Sunday, 24 June 2012

Wolves of the Calla and other thoughts

In his introduction to the Dark Tower series, Stephen King discusses being nineteen and its influence on the work that follows. He's right. It's a good age to be. Indeed, it was the age I was when I read The Gunslinger for the first time, and embarked on the quest for the Dark Tower with Roland - the perfect age to immerse myself into Mid-World, given the significance of the number in King's magnum opus.

But no man remains nineteen forever. And I turned twenty - that age of maturity and professionalism - while reading Wolves of the Calla, book 5 of The Dark Tower. Perhaps it's ironic, but what I've read since I turned twenty hasn't had the quality of what I read before that date. When I was nineteen, the number associated most closely with the Tower (alongside ninety-nine).

This isn't a review. I'm not going to assess the qualities of Wolves of the Calla like I've tried to with other books. Instead, I'm going to go through why, in my opinion, this is where The Dark Tower loses its way. If you've not read the series, I'll warn you now: I'll be talking about events that are spoilers.

Wolves of the Calla follows a plot most of us would be familiar with, because it's most clearly inspired by The Magnificent Seven (with a shout-out being made to this by Eddie Dean of New York in the next volume, Song of Susannah). Our ka-tet of Roland, Eddie, Susannah, Jake, and Oy come to the Callas, small towns dogged by raiders who take their children for purposes unknown. The ka-tet meets Father Callahan, formerly of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, and agree to defend the towns and stop the Wolves - those who raid the towns.

For almost seven hundred pages it's as good as The Dark Tower gets (Wizard and Glass aside). There's the mix of SF, horror, westerns, and fantasy that made the world so haunting and believable. It touches our own world a number of times, with characters slipping through more of the doors we saw in The Drawing of the Three. And there's the growing sense of drawing close to the Tower itself, with the whole story taking place on the threshold of End-World, where the Tower stands.

It's another slow-burn building to a climax (with pacing for the most part that worked brilliantly in Wizard and Glass - my favourite of the series), but unlike previous volumes that climax ends in disappointment. The battle with the Wolves is all over - after hundreds of pages of build-up - inside twenty rushed pages. There's no excitement there. Again, returning to Wizard and Glass: book 4 ended with a triple climax, one a thrilling battle where there's a real sense of danger to the characters, an emotional climax that leaves you shattered, and then to top it off another emotional climax that gives you a punch to the gut and makes you want to jack it in - but you have to because you're already so invested in the characters and the world. Wolves of the Calla has none of those things. We can pretty much guarantee the ka-tet's survival, and even the emotional climax and resultant cliffhanger with Eddie and Susannah falls flat and hurried.

I think it falls flat because the whole ending sequence feels cheap. The Wolves are robots, which is believable enough in Mid-World. But they carry lightsabres and grenades called 'sneetches' - and if that latter sounds familiar, I'll add that they're the Harry Potter version. It jars. It cheapens. And then there's the final punch to the gut: a novel called 'Salem's Lot by a certain Stephen King comes into the possession of the ka-tet, making Callahan realise he's a character in a book.

Whilst I'm not against a writer giving himself credit (especially after a project he's invested thirty years of his life in nears its conclusion), but the effect of this cheapens not only the whole conclusion of this book, but overshadows the whole series. Suspension of disbelief is required for immersion in another person's world; when that person reminds you that someone wrote it, the characters you've grown to love seem to become so much less than they were.

King later inserts himself into Song of Susannah and The Dark Tower as a key character. I don't think it's an act of ego, like many other writers who have put themselves in their own work; rather, it's a writer acknowledging how much the series took from him. But the effect is to go within an ace of ruining the last three books. Immersion is lost when you're reminded that a book is fiction.

It's a shame. King as a character isn't that bad. He's not a hero (far from it), and he's not painted in a positive light. But I wonder how much his inclusion is as a result of rushing through the conclusion of what should have been one of the finest fantasy series of all time following his near-fatal accident in 1999. I'll always enjoy the first four books. They were books written by a writer who wanted to write them, and who had allowed the stories to mature and tell themselves. King himself doesn't like plotting, and from Wolves of the Calla on they have the feel of a writer going against his instincts by doing just that.

