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From: "Dan'l Danehy-Oakes" <ddanehy@siebel.com>
Subject: (urth) A Pullman Car on the Wolfe Train
Date: Wed, 1 Aug 2001 16:42:13 

Quoth the Alga:

> I don't think that, with a real writer, it's quite so cut-and-
> dried. (Most writers of commercial fantasy are not, by my
> definition, "real" writers; Pullman, otoh, most certainly is.)

Without prejudice to the categorical dismissal of generic fantasists,
I am in wholehearted agreement about Pullman. 

About the term "daemon," which I find irritating:

> Can't you accept that he is, at one level, joking?

I could accept that he was joking if there were anything in the text
to give me a clue that it was intended as a joke. If there was, I 
missed it; in fact, I found very little humor in _TGC_, or perhaps
it was simply so dry it evaporated (to which extent I suppose it 
bears comparison to Ursula K. Le Guin, another fabulous writer who 
seems to check her sense of humor at the door when she sits down to 

> And at another being deliberately provocative? 

I certainly perceived that; however, it seems a rather childish sort
of provocation, akin to saying "fuck" because you know it drives your
parents crazy. Really, anticlericalism has been done so much better by
so many writers, if he can't do better than this, he shouldn't bother.

> This is quite okay by me, more so than Madeleine l'Engel maundering
> on about mitochondria and God in a rather better known fantasy series
> for children. 

...splutter, koff... I _liked_ that book. 

Well, okay, the maundering, as you put it, got a little heavy in places. 
And the seraphim [why couldn't she have used the singular?] was a bit 
of a dweeb, come to think of it... And no, it is not on a level with
TGC (though I will happily proclaim that the first volume, A WRINKLE
IN TIME, is as good as and possibly better than TGC: but will also
admit that my own childhood fondness for AWIT may be involved here).

> Pullman is quite genuinely (imo) repelled by the efforts of a lot
> of classic fantasy to push religious agenda, and he's deliberately
> countering it--but with humor.

Humor that I, alas, could not detect. He plainly _refrained_ from a 
certain very low level of humor (for example I was grateful that 
nobody made any remarks about righteous arms-keeping bears ... though
perhaps that's something which wouldn't occur to a Brit anyway), but 
if there was humor at a higher level, it was far too high for me. Or
too subtle. 

Frankly, I'm unlikely to go digging for subtle humor unless the 
author troubles to give me at least a hint it's there. Perhaps 
what I took as the grim seriousness of the whole thing, Pullman 
intended as a kind of pokerfacedness? If so, well, it didn't work
for this reader.

Okay, I asked:
>> On a larger scale: does anyone, _can_ anyone, believe that in 
>> a world this different -- where every human has an externalized
>> animus/anima, where bears are sentient, etc. -- the history of
>> the world would be _similar_ enough that someone called John
>> Calvin would become something called Pope of something called
>> the Catholic Church? 

> Dan'l, that is a *joke*. Maybe not the best joke in the world,
> but still. 

No. Once is a joke. Twice might be jokes. Three or four times, let 
alone the dozens of things that have similar quasi-referentiality 
to our world For examplw: all the places with same or similar names 
-- I could almost grant that if only as a conceptual "translation"
to give readers a clear sense of the geography. But the titles of
persons [various Oxonian titles], the references to historical 
persons [i.e., Manicheeism] ... the fact that the [European] 
culture of TGC's world is so _similar_ to ours, I suppose, is what 
bothers me most. It seems to lack a certain kind of inventiveness 
that I would hope would go into working out the ramifications of 
such a radically _different_ Earth.

And that's it, really. He doesn't. He works out just enough to make
his plot tick, and the rest of it is allowed to go hang, or at least
to lay fallow. So what he's done is taken a really radical set of 
speculative ideas and extrapolated them in a deeply conservative, 
nearly reactionary, way.

