I came away from our twelfth meeting of the rebel science fiction and fantasy reading group with anxiety. It’s proper name is The Esoteric Bibliophilia Society (TEBS) – just enough to make it different from the Chester Library SFF Group – hah. I, and many others, attend both groups. The Wednesday night TEBS met in Ye Olde Custom House pub in Chester. The name reflects the days from medieval to the early nineteenth century when Chester was a port before the Dee estuary silted up too much for most sea-going vessels. The book under discussion last night was chosen by one of our several women members. It was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It’s a romp of a young adult fairy tale based in London. The novel is Neil Gaiman’s way of ‘correcting’ the TV and graphic novel versions with which he wasn’t perfectly happy. The session explored the varied and lively characters and subplots. I said how I was bemused by the fantasy trend of having a duo set of bad-men characters. In this case they are Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar: long-living assassins with one very chatty and bright (Croup) and one dull-witted, who enjoys killing the more. I quoted a line I enjoyed most:
‘But Mister Croup, we hurt people. We don’t get hurt.’
Mr Croup turned out the lights. ‘Oh, Mister Vandemar,’ he said, enjoying the sound of the words, as he enjoyed the sound of all words, ‘if you cut us, do we not bleed?’
Mr Vandemar pondered this for a moment, in the dark. Then he said, with perfect accuracy, ‘No.’
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (1996)
I also likened this to China Mieville’s Kraken. Also based in the fantasy underworld of London. He also has two evil men – Goss & Subby. This isn’t too surprising as China acknowledges Neverwhere as his inspiration. In my view Kraken is a deeper, better book. The dark is darker, and the weirdness is more so, but the ending in both is rather a cop out. None of that made me worried. Most of the group enjoyed Neverwhere and even declared it their best fantasy book read to date. Two members hated it. They found the characters flat, on the whole, and the ending too happy-clappy leaving plot holes unfilled. One member, Graham, disliked the humour. He is fed up with books featuring an uninteresting protagonist, who has an IT or similar job, who finds himself in strange situations and being taken along by odd characters. Oh dear. I kept thinking then of how many short stories and novels I’ve written with such a protagonist. I enjoy reading and writing about ordinary people to whom extraordinary things happen. And I like them to use ironic humour as a way of coping with their trauma. Of course I should have guessed not everyone would like that. Maybe they want their protagonists always to be go-getters, James Bond, Lara Croft…
The book for the next month’s meeting is Charles Stross’s The Atrocity Archives. The protagonist is an IT engineers (oh dear, Graham) and who has a sense of humour. Ha ha. I’ve nearly finished reading it. Full of technical detail, which Stross is famous for and loved by most hard SF readers.
The point, I presume, is that just as writing is subjective, so is reading. One man’s poison, etc. It amuses me how much analysis readers go to in breaking down plots and characters – far more than the authors intend. It doesn’t just happen in A Level Literature classes but in book groups.
The photograph was taken at Ye Olde Custom House last night. One our women members had had to leave before the photograph was taken. I’m in the white T-Shirt. There’s a bar on it saying ‘Please wait, loading answer……………… 43% Well, I thought it funny in Lanzarote when I found it. No one commented – probably thought me mad.