However, they're still worth a read. Some people will love the final volumes. As for me, I'll always be disappointed with how they turned out, and I hope The Wind Through the Keyhole is a return to form for The Dark Tower.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)

"The problem with death is that it's so damned permanent" - Ray Bradbury

This week saw the passing of one of the great visionaries of modern literature, and possibly the last of the great SF writers from the field's true golden age.

Ray Bradbury was a writer everyone had at least heard of, even if they hadn't actually read anything of his. I didn't read any of his work until the end of 2010, when I read Fahrenheit 451 for Law and Literature. But I knew of him and his influence. Fahrenheit 451 had been on my to-read list for upwards of two years before reading it. I'd heard of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. I knew of Bradbury's place in the pantheon of great SF writers, alongside the Isaac Asimovs and Arthur C. Clarkes of the world.

When it came to the dystopia workshop for Law and Lit, I could easily have got away with not reading anything. The other options were all books I'd read: 1984, Brave New World, and The Road. Of those, I could talk about 1984 until the cows came home from a night out in Newcastle. But instead, I chose to use it as an excuse to read Fahrenheit 451. It was a good decision.

Bradbury was never a prolific novelist. His strength lay in his short fiction, and that strength shone through in the short novel that will probably be remembered by many as his seminal work. There's a tightness to the lyrical prose that you just don't get from someone who isn't an expert short story writer. And it's a joy to read.

For anyone who doesn't know, Fahrenheit 451 is ostensibly a book about censorship. Set in a future where books are banned, Guy Montag is a fireman, responsible for burning books that people may hoard in their homes. Most entertainment in this future world is provided via the television, and is focussed on the attention-deficient masses. Bradbury himself went on record arguing that the book is about the rise of new media and its affect on reading (and, given the way things seem to be going in entertainment for the masses, I'm not going to argue with the author's interpretation of his own work). However you want to read it, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking novel that should be read at some point in a person's life - the earlier, the better.

When it came to the two-hour Monday afternoon workshop, I ended up in a group that discussed The Road (as only one of two people in the whole group of around 16 who had read it at any point, even if it had been two years previously for me) rather than Fahrenheit 451. But I was determined to read more of Bradbury's work. Earlier this year, I dipped into his short fiction for the first time. The Illustrated Man is a collection linked together by Bradbury himself, with a prologue to the collection that focusses on the Illustrated Man, who has a series of tattoos on his body which tell the the stories contained in the collection.

As a framing device, it's OK at best. But the stories it frames are far from merely acceptable. Again, there's that satisfying tightness to Bradbury's prose. His style isn't jarring like other tight, precise prose, however. It flows with lyrical abandon. Every writer should read it and take notes.

The stories themselves range broadly through the SF spectrum. But there's always a sense of bleakness to them which counters the occasional whimsy of the prose and characters superbly. It can be seen in 'The Veldt', initially a charming tale seemingly about the fantasies of children which takes on a darker edge. This isn't the cosy 1950s SF people seem to expect - it's far more compelling than that. And it gives me a spur to pick up more of his short fiction (once I'm caught up with Interzone and the anthologies I've started and haven't finished).

So where does Bradbury rate for me amongst the great SF writers? Better than Vonnegut? Better than Asimov? To look at his works as a whole, it's worth noting that he was prolific, but never as prolific - or over as long a period - as Isaac Asimov, and his technological and scientific influence never reached as far as Arthur C. Clarke. Bradbury's career had a distinct peak in the 1950s, unlike other writers of his time who produced cornerstone works of SF over several decades (again, just look at Clarke - Childhood's End in the 1950s, 2001 in the 1960s, Rendezvous With Rama in the 1970s, and The Songs of Distant Earth in the 1980s). But he still stands as one of SF's greats, the last of the Golden Age writers to pass on to the publishing house in the sky. He'll be missed, even as his works are cherished by future generations.