Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Trilogies: Third time’s not always the charm

     I saw a book the other day. It's cover caught my eye, so I  picked it up, thinking I might like to read it: “Pure” by Julianna Baggott (Grand Central Publishing).

     The cover background was black, with the title in white, calligraphic  script. A dark dome with a shadowy, brown interior was depicted, with a blue butterfly in front of it. It looked classy and distinctive, though I could tell nothing of the plot or even the genre. I turned to the front jacket flap. It described some sort of post-apocalyptic scenario. Some of the survivors, such as Partridge, live a protected life in “the Dome”; others, such as Pressia, endure a precarious existence amid the rubble. The plot description ends:
“When Pressia meets Partridge, 
their worlds shatter all over again.”
     The précis continued on the back flap, followed by a photo of the author, then a one-sentence biography. So far, so good. I thought I might actually enjoy the book. Then one word in the last sentence on the flap prompted me to put the book down:
     “For more information about (the author) or the Pure trilogy, please visit
     “trilogy: a set of three related plays, novels, etc. which together form an extended, unified work, though each has its own unity” (“Webster’s New World College Dictionary,” third edition, 1997). 

     “Lord of the Rings” by J.R.R. Tolkien is probably the best-known modern example of a literary trilogy. While there are many examples of sequels and series, by the original authors and by other hands, and so-called three-volume novels were once common enough to be mocked by Oscar Wilde in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” before Tolkien actual trilogies were rare. Now three-book series and longer seem the rule rather than the exception in the science fiction and fantasy genres.
     I hate it.
     While I enjoy some multivolume stories, lately it seems a writer comes up with an idea and decides to stretch it out over many volumes whether it merits it or not. It seems a marketing decision, not an artistic vision.
     I still read trilogies and longer series,  but more often than not I regret it  (J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books are a pleasant exception).  
     By strange coincidence, three of the first four books I’ve finished this year are parts of trilogies, and I was disappointed in each of them. They each illustrate one of the reasons I don’t like trilogies:

Reason No. 1: They don’t answer basic questions until later volumes.

by Jay Lake
     “Mainspring” has an intriguing premise: The Earth and heavens seem to literally run on clockwork. A young clockmaker’s apprentice is visited by an angel who tells him the world is running down, and he must find the master key and rewind it. From there, he goes on a quest, has adventures, explores this strange-to-us version of our world. He spends half the book among some caveman-type natives (with one of whom he loses his virginity in an awkward passage), slowly heading to the South Pole where he can rewind the world. Unfortunately, despite the tech-heavy premise, the plot turns out to be a straight fantasy: He is the key, with mysterious magical powers.
    The main story of “Mainspring” is resolved, so it need not have been part of a trilogy – I believe subsequent volumes follow other characters – but the greater mystery of how the clockwork planet came to be is never addressed, nor whether this is the real world or a virtual reality simulation, an alien experiment, etc. Possibly those questions are addressed in one of the two sequels, but I doubt I’ll bother to read them. 

Reason No. 2: They start out promising, but then go astray.

The Curious Case 
of the Clockwork Man
by Mark Hodder 
     This is a sequel to “The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack,” which I greatly enjoyed. The series  is an alternate history-steampunk concept with real historic personages as characters, including explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton and poet Algernon Swinburne. The first book had no hint of the supernatural (fittingly, since Pyr is the science fiction arm of Prometheus Books, which has published many nonfiction titles debunking psychics). Unfortunately, this volume lost me by adding the spirits of the dead (some justification, as spiritualism was rampant at the time of the books) and zombies (no excuse!) to its heretofore strictly science fictional world. Also, the narrative is interrupted several times for untold adventures of Burton (which may be written up as short stories for a subsequent book, I suppose). Then the villains are revealed to be Madame Blavatsky, a notorious spiritualist who in this case seems to have real powers, and Rasputin, the “Mad Monk,” who sends his spirit backwards in time to create a future where Russia dominates the world. I thought time travel was just the setup, just the one change that causes the series’ steampunk world to come into being. Instead it seems like its raison d’etre. As book three is a direct sequel to the events of book two, and involves a search for more of the “magical” black diamonds that caused much of the mischief in this book (and, retrospectively, powered the time machine used in the first book, too), I may skip it. 

Reason No. 3: By the end, it seems to be another series altogether. 

