Monthly Archives: June 2012

Requiem for Androids Dreaming of Electric Sheep

Well finally, I got around to reading Phillip K. Dick’s famous novel ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ And isn’t it great that there’s a classic novel that’s all about being wonderfully weird that also features a question-mark in the title? Something about that tickles my fancy.

After the crushing disappointment that was A Dance With Dragons, I turned to something smaller, less cumbersome. A co-worker had lent me Dick’s novel, knowing full well that I am an enormous Blade Runner fan. So there it lay, on my bed-side table, waiting to be read. And it didn’t take very long. Two, three days at most. It’s a fairly pacey novel, after all, and all of 193 pages long.

By comparison to Martin’s opus-without-end, Dick’s novel was quite thin on plot, and equally so on character development. Of the main character, Rick Deckard, readers are given at least some details. Appearance. Vague estimation of height. Body type. Psychological make-up. Likewise, Deckard’s wife and Rachel, an android that Deckard becomes involved with, are given time-enough to feel like somewhat fleshed out characters. Everyone else that is introduced throughout the duration of the story makes me think that Dick was approaching this novel with the kind of technique popularised by Hemingway – namely: provide the vaguest of outlines of the characters, and what they vaguely look like, and let the readers fill in the blanks for themselves.

And oh boy is Rick Deckard one philosophical motherfucker. Consistently. Interspersed between all the travel between locations are thoughts on what life must be like as an andy (android), why it’s dangerous to be empathic towards androids, what it means to be a man who hunts androids, and so on. It’s amazing just how much he pontificates in the novel, which is a stark contrast from the movie character, who’s a consummate man of action and few words.

And then there’s the matter of the religious faith that’s brought up in the novel, called Mercerism, which seems to be a faith in which people, via electronic empathy machines, share their feelings with others. And it’s something the andy’s don’t quite seem to know what to do with. And there’s also the matter of strange mood-changing boxes, much like radio-stations, can alter one’s moods. And all of this makes a certain level of sense within the context of the novel, until the leader of Mercerism suddenly just shows up. I’m still not entirely clear on what happened there, as the novel suddenly dips into a somewhat psychedelic state, and focuses on the validity of a religious order. It’s very sudden, and very unexpected, and very certainly strange. Trademark Philip K. Dick, in that regard.

The themes of the book seem to interweave and relate nicely, and because the book doesn’t suffer from an excess amount of padding, it’s possible to see why readers accustomed to large tomes might think “but wait – tell us more, so we can better understand some of these things!”. But Dick wasn’t that kind of guy. One can only wonder what PKD’s fiction would have been like if published during the era when Big Fat Fantasy (BFF) started taking off, in the mid-90’s. Would he have given in to the curse of needing to show more, to world-build to even greater lengths than normal, and to then start pumping out sequels? One can only but wonder.

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Curbing Disappointment

There seems to be a tradition in fantasy fiction, one that’s been developing since the rise of fat fantasy novels in the 90’s: the endless series. Some authors are afraid to give up the ghost, having become too attached to their characters and worlds. Others simply get stuck, unable to work out how to move the story forward. In either instance, there tends to be a sink into excess weight, and a sense of slowness to the proceedings, as though weighed down by too many excess narrative strands. And it leads me to simply wish that all those characters that were not present in the first book or two would die in some sudden and unexpected way. Just to move things along.

On the other hand, I am very well aware that writing is not easy. It is in fact an abysmally lonesome activity, and one that can be really taxing. And terrifying. And if my life were in more order, I might have the courage to sit and write, rather than actually enjoy having a wonderfully developed and active social life. But the stories in my head can wait. Others however, cannot. Mr. Martin’s latest outing? I’ve been waiting since my second year of university, as that was when his last book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series – A Feast for Crows- was published. That was nearly 7 years ago. Since then I’ve waited, and waited, and then waited some more. And followed the news updates, and understood that he’d hit a roadblock. And I’ve seen that before. Robert Jordan had the same problem with A Wheel of Time, and Matt Stover with his Caine books. There’s a narrative thread that’s just not making sense, and you don’t know where it’s going to go, nor what it’s doing, but it’s throwing everything out of whack.

All of this makes it really hard to feel disappointed by his latest word, A Dance With Dragons. And yet.

And yet, it’s a necessary book, as it’s basically the second half of A Feast for Crows. Which means it’s the book that’s all about positioning his characters, setting everything up for the oncoming storm. Except: don’t you hate it when that’s what you’re forced to do? It’s like adding an extra movie between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, where we get to find out how and why Londo joined Jabba’s group of criminals, where Luke went after everyone split up at the end of Empire, and so on. It’s not that it wouldn’t be interesting, it’s just that maybe it’s not all that pertinent. And there are a great many chapters in AFFC and ADWD that I, as an editor, would have said “chuck out the window”, as part of a greater effort to streamline the novel. I understand why all the major plot points needed to happen in the novel (there are roughly four Big Plot Points), and I understand that by spreading them out it allows Martin time to do a bit more world-building, and to move characters towards a point where the narrative threads could begin converging. But it could have been done with a smaller page-count. Not so that the book could be smaller, but so that the narrative as a whole could resonate a certain level of intensity that was very much lacking in this novel.

Which is why I now sit here, and contemplate what I, as a professional editor, would have done, had I chance to sit down with Mr. Martin not 6 years ago, but just after the third book, A Storm of Swords, was published, so that I might work out what his narrative game-plan was, and provide suggestions as to how to get the series underway following the monstrously intense blood-storm that was A Storm of Swords.

Instead, I shall have to suffice with this: a book that was  at least filled with a bit more incident than A Feast for Crows, but lacking in the kind of climactic intensity that was such a splendid hallmark of the first three novels in the series. But I understand how it came to this. Thus I hope the next outing, The Winds of Winter, will bring us back to the intensity that made A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords such incredible page-turners.

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