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Archive for the tag “sci-fi”

The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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Review of “Cell” by Stephen King

CellCell by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Clayton Riddell was having a good day. He had travelled to Boston and just sold some of his art work for a publication, and was on his way back to his hotel when disaster struck. An electro-magnetic pulse sent through the cell phone networks scrambled the brains of all cell phone users, and most of them became mindlessly violent. Cars crashed, and when drivers not using cell phones phoned to explain that they’d been in an accident or were held up by one, they lost their minds too.

Clayton Riddell’s main desire then is to get back to his estranged wife and 12-year-old son in Kent Pond, Maine, to see that they are OK, and sets out with a couple of companions to make the journey on foot — the roads are blocked with crashed vehicles. They soon discover that the phone-crazies as they call them, are active during the day, but not at night, so much of their travelling has to be done at night. The book describes their journey, and the difficulties they face, dominated by Clay Riddell’s search for his son.

I find Stephen King one of the most unpredictable. His books range from very good (Needful Things) to very bad (The Tommyknockers). I’ve generally found his spooky books to be better than his science fiction ones, but this one, though science fiction, seemed to be one of the better ones. I was thinking of giving it four stars until about three-quarters of the way though, when he jumped the shark by introducing levitation, which didn’t seem to contribute to the plot at all. And I didn’t like the abrupt ending.

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Dawn in Andromeda: book review

Dawn in AndromedaDawn in Andromeda by Ernest Charles Large

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book more than 50 years ago, and thought I would look for it on Good Reads, but could not find it. Web searches make it possible to get such information easily nowadays, however, without time-consuming and expensive trips to the library, so I added it to Good Reads.

This description, which I found on the web, is pretty much as I remember it. Since the book is out of print, it isn’t much of a spoiler.

Five men and five women, all English, walk out of the sea one misty morning on a small uninhabited planet in the galaxy of Andromeda. Their new world is remarkably like the earth, except that it has two moons and it intercepts rather more meteorites. The party have, between them, a great deal of modern knowledge of the useful arts and sciences, and God, for his own inscrutable reasons, has set them the task of making a wireless set – a seven-valve all-wave superhet-in one generation, starting naked from the sea. They begin by putting back the flesh and blood on some of the bare bones of archaeology. They make their first fire, catch their first rabbits with their own hair, smelt their first button of iron, and find the first wild plants for the establishment of their agriculture. And then? In the course of a wonderfully human story, told with scrupulous veracity and attention to detail, they retrace step after step of discovery and invention, all the way from flint implements to high-vacuum technology.

It was a book I really enjoyed as a teenager. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy it as much today. I borrowed it from the Johannesburg Public Library, and second-hand copies seem to be going at quite exorbitant prices, so perhaps it’s time to reprint it.

Some things in it have dated, of course. I remember some bloke at school with me had a portable radio, which may have been a seven-valve all-wave superhet for all I know. The stuff that was crammed into the case was amazing, and it weighed about 3 pounds. But within a couple of years (and by the time I read the book), valves were obsolete and had been replaced by transistors, though for several years afterwards hi-fi (audio/sound system) fundis would insist that valves gave a purer sound than transistors, but that was in amplifiers, not in radios.

earthabidesThe “starting from scratch” theme is a familiar one in dystopian science fiction, one of the better examples of which is Earth abides by George R. Stewart, which I read a couple of years later, and also enjoyed. That one has been reprinted several times, and you can see an interesting selection of the cover illustrations at Exploring the world: Earth Abides cover photos.

But this is no dystopian novel. The starting over is not because of some man-made or natural disaster, but because God, for his own inscrutable purposes, decreed it. Well, no, that’s not quite right. God’s purpose is actually quite scrutable — he wants to know if men can make a better go of it starting over.

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The seeds of time: book review

The Seeds of TimeThe Seeds of Time by John Wyndham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In my youth I liked John Wyndham’s science fiction stories, and when I picked this one off a dusty shelf to catalogue it on GoodReads, I decided to re-read it before putting it back. The seeds of time is a collection of short stories, and I had forgotten some of them, and had only vague memories of the rest, so it was almost like reading them for the first time. And I enjoyed them just as much as when I first read them some 40-50 years ago.

And that made me wonder.

When I was in my teens and twenties I read quite a lot of science fiction, both short stories and full-length novels. Now I hardly read any. On the rare occasions that I browse the science-fiction shelves of book shops I usually don’t come away with anything. On the even rarer occasions when I have bought recently-published science-fiction, I’ve usually been bored, and abandoned the book.

Have I changed, or has the genre changed?

At first I thought that I had lost my youthful taste for science-fiction, and that it was probably something one grew out of, but re-reading these stories by John Wyndham showed me that that isn’t the case. So the genre must have changed, or everything that can be said has already been said and the new stuff is just boring repetition. Or else, most likely, popular culture has moved on and left me behind. What a drag it is getting old, as the Rolling Stones (anyone remember them?) used to sing.

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