The Night Eternal
by Guillermo del Toro 
and Chuck Hogan
     Both my wife and I read the first two volumes of “The Strain,” a vampire trilogy with ugly, evil (as opposed to good-looking, sensitive, love-stricken, sparkly) vamps in the context of vampirism as a plague (albeit one with supernatural effects). There was little mention of God, Satan, angels, demons or heaven and hell (not even holy water burning vampires or the crucifix repelling them). Book three, alas, involves many deus ex machina elements (such as God, apparently, arranging for the International Space Station to crash to Earth merely to distract the vampires at a key moment while the good guys do something), plus revealing that the creation of the vampires was caused by an act by one of the angels sent to Sodom and Gomorrah (turns out Lot’s wife didn’t turn to salt; she was a vamp who crumbled to ash or dust when the sun came up), and God’s punishment of said angel (cribbed from the fate of Osiris in Egyptian myth). Since the first two books, depicting the spreading of the vampire plague, causing a nuclear winter, the deaths of many, the perversion into vampires of many more and the destruction of human government, if there is an activist God in the universe of “The Strain,” apparently he approved of at least some of these effects. 

     So that’s why I don’t like trilogies (or longer series) as a rule. Do you have some favorite and/or hated trilogies? Tell me about them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Finding the right voice: Audiobooks versus print

     Audiobooks can be a great way to pass the time on a commute or a long road trip, but not all books make good audio books.
     I’ve previously praised the audiobooks for Neil Gaiman’s “Stardust” and “Coraline,” which feature the author reading his own books. The stories are both fairy tales, although “Stardust” is a more grownup fairy tale. I’ve listened to them multiple times, and will no doubt listen to them again.
     Gaiman is such a good narrator that I thought I’d probably like anything he read. So when I found the Suburban Library Cooperative had an audio version of Gaiman reading his novel “Neverwhere,” I checked it out. I’d read the book and enjoyed it, so I expected to like hearing Gaiman read it too.

Cover photo from Neil
     To my surprise, I found it an excruciating experience. It felt slow, repetitive and irritating. I think I actually hit the fast-forward button a few times and, when it was due back to the library with a disc or two still unlistened to, I didn’t even inquire if it could be renewed.

     In an interview at the end of the “Stardust” audiobook, Gaiman explains the difference between reading a book and listening to a book. When reading, you can skip over language and descriptions if you find them boring, while on an audiobook you have to listen to every word. That's one of the virtues of the audiobook, Gaiman said: it makes us more attentive readers. But he also mentioned how he realized that he couldn’t justify every word in his books when reading them aloud. Some words are there, he said, just because he liked them. In his books for younger children, such as “Coraline,” he felt he could justify every word. With “Stardust,” he couldn’t.



      Personally, I found “Stardust” as compelling as “Coraline.” I rarely felt the author was stretching things, but since the story is a journey (into Faerie), maybe the languorous pace seemed appropriate.
     “Neverwhere” is also a journey of sorts (into a secret, parallel London underground). Both books involve someone taken from his world and placed in an unfamiliar, often dangerous one. In “Stardust,” the protagonist is naïve but optimistic, before and after the journey begins, but the protagonist in “Neverwhere” is whiny and pessimistic (not without reason, but still!). I wanted to slap him and tell him to shut up repeatedly.
     It might be that “Neverwhere” was Gaiman’s first solo novel, and his inexperience showed (he adapted it from his original teleplay, so it was changing the medium, too), but I don’t think that’s the only problem. I think an audiobook needs for the characters to be pleasant, sympathetic, or at least unobjectionable. I didn't enjoy the audiobook for Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" either.
     The reader must also suit the material. I suspect that Gaiman’s voice was the wrong one for this novel. A more forceful voice actor might have kept the pace moving better. 
     I have an audio version, abridged, of Arturo Perez-Reverte’s “The Club Dumas,” read by David Warner; he might have been better suited for “Neverwhere.” And Daniel Pinkwater has  read several of his children's books on tape and radio.

Cover photo from Barnes and
     (There was an earlier audiobook of “Neverwhere,” abridged and read by a professional actor, and although Gaiman wasn’t happy with it, I suspect it might have made for a better listening experience. )
     Another pitfall of audio books, though not “Neverwhere,” are lists or other caches of information that are included to lend verisimilitude. The reader is expected to examine them, scan them, but not study them minutely. The audiobook of Michael Crichton’s “Airframe,” about an accident on an airplane and the investigation into the causes, included scenes of characters reading lists. In print, that’s fine but, in an unabridged audiobook, it grows tedious.
     Then there are full-cast dramatizations. They don't deliver a pure reading experience, but sometimes they are preferable. Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” books began as a radio series. After 12 episodes, he started adapting them into novels, which were subsequently turned into audiobooks. The plot of the first two books roughly paralleled the plot of the radio series, then went there own way. A few years ago, they reassembled the original radio cast and adapted the later books into radio plays too. I prefer the experience of listening to "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Tertiary Phase" to reading  “Life, the Universe and Everything.

