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Archive for January 19th, 2010

Darwinia (1998)
by Robert Charles Wilson
320 pages
Orb Books

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It’s the start of the twentieth century, the age of large ocean-crossing ships and the telegraph, when an event occurs that shakes everyone’s understanding of reality, and radically transforms the course of history from the path it followed in our world.  Overnight a light is seen in the sky, communication is cut off from Europe, and then when people finally investigate in-person, they find that all of Europe has been replaced with an untouched wilderness with bizarre alien plant and animal life, and the land following only the general lines of what had existed before.

So far we have an excellent adventure story, as the main protagonist is a child when this happens, and in his twenties is part of an expedition that tries to explore and document the interior of the new Europe for the first time. Exiles and adventurers have tried to reclaim parts of the wilderness, either for their vanished nations or their own self-interest, and so the expedition has to deal with social and political hurdles as well as the bizarre new lifeforms.  The informal name for this transformed Europe becomes ‘Darwinia’, a mocking reference, since events have obviously invalidated the slow-and-steady evolution theories of Darwin.

This had the potential to be an engaging novel full of adventure and mysteries, but unfortunately, about a third of the way through, there are several pages of flat exposition in which the author clues you in on what is really going on, and the twist in the plot is both unnecessary and extremely damaging to the drama of the story.  From this point forward, nothing that happens really matters, and things start to get more bizarre, but it doesn’t mean anything to the reader because we’re in a world without rules.  If Wilson was trying to make some kind of sense with what is going on with plot twist, he fell well short.

Without giving too much away, the story falls into a similar trap as many stories set in dreams or computer simulations–because anything can happen, to the reader it doesn’t matter what happens. If an author creates a world like Middle Earth, and lets the reader know of the rules and limitations, then it can be a stage for effective drama, even if it’s a very different kind than takes place in our world.  However, in a story like Tad Williams’s Otherland, which was mostly set in a computer gone mad, it’s as possible for all the characters to be killed off in a page, as for them to pull something out of a pocket and be victorious, or for the narrative to go on for another thousand pages.

This novel won an Aurora award in 1999.

The full cover art by Jim Burns, the best part of the book.

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The Prisoner: Shattered Visage (1990)
written by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith, illustrated by Dean Motter
DC Comics
208 pages

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After watching the dire AMC-TV remake (or re-imagining, or brutalizing, or whatever) of the classic late-60s British television series The Prisoner, I learned about this comic, which was originally published in four volumes, and picks up the story of the original series twenty years later.  The two Canadian writers apparently had the input and approval of creator and lead actor Patrick McGoohan, though I’m not sure if their contribution is considered canon.

Number Six, twenty years later

The story is mostly involved with the lives of various contemporary spies and intelligence workers in London, England, and only about a third of it takes place in The Village, now abandoned and almost devoid of inhabitants.  This becomes one of the weaknesses of the story, as the scenes in the everyday world are quite mundane and differ little from a thousand other mediocre spy stories.  The hero of the original series, Number Six, does make an appearance, as does one of his Number Two antagonists, but the main characters are younger agents newly created by the authors.

The ultimate meaning of the original series, regarded by many critics as one of the high points of artistic achievement in television, is hotly debated.  The audience appeal of the episodes ranged from the fairly standard cat-and-mouse game of a secret agent trying to outwit his antagonist, to the final episode that took a severe turn into surrealism, breaking down the narrative structure of the series, and an ending that was somehow both heavy-handed and impenetrably ambiguous all at once.  But, for me, the overarching theme of the work was the struggle of the individual against totalitarian structures, and the maintenence of internal integrity in the face of whatever one may be subjected to. Man against mass society.

Simpsons episode The Computer Wore Menace Shoes, in which we learn Number Six was made to disappear after inventing the bottomless peanut bag.

Unfortunately, none of this is really brought up in this comic book, which deals with more mundane events and concerns, as well as providing an ending that seems rushed. The strongest connection to the spirit of the series is the quoting of some of the phrases that were used in The Village, but it never feels like the authors have a full grasp of the material.  As for the artwork, it’s decent, though sometimes a bit too dark and murky.

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Maigret and the Bum (1962)
by Georges Simenon
translated by Jean Stewart
Popular Library
192 pages

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Maigret investigates the case of a homeless man who is brutally beaten and nearly killed in Paris. The question that keeps troubling him is why a person would want to hurt one of the down-and-out, who have nothing and are generally powerless. The story takes a few twists and turns, and the conclusion is both a bit of a surprise and totally appropriate to the story.

Maigret Statue, in Delfzijl, the Netherlands, where the first Maigret novel was written.

One of the themes that Simenon touches on repeatedly is the way that Maigret identifies with the world of the homeless people who have either been rejected by society or, like the victim in this case, have rejected society themselves. Though Maigret cannot speak it aloud to the others he works with in the police department, he has enough insight to see that the government justice system is not true justice, and that there are people in this world who don’t care a whit for the legal system society has put in place, no matter what it prohibits or what rewards it might offer.

A smooth and quick read, excellent for a time when I was feeling a bit bogged down by much larger books.

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