Fiction I’ve been reading

I’ve had the chance to read through a few fiction books recently – Primo Levi’s Periodic Table, H. G. Wells’ The War in the Air, and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. 

Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table

The Periodic Table was an excellent read. It’s a curious mixture of things. His memories of his profession as a chemist; some of the stories are funny, and odd, and an insight into a different time when mines were built just to get asbestos. But there’s much to this collection of stories than that. He writes beautifully, evocatively about his craft, and gives you a sense of the beauty in it, the challenge and frustration in trying to identify a new compound. What struck me the most, though, was how even though this is not a book about the holocaust – he’s written others on his experiences – it seeps into it, regardless.

His description of the … blithe unawareness before the disasters strike, is gripping, in the way a horror movie might be. And his account of writing to a German he knew from the camps, after the war, is … intense. He tells it simply, and because he does it so simply the shock is all the more powerful, of seeing an old German man struggling to reconcile the horror of what he’s seen and done, with his own sense of himself as a relatively simple, harmless man.

It’s a great read; I recommend it.

H. G. Wells’ The War in the Air

I haven’t actually finished this one yet; I got slightly side tracked by Snow Crash. It’s a good read. [SPOILER ALERT: Some discussion of plot points follow, but nothing too crucial].

Wells, writing in 1908, predicted the conflagration of a world-wide war where a new technology (airships) fundamentally changes the way war is raged. Now granted, it’s easy to point out the details he got wrong (airships weren’t as ground-breaking a technology at the time as he thought), but fundamentally, he foresaw key trends in the future. World War I broke out only a few years later, after various European nations had been stockpiling arms for years. There were a few technologies that fundamentally shifted the balance – machine guns resulted in wholesale slaughter and trench warfare, and tanks in turn broke the trench warfare impasse.

But there was massive world-wide conflict, and some of his predictions (particularly in relation to air warfare, and which countries attacked who) did play out to a certain extent in World War II. So I think on balance it was a fairly accurate insight.

Even regardless of the accuracy, his description of a German fleet of airships bombing New York is remarkable both as what seems like a plausible alternative scenario, and as an account of how a population responds to war. It’s particularly interesting to see him reflect on how air power changes the relationship between the military and civilian population, and how suddenly an entire civilian population can be the target for intense bombardment, without there being any way of effectively controlling/policing what is, in military terms, a subdued population.

For all that I liked about the ‘scientific romance’ element of The War in the Air, the characters felt a little under developed to me. The novel follows Bert Smallways, a young British man who through a series of mildly comic mishaps is swept up into the centre of an international conflict, and has a privileged position (although occasionally life threatening) to see many of the key battles unfold.

In that sense, Wells does a nice job of capturing the viewpoint of an individual swept up in a grander conflict driven by deep international trends. And so Bert serves as useful ‘center of consciousness’, as Henry James might describe him. But for Bert himself, there’s very little that happens; he is essentially a passive observe, a video camera that’s necessary for rhetorical devices, but doesn’t contribute in any meaningful sense to the action.

For all that, a good read – I recommend it.

UPDATE: Having recently finished The War in the Air, I can say I like it even more now. As someone fascinated by collapse of civilisation stories, I think Wells does a pretty remarkable telling of what early twentieth century Western civilisation falling apart might look like. And I would temper my earlier comments on personal interest by saying that although some of the same features are there, there is some minimal character development for Bert later in the story. It is still very much the story of the world overall, but the Bert who starts the narrative is a very different one to the one who finishes it.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash

I always have mixed feelings about Stephenson’s writing. It’s been a while since I read Cryptonomicon and Anathem. Snow Crash is in some ways quite similar. All of his work I’ve read so far centres on the unpacking of a particular set of ideas, which he’s interpreted in a slightly unusual, sci-fi way. While there are inevitably long-ish passages in his writing that are pure exposition, rather than real narrative, he does a good job of tying the concepts into a plot about meaningful change – typically a power struggle of some sort – and of having protagonists who are in some way involved, or making choices/changing through events.

While it’s not often significant personal development, it is usually a struggle against an external protagonist, and often an attempt to save society in some way.

Snow Crash (which, like The War in the Air, I haven’t quite finished yet) is similar. It’s set in a hugely commercialised* world of franchise fiefdoms, a parallel universe online (the ‘Megaverse’), and two protagonists out to defeat a plan to control the world, which is taking place through an underlying Ur-language.

It’s fun reading so far (I’m about three-quarters of the way through), and I’m looking forward to how it plays out. If you like sci-fi, I’d recommend it; of course, if several pages of speculation re-interpreting Sumerian myths and biblical passages and linking them to transmission of viruses in binary is not your thing, this may not the book for you.

UPDATE [and rape trigger warning]: I wanted to add something here, but I’m not quite sure how to word it. Essentially, there is a rape scene near the end of the novel, where an extremely powerful man forces a teenage girl to have sex with him. What I found deeply uncomfortable about how that scene was described, is that it didn’t seem to bear any resemblance to how I imagine the encounter might have actually been experienced by the protagonist (whose point of view we follow).

There’s a whole set of broader questions about authorial voice and ethics and psychological realism, and I don’t want to unpack them here. I’ll just say that the portrayal that the author chose didn’t seem realistic to me, in that it missed an important part of reality, enough to detract significantly from the overall novel. I mean specifically that the depiction of the protagonist’s experience of being raped didn’t match what I would have imagined the vast majority of humans, put in a similar situation, would have experienced.That, in turn, felt … felt as though the author (or the authorial voice) had thought through fully the ethics and experience of what he’d depicted, and it was significant enough to pull me out of the novel as a whole.

So. The book is still an interesting one in many ways, and there are still some interesting ideas in there, but I’d be more hesitant recommending it now.

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