Sunday, 18 March 2012

The Chrysalids

One thing that may be said of the best SF is that it has the quality of transcending the time in which it was written. It remains relevant in a way contemporary mainstream literature can't, because by its very definition it has to be stuck in its time (whereas SF isn't). A good example of a piece of SF that remains relevant is Dune, which has the same thematic relevance now as it did on its publication in 1965.

Another novel from half a century ago that retains its relevance despite its age is The Chrysalids, written by the author of The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham. First published in 1955, it's a story about intolerance that should be read by anyone who goes out into the world and deals with people on a day-by-day basis.

David Strorm is the son of the local community's chief preacher in a post-nuclear apocalypse world, where mutations are commonplace and religious zealotry rules over reason. Anything that differs from the norm is regarded as an offence against God, and has to be destroyed - including people. David and several of his contemporaries have a psychic link that they keep secret, fearing discovery as mutants. David's father is the biggest zealot of the community, urging his flock to stay pure and blaming any mutation on the weakness of others who slip into sin.

It may be because I haven't read The Day of the Triffids or The Midwich Cuckoos for quite a while, but Wyndham's writing feels different. There's far less 1950s sensationalism, and it's far more fluent than what I've come across from him before. On a sentence level alone it's a good read, without having the detailed exploration of intolerance and the actions of the intolerant. Throw in a compelling story and you've got a top-notch read, possibly finer than what are widely regarded as Wyndham's greatest works.

So how does The Chrysalids relate to the modern world? Even today, intolerance is rife, because we don't understand the differences between peoples. In Wyndham's devastated future, we see physical differences marking people out as being less than pure, and therefore inhuman. Such people are, at the very least, ostracised and sent into exile in the Fringes, lands affected more badly by the unspecified disaster that led to the breakdown of civilisation in the first place. In cases where it's felt the difference poses a risk to the way of life, people are hunted down and disposed of. There are so many analogies that could be drawn. Were it written today, Wyndham could have been writing about religious intolerances in places like Saudi Arabia. He could be talking about racial tensions in the Deep South in the 1930s. But as it is the broad analogy may be applied to any number of situations. In truth, it does make it required reading for living in the modern world, where tolerance is still sadly lacking.

One final word: the cover of the edition you're most likely to pick up at the moment is an interesting exercise in spotting the artist's error.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Wise Man's Fear

Patrick Rothfuss's beard is fantastic. In the moody black and white photos of him on his website, it's clearly the star performer. Even the 'Joss Whedon is my master now' t-shirt can't topple something of such wild beauty. Had Galen Tyrol's fledgling stubble in Battlestar Galactica been allowed to grow to its fullest extent, it would surely have matched it, but as it is it stands alone, its facial follicles unsurpassed.

You're probably getting tired of hearing about Patrick Rothfuss's beard at this point. I'm pretty sick of writing about it. I certainly grew tired of one thing in particular in The Wise Man's Fear, the second novel of Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicles: hearing about Kvothe's hair.

Let's start at the beginning. The Name of the Wind was the first novel from Rothfuss. It focussed on a barman, Kote, telling of his past as the legendary Kvothe, before he started to live in hiding as a red-headed landlord. As is standard in fantasy novels, Kvothe was orphaned and lived rough for a few years before, through sheer nerve, blagging his way into a prestigious educational institution, the University, to study to become an arcanist, the world's equivalent of a sorcerer. It was an enjoyable read, being fast-paced, with interesting characters and a well-realised world, ticking all the basic fantasy boxes and then taking a step beyond as it unfolded to become a story told with flair.

Did I mention that Kvothe was red-headed?

The storytelling medium is Kvothe himself, talking to a travelling chronicler. The first novel covers the first day of Kvothe telling his tale. In between times, other things happen in the present - this is a story told on two apparently separate (but I suspect otherwise) levels, one happening while Chronicler takes down Kvothe's memoirs, the other the memoirs themselves. The Wise Man's Fear follows the same narrative structure - as presumably the rest of the series will be as well - and picks up where The Name of the Wind left off.

By the way, Kvothe is a flame-haired magiciany bloke.

Being quite honest, it feels at times like the story barely moves on. But we do at least get to see the development of a character first-hand. We were told in the first volume that Kvothe was a fearsome warrior and magician, and throughout The Wise Man's Fear he grows into this role. He was a young and relatively innocent boy at the start. Two years down the line, we're starting to see a hardened man who is far easier to reconcile with the barkeeper telling the story. And the joy of it is that the development feels natural. Offhand, there aren't any sudden breaks in his development where Kvothe suddenly leaps from being one thing to another. Transition is smooth and barely noticeable. Even when he seems to do something out of character (as he does twice), there is a reasonable explanation that doesn't hinder the book.

The other characters are interesting as well. The enigmatic Denna provides a focal point for Kvothe's attentions, and she retains her mercurial air throughout. Elodin, Master Namer at the University (for a fuller explanation, read the books - it's easier that way), is also enigmatic, but he's also convincingly borderline insane. And then there are others.

But that's a problem. The location shifts on a regular basis. Whilst the University provides a base of sorts, we're taken elsewhere several times and this means we're introduced to a new set of characters, who need to be fleshed out and developed. In terms of the scale of the cast, it's large enough to rival George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, but Rothfuss has yet to develop Martin's mastery of a large set of characters. Many characters feel paper-thin. Too many appear and then suddenly disappear, never to be heard from again. Rothfuss is on occasion reduced to telling us facts about these characters and then advancing. In some ways, he's been over-ambitious, writing things above his ability.

He also indulges in a few irritating habits. He insists on telling us Kvothe's skills time and again (as well as the fact he's red-headed). I certainly didn't forget that Kvothe's a fantastic musician; but it's like Rothfuss doesn't trust his audience. He didn't do this in his first book (or if he did, I didn't notice). I accept that the second novel is tough after a successful first, but Rothfuss doesn't quite do himself justice.

It's still not bad. At times, it can be very good. Kvothe is a sympathetic character, and it's easy to like his cheek and wit. But I was hoping for more.