30 January 2013

Humour in Chainmail

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain

Re-reading this after 35 years or so, I found it alternately entertaining and tedious. The amusement-value of dropping a nineteenth-century Yankee technophile into chivalric society and making the most of the ensuing fireworks has not diminished; but neither have the preachiness, political naivety and frequent spells of tedium that mar this not-so-great novel by an undeniably great author.

Mark Twain employs three different styles in this book. There’s his usually zippy, hyperbolic, idiosyncratic but unmistakably American humorous voice, familiar to readers of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi. Then there’s a second, less showy, more conventionally Victorian style that he uses for the framing narrative (attributed to ‘M.T.’, no less). He also falls into this style when Hank Morgan, the hero, launches into yet another homily about the evils of monarchy, established churches, social stratification and inherited privilege, or rhapsodises upon the great superiority of democracy, egalitarianism and nineteenth-century gadgeteering. Some of Hank’s harangues are very trying, and I found myself skipping them with ever-increasing frequency as I advanced through the book.

But for tedium, nothing can compare with the third style Twain favours, which is Malory’s style from Le Morte d’Arthur – sometimes presented as pastiche, sometimes quoted directly from the source. In fact, its tediousness is commented upon in the text itself – but that doesn't make reading it any less stultifying. The quality of storytelling, too, declines steadily through the novel. Somewhere along the line Twain seems to have stopped caring about the plot, perhaps having growing too wrapped up in all the secular sermons he wanted to preach. Towards the end of the book, he completely takes his eye off the narrative ball – for example, when Hank Morgan and King Arthur are captured by slave-traders, the King never thinks to ask why Hank, whom he regards as a magician with powers superior even to Merlin’s, cannot use some enchantment to free them from their captivity; it would have been the natural question to ask. And when Hank finally escapes by picking the locks of his manacles, he immediately buys new clothes to disguise himself – where did he get the money? Surely the slavers would have taken all his possessions when they captured him? Straining credibility yet further, Hank’s escape is viewed by his gullible fellow-prisoners as magical – as if lock-pickers had not been in the world as long as locksmiths!

And while we’re on the subject of magic: right through the book, it is presented as mumbo-jumbo and charlatanry, and the great Merlin is shown to be an incompetent fake and a dotard into the bargain. Yet, when the time comes for Hank Morgan to leave the sixth century and return to the nineteenth, it is Merlin's magic that effects the displacement. Surely the author could have found a better recourse than this?

And, finally, a word about centuries. Twain put Camelot and King Arthur in the sixth, smack in the middle of the Dark Ages. That would be about right, I suppose – just before the coming of the Saxons to Britain – if Arthur had, in fact, existed at all. However, the Camelot Twain describes – and it is recognisably the same one we visit in Malory, Tennyson and every other conventional re-telling of the Arthur legend – is a mediaeval society, and one that had to have existed after the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century, indeed after the Crusades, which is when the concept of chivalry was elaborated. Of course this tells us nothing except that Malory anachronised, like all authors of his era, and his successors followed his lead. Still, it might be amusing to imagine what a real sixth-century Camelot might have been like; pretty foul, I imagine. Has anyone written a King Arthur story like that?

03 January 2013

Less Than Human

More Than Human
by Theodore Sturgeon

One I missed back in the early Eighties when I was going through the classics of science fiction like a hot knife through butter. Maybe I’d have liked it better if I’d read it back then. Probably not.

It's an act of charity to call this book SF at all.  It’s supposed to be about the emergence of a new species, but from an evolutionary point of view the emergence described could not possibly take place – the whole concept is ridiculously unscientific. The story does contain one authentic science-fictional device – an antigravity generator – but it has only peripheral relevance and the author doesn’t even bother to make it credible. In fact, his account of how the thing is made and used positively insults the reader's intelligence.

The real story here is about a group of subnormal or disturbed young people with parapsychological powers. That’s right, telepathy, telekinesis and so forth. Such mumbo-jumbo, good reader, makes up the ‘scientific’ content of this ‘science fiction classic’ – justified by one lame paragraph in which the author asserts that credible evidence for such things exists. It does? Show me.

Oh, all right then, never mind: let's shove the ‘science fiction’ definition and ask how this works as fantasy. I think the answer is: it probably works all right if you’re a lonely, disturbed teenager who wants to believe your social ineptitude is a sign that you’re different and special. Readers over the mental age of sixteen, however, are likely to find it all a bit infantile and pathetic.

The writing has moments of genuine quality, but Sturgeon tries too hard and is much too fond of the egregiously quirky metaphor or syntactical conceit to be able to write good prose consistently. The general structure of the novel is messy and contains several confusing chronological shifts, which seem to exist only because the author couldn’t find a better way of telling the story. The consistent ferment of juvenile anxiety is exhausting and, if you’re a grown-up, tedious to a degree. As for the ending, it is irritatingly moralistic and even the genuine surprise at the end is spoiled by too much preaching.

So why was this ever a classic? I suspect the answer lies with those lonely, disturbed teenagers mentioned above. It spoke to them. It told them they were special – that maybe, just maybe, they were... more than human.

But they weren’t special, and neither is this book.