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The god’s point of view July 19, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in books.
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I was back in comfort book territory this morning. One of my favourite book sequences is “The Dark is Rising”, a five book fantasy series by Susan Cooper, written over a decade or so in the sixties and seventies. The stories weave British myth and legend into a narrative centred round Will Stanton, an boy who awakens on his eleventh birthday to the gradual realisation that he is an Old One, a timeless and immortal warrior in the eternal battle between the Dark and the Light. It’s an enormously powerful series, superbly written.

The fourth book, “The Grey King” is set in North Wales, and involves a series of encounters with the powers of the Dark who would impede Will’s progress in fulfilling his quest. It’s maybe the most satisfying of the five books, bringing in Arthurian mythology and Welsh myth and legend, and mixing it with A Boy and His Dog.

I’d recommend that you try these books, especially since I started on my latest pass through the series after getting halfway through C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” before putting it aside in annoyance at its trite and patronising tone. Life’s too short for Narnia, I’m afraid. But time spent with Susan Cooper is never wasted.

Still, what I wanted to think about in this post was not the books, particularly, but something that occurred to me while I was reading “The Grey King” this morning. The Grey King (or Brenin Llwyd, as the Welsh would have it) is a great power of the Dark who has a somewhat amorphous existence in the high fastnesses of Cader Idris (Arthur’s Seat), and manifests occasionally as a huge ghostly figure. So, there’s a point in “The Grey King” where he has a conversation with our hero Will. Will’s goal is to awaken the Sleepers, who will form a part of the upcoming battle with the Dark. The Grey King’s goal is to stop him.

I was reading the passage, and it struck me that this interaction was written from Will’s perspective. Of course, you say, it would have to be, since Will is the figure around whom the story is woven. But how would it be to write about the conversation from the point of view of the Grey King? He has motives, he takes action, he makes decisions, he has conversations with humans. How would you go about writing a story where the point of view is that of a god? I don’t mean something like Zelazny’s Amber series, where the protagonists are god-like, but are really just humans with secret sauce, But the point of view of a god must be completely alien – maybe not subject to time or space, maybe constrained in ways we can’t dream of, explicitly non-human. How would you go about rewriting the interaction between The Grey King and Will Stanton -but from the Grey King’s perspective?

I have no clue, but I’m musing on the idea.

Comfort Books May 11, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in books.

When you look over your shoulder, and find the world staring at you accusingly, you need help.  Some people have comfort foods – the kind that their mothers made for them when they were small.  For me, it’s comfort books.  There are several heavily dog-eared books on my shelves which fill this need, offering a sense of familiarity and warmth when life starts to crowd me.

One of my best comfort books is Fred Hoyle’s 1957 science-fiction novel “The Black Cloud”.  It’s not a literary classic by any means, as I’m sure Hoyle would have admitted – he called it a “frolic” in the Preface.  I think what I like about the story is the sense of bright scientific collegiality it conjures in its characters, who are mostly astronomers and physicists. It takes me back to my undergraduate days, many years ago, when I was peripherally involved in the professional astronomy scene in the UK.  The hero is Chris Kingsley, Professor of Astronomy in the University of Cambridge, and it’s clear that Kingsley is who Hoyle wants to be when he grows up – he’s young, ferociously smart, and suffers fools not at all.  Oh yes, and he’s also possessed of a “shock of thick, dark hair” and “penetrating blue eyes”.

Let me give you an example of the kind of dialog which makes me smile.  Kingsley is travelling back to Cambridge with the Astronomer Royal, after the meeting at which the observations which led to the discovery of The Black Cloud were announced:

“Let’s put it this way”, answered Kingsley. “There are two hypotheses I can make.  Both at first sight seem incredible, but one of them must be right. One hypothesis is that a hitherto unknown body with a mass of the same order as Jupiter has invaded the solar system.  The second hypothesis is that the Astronomer Royal has taken leave of his senses.  I don’t want to give offence, but quite frankly the second alternative seems to me less incredible than the first”.


Los Angeles Times “Festival of Books” April 29, 2008

Posted by Peter Hornby in books.
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The LA Times “Festival of Books”, at the UCLA campus in Westwood, is one of the highlights of our year.  It’s a weekend-long celebration of the written word, encompassing panel sessions, interviews, writing workshops and publishers’ booths, all draped engagingly on the beautiful UCLA campus, and, amazingly, all free.  The LA Times says that it’s the largest book festival in the US, and I wouldn’t argue.  I remember a British author two or three years ago expressing his astonishment at the scale of the show.

I tend to gravitate to the science panels and those of a political nature.  Normally, the science panels focus on the finalists in the Science section of the LA TImes Book Prizes, which are awarded on Friday evening.  This year’s winner was none other than Douglas Hofstadter, for his new work “I Am a Strange Loop”, or, as the moderator described it, “I Is a Strange Loop”. (You’ll have to check the book to understand what he was getting at!)  Hofstadter was on a panel with Dava Sobel, who talked a little about her upcoming play about Copernicus, Brian Fagen. whose book “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilisations” describes the Medieval Warming of 800-1300 and offers lessons this period can teach us about what might happen as the earth of our own period warms dramatically, and Gino Segrè, whose book “Faust in Copenhagen”, uses the device of a skit, based on Goethe’s Faust, and performed at a 1932 physics conference in Niels Bohr’s Copenhagen, to provide a human picture of the physics and physicists of the time, a period where physics was about to change the world, and be irrevocably changed by it.

The second science panel I attended was even more interesting.  The theme was “Mind Matters”, a title capable of multiple interpretations, in traditional Festival style.  The panelist were a seriously diverse bunch.  I’d seen two of them before, the mother and son combination of Sandy and Matt Blakeslee, but Christine Kenneally and Daniel Lord Smail, were new to me.  The Blakeslees seem to be an ideal combination – a kind of distributed science writer.  Sandy has been writing about science, mainly for the New York Times, for decades, whereas Matt is a trained cognitive scientist, now working as a freelance writer.  Their book “The Body Has a Mind Of Its Own”, describes new and arresting research into the way in which the neurological apparatus in the brain builds and rebuilds the idea of self.  The central idea is body mapping, and it seems as though there’s a lot happening in this area right now.

Christine Kenneally is an Australian science writer with a doctorate in linguistics from Cambridge.  Her book, “The First Word” is a comprehensive tour of the work going on in evolutionary linguistics – how language evolved, and the extent to which it’s a uniquely human capability.  And finally Daniel Lord Smail, who’s Professor of History at Harvard, described his work on bringing together the previously unconnected areas of history and neuroscience.  The book is “On Deep History and the Brain”.

It was fascinating, and very energising, to hear these authors talk about their work.  There’s something about bright, articulate people with stories to tell which really resonates with me.  So these books are now sitting on the top of my precariously balanced to-be-read pile.  Sometimes I actually get started on my Festival purchases before next year’s Festival comes around.  This year will be one of those years, I’m confident.

I’ll get to the political sessions – energising in a somewhat different way – in another post.