Good Omens

The good times continue to roll. My last post chronicled my delight at being on the receiving end of literary luck; now I get to be a giver. A book giver, to be precise, on April 23, in celebration of World Book Night. I applied months ago, along with many tens of thousands of passionate readers in the UK, Ireland, Germany and the USA. Emails were sent to the successful applicants last night. And I do feel truly privileged to have been selected. For a reader, writer and lover of story, this is my kind of community work.

World Book Night prints special editions of 25 great books which volunteers then give away, preferably to non- or light readers. The objective is not only to pass the adventure and excitement of reading on to people who currently don’t spend much time with books; but to do so in a way that makes them ambassadors in turn, passing their WBN books on to others and to others and to others. There’s even an online registration portal that can track the journey that each of the gifted volumes takes.

I get to give away 24 copies of my first choice, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It is a fantastically funny, witty, wicked take on the age-old (and frequently rather tired) tale of ponderous powers locked in a battle of good vs. evil. But there’s nothing turgid or trite about this version. In this one the angels and demons, formally avatars of opposition, turn out to have far more in common with each other than with their ineffable and absent bosses. The deep and imponderable mechanisms of apocalypse are about as reliable as a cheap watch. And humanity, supposedly no more than pawns in their grand game, manages to give a pretty good account of itself.

Good Omens is a bravura collaboration by two great writers at the height of their powers. Gaiman’s feel for character, and his gift for not just retelling but subverting mythology to suit his own satirical ends, mashes up wonderfully with Pratchett’s mastery of the comic fantasy form. The plot spins at a dizzying pace through a series of mounting crises, charting the course from mistake through disaster to catastrophe, leaving you with a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach about what might be about to happen – even as you laugh out loud. It is that rarest of things, a comic horror novel.

And I get to share it! I get to go up to perfect strangers on the street, or in the pub, or waiting for a bus and say, Excuse me. I’ve got a great book here, and I’d like to give it to you. No thanks, you’ve had a rough day? Believe me, it’ll cheer you up no end. D’you believe in God? The Devil? Either way, you’re going to have fun with this. You think books are boring? Really? Let me read you the first page.

I’m looking forward to it with an almost evangelical intensity. Is being able to give a great book to new readers a good omen for a new writer? Better believe it.

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What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton

I know, I know. Another post that’s actually not mine. I’ve been busy, honest. And it’s Neil Gaiman, and it is, as always, brilliant. I don’t know Chesterton as well as I should, but he speaks for me on Lewis and Tolkien.

Goodreads | Neil Gaiman’s Blog – A speech I once gave: On Lewis, Tolkien and Chesterton – January 25, 2012 23:23.

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