Cover photo from 
     The voice actor also needs to have a range of voices, male and female. The voice actor for “This Won’t Kill You,” a Nero Wolfe story, had a monotone delivery and limited range, which he tried to disguise with broad character voices. They were distinct, but annoying. A series of full-cast radio dramatizations of Wolfe stories turned out much better.
     I’m still a fan of audiobooks, given the right voice and the right story.
     Have you listened to any audiobooks? Do you have any favorites? Any you hated? Let me know.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Man and Superman

REVIEW: Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes,
Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville
Can Teach Us about Being Human
by Grant Morrison
Spiegel & Grau, 2011 ($28)

     “... the idea of Superman is every bit as real as the idea of God.”
~ Grant Morrison

     That provocative statement, which the author will probably not appreciate my plucking out-of-context from the last-but-two pages of his book, is not nearly as sacrilegious as it seems. Grant Morrison ~ who had written many Superman comic book stories, as well as engaged in a spiritual/religious quest for the past couple decades ~ is not arguing that Superman is as real as God, merely that the idea is as real. That speaks to the solidity of our modern mythologies, not our religions.
     “Supergods” is Morrison’s meditation on the comic book superhero (book-ended by Superman’s first appearance in Action Comics and Morrison’s latest stint writing Superman’s adventures in a new version of Action), his life and career in comics, and his spiritual quest (which has included the use of hallucinogenics and ritual magick). Fans of any of these threads will find something to enjoy in this 417 page (not including appendices and index) tome. Unfortunately, if you’re not fans of all three, parts of the book will drag. Even if you like all three areas, you might wish the book were a little better organized, the strands better integrated into a comprehensible whole.
Photo from Grant
     One thing’s for sure: this is not a comprehensive history of comics, but rather a personal one, focusing on the comics Morrison’s read and written, or at least the subset thereof that addresses the book’s theme.
     That we seem to have read many of the same comic books made that part of the book more enjoyable to me probably than someone younger. Then when he talked about some newer comics that I haven’t read, my interest flagged a bit.
     It also flagged when he talked about his drug use (recreational and in pursuit of his spiritual quest), his cross-dressing, shaving his head and prophetic visions (although it was sometimes instructive of the writing he was doing at the time).
     I found the details of Morrison’s life and career more interesting, if a bit disjointed in the overall narrative. And I enjoyed hearing his thoughts about superhero trends in comic books and the culture (for instance, “In a world where wealth and celebrity are the measures of accomplishment, it’s no surprise that the most popular superhero characters today – Batman and Iron Man – are both handsome tycoons.”).
     However, even on the narrow subject of comic books, Morrison has some surprising factual errors, errors that someone familiar with classic and modern comic book history should have caught (briefly, if you care: Mary Batson/Mary Marvel was the sister, not cousin, of Billy Batson/Captain Marvel, her magic word was, like her brother’s, “Shazam,” while Freddy Freeman/Captain Marvel Jr. used “Captain Marvel” as his magic word; and the Fantastic Four placeholders in Alan Moore’s “1963” series was Mystery Inc., while The Tomorrow Syndicate filled in for The Avengers).
     Something else that might annoy some readers is that Morrison doesn’t always give context to his references. In one paragraph (p. 171), he cites “Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels … Peter Barnes’ The Ruling Class, Dennis Potter, and The PrisonerA Clockwork Orange … Lindsay Anderson’s If …Monty Python … Photographer Bob Carlos Clarke’s fetish girls … Richmal Crompton’s William books,” without a word of explanation except to say that all of these things were “punk.” If you’re well-read enough in popular culture, you may catch most of them, and maybe you’ll be intrigued enough to look up the rest .
     I borrowed the book from a member library of the Suburban Library Cooperative, and at that price ~ free ~ I'm happy to have read it. If you're thinking of purchasing it, you might want to wait for paperback (or get it now as an e-book for $13.99 from Amazon or Barnes and Noble).