05 March 2006


I'm reading two first novels at the moment, from authors whose later work I admire, and finding them variously disappointing.

Well, actually David Mitchell's Ghostwritten isn't all that disappointing -- in fact it's very good. It's just that his later Cloud Atlas uses many of the same ideas, but takes them very much further, so that Ghostwritten feels a bit seen-it-all-before. If I'd read this in 1999, when it came out, I'd probably have been captivated.

Like Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten is divided into sections, each with a different first-person narrator, with a large number of subliminal, but very few overt, connections between the narratives. Ghostwritten takes us on a geographical progress, from an outlying Japanese island off Okinawa right the way across Eurasia to an outlying island off the Irish coast, and thence to the U.S. I'm currently on the eighth of the nine main narratives (the tenth being a coda which returns us to the narrator of the first), with an Irish physicist who holds in her head the secrets of quantum computing, and possibly also a Grand Unified Theory of Everything, returning to the Gaelic-speaking rural island of her birth and her blind harpist husband.

Blind Irish harpists in literature are always a step too symbolic for me, I'm afraid, and in general Ghostwritten is just that shade less subtle and more obvious than the sublimely wonderful Cloud Atlas. In its favour, its narrative progress is tighter and more controlled, with characters from certain narratives turning up in later ones, and events in one having consequences, of one kind or another, in the next. Cloud Atlas feels more like a series of interconnected short stories, although its grand historical sweep -- running from the South Seas in the 1840s to a post-apocalyptic far-future -- is concomitantly more ambitious and impressive. Cloud Atlas is a story about the slow failure of human civilisation, in which reincarnation may play a part, while Ghostwritten, though not without millennial and mystical overtones, focuses on the personal more than the political.

That said, many of the individual narratives are engrossing, and their human stories involving: the descriptions of cities, islands and mountains carry effortless conviction. The S.F. elements of Cloud Atlas -- which it would be difficult to describe as belonging in any sense to an S.F. novel -- are prefigured by the matter-of-fact treatment given one of Ghostwritten's more eponymous narrators, a walk-in spirit who possesses a total of nine human beings in the course of its narrative, before reaching its own variant of closure. (As with most of the closure in this book, though, it leaves you eager to find out what happened next.)

I'm clearly not in a position to assess Ghostwritten properly until I've finished it, but all the evidence so far suggests that it was, indeed, a very fine debut novel. It's just that the author is fortunate enough to have surpassed it since, and that I've been unfortunate enough to read the two in the wrong order.

Wanting a touch of the exciting and exotic whilst reading Ghostwritten, I turned to one of the S.F. novels I picked up recently from my Dad: Four Hundred Billion Stars by Paul J. McAuley. This one was the real disappointment: so far I'm just over halfway through, and really struggling with it.

I'm a big fan of most of the McAuley books I've read. Pasquale's Angel is fantastic, a really exciting and convincing alternative history. Red Dust is an outstanding evocation of a future Mars as a long-established colony of China. Eye of the Tyger is similarly impressive, and for my money one of the best Doctor Who novellas Telos published, although strangely underappreciated by Doctor Who fans[1]. The only novel of his which has left me rather less whelmed has been Child of the River, which somehow failed to engage me and left me with little desire to read the other two books in the Confluence trilogy.

In all of the above, however, setting and character are central: each (Child of the River not excepted) explores a vivid and well-thought-out environment through the viewpoint of a convincing and engaging protagonist. Four Hundred Billion Stars (henceforth 4×1011S) seems to be trying to do the same thing, but founders on the unfortunate facts that its setting is dull and leaden, and its protagonist lumpen and unlikeable. In theory it's a planetary romance, in that a planet is being explored, but the exploration it describes is so flat and uninvolving that I'm getting the impression even the author found it difficult to engage with.

The novel is self-consciously in the hard S.F. tradition, and -- perhaps because the first-time author was too diffident about his intended audience -- seems to be downplaying the possibility that its characters might have any actual character. There've been some heavy-handed hints that a revelation concerning the protagonist's last parting with her family is planned, but on the whole I find it difficult to see why I should care. Perhaps I'm meant to be getting excited by the science (mostly biology and astronomy) of it all, but so far that's provided barely a glimmer of interest.

Naturally one doesn't expect every successful author to hit a home run on their first attempt as Mitchell did... but evidently 4×1011S tied with Rudy Rucker's enormously better Wetware to win the 1988 Philip K. Dick Award[2]. Failing a breathtaking upturn in the second half I'm frankly baffled as to why, unless the judging committee saw signs of future promise which have altogether passed me by. There are Doctor Who books not even by Paul McAuley which are vastly superior to this.

It does, however, share a universe with at least two other McAuley novels (Secret Harmonies and Eternal Light) and sundry short stories. On these grounds I feel that I probably ought to persevere with it, although it may prove to be the equivalent of reading Rocannon's World in order to understand The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed.

[1] It also contains a character called "Tx", hence my somewhat eccentric choice of title.
[2] You know, I really hope they call those "The Phils", rather than... never mind.

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