The Pace of Reading

I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

Seveneves and the Coronavirus: Reading One Disaster While Living Through Another

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

My Terrible Choices of Great Books

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

Setting the Tone in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Cage of Souls

I might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.

Distance

Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.

Decay

Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.

Farmhand – A Story of Mad Science and Environmental Harm

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

Book Collection as Biography

I work in the room where most of my books live, and so see them every day. I see them when I walk in, when I glance up from my desk, when I get up to go make a cuppa. There’s a whole wall lined with bookshelves, and like everything else about these books, that tells you something about my life.

Our book collections are a form of biography, a life story laid out in pulped wood and print. Or perhaps more accurately an archaeology, the physical evidence of our past. I have books from my childhood, like a beloved copy of Winnie the Pooh. Books with messages from friends I’ve met down the years. Books signed by authors I’ve met. Books full of rules for games I’ve played, instructions for crafts I’ve picked up and abandoned, books bought for work. Each bookshelf shows something different, from my taste in stories to my work in history. Together, they tell a complex tale.

Even the books to read are a reflection of my personality, though I haven’t taken them in yet. They show my enthusiasm for second-hand shops, as well as my deluded conviction that I’ll someday read a big pile of worthy factual tomes.

Some of these books are particularly precious to me. There’s my single signed Pratchett, a memento of my favourite author. Next to that is a battered copy of On the Road, a gift from a best friend in sixth form. Two shelves up is a poetry book inherited from my great uncle, originally gifted to a more distant ancestor in 1904. My books represent family and friendship, work and leisure, down through different stages of my life. Not every one is a treasured memento, but most have a memory attached.

This is an incomplete biography. I’ve lost many books along the way, lent out and never returned or deliberately discarded when I moved to a smaller house. If they were all here then there would be books by the meter, books by the ton, books enough to fill shelves on every wall of this room. Their absence makes this biography incomplete, but then that’s the state of any biography. They’re dependent on bias, memory, and the uncertainties of what reaches the historical record.

My collection keeps changing, and with it my story. I’ll add books coming out this year to the stack. There are books on my kindle to consider – a reflection of the changing technological times I’ve lived through. Whenever I’m published, I add something to that corner of the collection, and of my story.

Our book collections are our biographies. So what does your collection say about you?

Speculating Slightly – A Shining Beacon by James Albon

Fiction doesn’t have to present a radically different world to be speculative. In fact, as James Albon’s A Shining Beacon shows, sometimes a subtle shift can be the most powerful one.

Cover of A Shining Beacon by James Albon

A Shining Beacon is a graphic novel set in a country that isn’t real, but that which seems all too familiar. The names of people and places, the look of the landscape, even the tone of the language is unequivocally British.

Yet this isn’t Britain, at least as we know it. This is a modern dictatorship, where the government strictly stifles dissent. Uniformed wardens patrol the streets ensuring that people comply.

Our window into this world is provided by Francesca Saxon, an artist and loyal citizen. Summoned to the capital to create a grand piece of public art, she experiences the heavy hand of the government first-hand, even as rebels try to use her for their cause. Excitement gives way to uncertainty as she struggles to create.

A Shining Beacon is a powerful evocation of totalitarianism in a Britain that could be. It’s all the more unsettling because it stays to close to the world as we know it. This capital could so easily be London that the small differences become far more chilling, the breaches from a peaceful normality all the more shocking. It feels real, so it hurts.

This is a beautifully created book, a watercolour story that uses soft techniques to send a hard message. One of those soft techniques is unsettling the familiar, taking our world and shifting the boundaries in just a few ways, speculating without running wild. Its people are us, but not.

Grand, sweeping speculation can be a powerful thing, but a more subtle style can be too.

Scattering the Seeds of Short Stories

This is a story about stories, and about finding joy in unexpected places.

Weird Tales cover

Back in the early 20th century, short stories were a big deal. Magazines full of them were sold on newsstands. They were the rich soil in which the careers of genre stalwarts and literary greats grew.

But as time passed, that vast forest of short stories receded. Magazines fell like so many autumn leaves. Readers were more interested in novels, even series, losing themselves in a single narrative for hours on end. It had become easier to afford lots of novels, and that’s what sold.

The arrival of the internet kept the dwindling remains of the short story forests alive, as they found new ways to reach their audiences. A few venerable institutions kept going while exotic new ones rose to join them, but short stories were still contained within limited habitats, loved and nurtured by the few people who knew about them but not widely considered.

Short story dispenser in Gare du Nord station, Paris

Now they’re reaching out, planting seeds in unfamiliar soil. A few weeks ago, in the Eurostar terminal in Paris, I watched two people install a machine that dispenses short stories. My friends and I got the first stories from the machine. Soon, others were coming over, curious to press the button and see what narrative emerged. For a few minutes at a time, they were transported to other worlds and other lives, getting to feel the thrill a good story can bring.

These were flash fiction, tiny stories for people accustomed to the quick fix of social media. There was a new interest in brevity and the stories were making the most of it, putting down narrative roots in human brains. Maybe such machines will bring a whole new revival in interest in short fiction. Maybe they won’t. But if they bring a few more readers joy, and if they keep that once great forest of stories alive just a little longer, then they’re going to be worth it.

And hey, if you’d like to try more short stories yourself, you can get a new one into your inbox every week by signing up to my mailing list.

Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

Been Reading…

For someone who blogs about writing, I haven’t talked much about reading lately. Let’s remedy that…

The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett remains my all time favourite writer, which makes it particularly weird going back to his early works. One of two sci-fi novels he wrote before creating the Discworld, The Dark Side of the Sun feels strangely both like and unlike the Pratchett I know. It retains the surreality, some of the jokes, even a few specific words and phrases, but neither the voice nor the story style is anywhere near as rich.

At my book group, we talked about how Strata didn’t feel like a Pratchett story. Instead, it’s like an attempt to do Niven or Banks style sci-fi by someone whose style doesn’t fit that work. Dark Side is the same. It’s fascinating to go back to as a long time Pratchett fan, to see how he developed. And as a writer, it’s heartening to see that someone went from this to become one of the modern greats. But if this sort of thing was all he’d done, I’m not sure we’d even be talking about Pratchett any more.

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

In England, we’re raised to see the reign of Elizabeth I as a great era of national strength and renewal. But it was also a time full of dark events and seedy shenanigans, from state sponsored piracy to a growing and desperate underclass. This book examines the lives of criminals in that era, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

This is a history book that’s rich in details. It evokes the characters of the time, the places they went, the crimes they carried out. There are descriptions of clever con games, rigged gambling games, and people struggling to survive the game of life.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, narrated by Flinty Williams

Of all the attempts I’ve seen to put a new twist on the zombie genre, Carey’s is one of the most successful.

Melanie is a girl, maybe ten years old, living in a Britain blighted by a terrible disease that turns people into monsters. Infected with the disease and held in a government research lab, Melanie is part of an experiment to try to understand the disease and maybe help humanity survive it. But of course Melanie doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t even understand the cruelty she’s suffering. She just wants to be loved.

Showing so much of the story from the perspective of a zombie child is part of what makes Carey’s story so distinctive, but the other view points add to its power. Seeing what makes the adults tick, how they respond to Melanie and to disaster, gives this extra emotional weight. It’s that emotion that makes it work – Carey’s clever take on the cause of zombies is just window dressing.

I’m listening to the audiobook of this one, mostly while out running, so it’s possible that my own racing pulse is shaping how I view it. But even with that caveat, this is a thrilling and touching story.

So that’s some of my recent reading. How about the rest of you – what are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?