Oh, yeah, there are little references here and there -- to "atomics"
that sound almost like a handcraft, for example -- but those are
loose, unattached to the fabric of the world they're happening in.

(This could work, but there's a whole set of techniques and tactics 
that need to go with this. You can create a _lot_ of these 
differentia, and then their unattachedness works as a kind of 
kaliedoscope to make the reader mistrust things that sound like they 
ought to be familiar. Or you can create only a few, and then 
meticulously attach them to the fabric of the world in which your 
story is taking place in, so that they distort things things that 
would otherwise seem familiar.

But Pullman doesn't come near to creating this level of alienation,
by either tactic. There aren't nearly enough random novelties to
create the kaliedoscopic effect. On the other hand, the novelties he 
introduces aren't given anywhere near enough attachments to make them 
distort the rest of the landscape. For example, he might have given us 
some sense of how "atomics" affects warfare, power generation, knitting, 
or, most especially, "experimental theology" -- and vice versa. But he 
doesn't, and "atomics" just lies there like a beached flounder, looking 
at the sky with both eyes and wondering why it's there.) 

> It also serves another purpose--it's a signal that he is not targeting
> Catholicism or Anglicanism or any other ism, that they're all in it
> together. 

Well, no. It's distinctly anti-clerical, but without reference to any
particular flavor of Christianity. (One could call it "Mere Anti-
Clericalism," I suppose, since Pullman seems so bent on casting himself 
as the anti-Lewis.) 

> It's the same impetus that causes him to cast witches as good guys. 

Again, I have no problem with that. I _like_ the goose-witch (name is
escaping me, I have no mental affinity for Lapp words & names). I
have no problem with witches in general; "some of my best friends," 
quite literally. 

> > The logic of fantasy just isn't there, and irritates me far more
> > than the religious whomping.

> It doesn't irritate me. It is, perhaps, a reminder to the reader that
> he is reading a book, written by an author, who can do as he likes.

An author who can do as he likes? Feh. That's not being an author, 
that's playing makebelieve. Being an author involves working within
the limits of the form you have set yourself - I don't mean the 
conventions of "genre" (see my essay in last months NYRSF, I have
some very definite opinions on "genre" which that essay just begins
to crack open), but the form _the author sets_. 

Or, rather, yes, an author _can_ "do as he likes," but each thing 
he does because he likes it has _consequences_. It affects and is
affected by the rest of the work in hand. And to fail to work that
out is to cheat the work (and, as a less-important result, the
reader) of what it is due.

> I think it just might be the best juvenile, and even the best
> fantasy of the 20th century. Contenders, please? (Single books, only.)

Limiting it to juveniles (and I think there are adult fantasies that 
certainly contend), one might start with THE WIND IN THE WILLOWS (1917). 

A few others:

L. Frank Baum's THE WIZARD OF OZ (1900) just barely squeaks in as a 
contender. Probably doesn't deserve to, but thought I'd mention it.

Susan Cooper -- no, _not_ THE DARK IS RISING, but her astounding 1999
(just squeaking in at the other end) novel, KING OF SHADOWS. Child 
actor finds a father-figure in William Shakespeare. A two-hanky book,
but for emotion, not sentiment.

FRANKWEILER (1967) isn't a fantasy, but nonetheless. Well, maybe
not -- it's probably no better than, say, Roald Dahl's better 
stuff, which I don't think belongs here. But somehow this one

I've already said I consider L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME (1962) at
least the equal of TGC.

Le Guin. A WIZARD OF EARTHSEA (1968). CATWINGS (1988). Nuff said.

I will probably lose all credibility with Alga, at least, when I 
SILVER CHAIR -- easily the best of the Narnias, imio -- but I do.
One can happily read either of these without a clue that the Great
Lion is "really" Jesus.

(1982). Read at your peril, may cause drain bammage.

E.B. White, CHARLOTTE'S WEB. (1952)

There are probably others, but that's what came off the top of
my head (with web lookups for dates).

*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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