Monday, February 28, 2011

The Magicians, Lev Grossman

The Magicians succeeds because Grossman tells a compelling story with psychological depth and great pace and verve, but it seems to me that it is based on two conceits that could have stood independently as novels in their own right, and somwhere between these two strands it leaves a central concern of the novel unresolved.
In the first place, The Magicians is plainly a Harry Potter for adults, replacing the magical boarding school with the magical college, and hence teenage angst with early-adulthood self-realization. Of course the young magicians are also college students, but here they get drunk, sleep with each other for the wrong (and right) reasons, suffer identity crises, ennui, career doubts, and generally fumble their way towards adulthood. Grossman captures their competitiveness and anxiety nicely, recasting apprentice magicians as essentially the top-tier of ivy-league students on competitive scholarships. The risk here (as it is in Harry Potter) is that the magical education systematizes and hence literalizes magic, turning it from an art to a craft, from a technique to a technology. Fortunately, Grossman mitigates this by revealing that there are depths beyond depths in the magic his students explore.
In itself, this advanced Harry Potter, the dealings of a hidden class of magicians in upstate New York would be intriguing, but here Grossman avoids engaging in this by introducing a second, though not unrelated strand.
This conceit is one of adult entry into a child’s world of wonder, specifically a faux-Narnia named Fillory. Here, adults with adult concerns attempt to discover and remain in a world of essentially childish magic and wish-fulfillment. The corollary to this, of course, is that one must be careful what one wishes for.
My main dissatisfaction with The Magicians is that when Grossman moves his characters from the subtle conflicts and perplexities of upstate New York into the childishly fantastical world of Fillory, he fails to answer the question that arises so compellingly for the graduate magicians: what is magic for? In mounting the quest into Fillory, he demonstrates that magic and fantasy of themselves cannot bring happiness any more than money or success, and that the regression into the child’s fantasy world can have destructive outcomes. Where magic comes from can remain a mystery, but how to use magic, and how to use it for the good, remain unanswered, and by the end Grossman seems to waver awkwardly between the possibility of renouncing magic altogether and the open-ended conjuring of higher, stranger planes of fantasy, a little like a Dungeon Master seeking even wilder adventures for his already over-powered players.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Christchurch Earthquake

On the 22 of February, in the early afternoon, the city of Christchurch, where I spent the first part of my life and began my writing career, was struck by a second serious earthquake, shatteringly energetic, which with a horrifying loss of life damaged or destroyed many of the elegant old buildings that defined this city of graceful neo-gothic stonework, broad avenues and gardens.

Although I no longer live in Christchurch, many of my stories are informed and inspired by its cityscapes and climate, the deep language of place and attitude that we take from long association.
If anything, a ghost is a collection of memories and attitudes; that is, a structure or a pattern resonant in time when the substance has passed. Cities, therefore, also have their ghosts, as architecture is embedded in space and history. The city is invoked in an outline of a door, the line of a window, a turn in a lane. Christchurch will be rebuilt, but the ghost of the city that was will remain, in the flash of sunlight on a window, in the line of a spire in the rain, in the angle of a branch and a carved lintel, in memory, irrevocably.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

SF in the Booker prize?

The Guardian has posted an interesting piece asking Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?

The short answer is No. Not yet, at any rate.

The article makes a case for many considerable works of literature produced in SF and by SF writers, and points to the ongoing strength of SF, particularly in the UK, over the last decade.

Whether SF can break into the literary canon, however, raises too many questions to even be contemplated here (not the least of which is that, based on the evidence, it has already). Perhaps the more critical question is can the literary canon break into SF? Is it enough to stalk the boundaries between genres, or is it possible simply to thread one within the other, imperceptibly?