much higher expectations of this, having heard it described as The Count of Monte Cristo… in space! The Count of Monte Cristo is one of my favorite novels, and so I was incredibly excited at the prospect of one of my favorite plots of all time being transplanted into my favorite genre, and in retrospect, my expectations may have far exceeded the realms of possibility.
I understand where the comparison comes from. In both novels, a man is wronged, imprisoned and isolated for a long time, gains enormous wealth, and then seeks revenge on those who wronged them. That, however, is where the similarities end. This is not necessarily a bad thing… but the direction that the novel took (Bester’s, not Dumas’) was not one I found particularly appealing. Set against the backdrop of a war engulfing the solar system, Bester’s novel weaves together several tantalizing plot threads – the war itself, the existence of PyrE, the secrets of human teleportation/jaunting, the mystery of why the main character was wronged and abandoned, and of course the quest for vengeance – but the story is just too short to do more than one of them justice. In the end, I am not sure any of them were done justice, though the story of vengeance comes closest.
The book was, I thought, rather unfocused, and did not give itself the space to develop all of its foci. There was not much wrong with the plot threads it brought up – save for the reason that the main character was wronged, but I can’t say much about that without spoiling it (in short, I found the reason uncompelling and pulled almost out of nowhere) – it was just that for the length of the story, there was not enough space to develop them. A book maybe twice its length would have, I think, been a much better story.
The other main problem was the main character, Gulliver Foyle. Unlike Edmond Dantes, I never felt sympathy for him, or identified with him. Though the signature red flushing tiger tattoo on his face was striking imagery – and made the title much more appropriate – nothing made me like the character. In fact, I never really came to like any character. There was always a distance between me and Gully Foyle; I never felt invested in his quest. To me, it was a mere curiosity, and I was not drawn in to the plot. Thus, it was not surprising that I finished the book and felt disappointed.
The other book I read, Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, I was much less disappointed by… but I also had much lower expectations of. I enjoyed most of the novel, and it excelled in the two areas that Bester’s work did not. The mystery behind Clarke’s novel – who the Invaders were and why humans were contained in a single city on earth now, living forever – was much more compelling than Gully’s search for vengeance (with a side dish of understanding why he was betrayed), and had a better answer (though this was a low bar). Clarke kept his focus on the Invaders and that one mystery, and in a similarly short novel, this allowed him to explore a lot more, and say something about humanity that Bester could not with the jumped plotlines.
Additionally, while Clarke’s character writing tends to be poor (I often think of Clarke’s novels as centering humanity as the protagonist, as I’ve argued about Childhood’s End), I was much more compelled by Alvin’s curiosity than Gully’s almost inhumanity and vengeance. I was drawn in by his quest, and though Alvin was by no means a deep and well-fleshed out character, his motivations still drew me in, inexplicable as they were. As a side note, the name Alvin for the adventurous main character questing into the unknown was rather apt, for almost twenty years later the famous deep-sea submersible would be, coincidentally, also named Alvin.
However, I did have one rather large problem with Against the Fall of Night that disappointed me, and that was the ending. The sheer amount of revelation thrown at you all at once in the ending made much of the rest of the book seem meaningless. Alvin’s quest for discovery does not slowly yield insight into what happened, but he suddenly stumbles upon a god-like intelligence… that reveals to him what happened. Clarke does a similar thing in 2001: A Space Odyssey and in Childhood’s End, but it makes much more sense and is much more forgivable in these two works than in this, as they fit much better and weren’t quite as surprising. This is not to say that I did not like the answers to the underlying mystery; I was actually very inspired by them, and as he did in 2001, some passages describing astral phenomena were particularly memorable and awe-inspiring.
However, the manner in which Clarke dished out the revelations disappointed me. Not only was it too much, too fast, but it was mostly things that had not even been hinted at before, coming seemingly from nowhere. While everything did make sense and fall into place, I felt no sense of reward for having completed the book; everything leading up to the revelation felt unnecessary, as it was so disconnected from the final revelation. Still, I enjoyed it much more than Bester’s work.
So, that’s two more classic pieces of science fiction down, and many more to go! For my next blog post – hopefully coming this week if I can manage it – I want to talk about a book that drastically exceeded my expectations, though in the fantasy genre – Peter V. Brett’s The Warded Man.
And after that, I might have some writing-related news! Until next time, TTFN!