Covers of Doom! A post about libraries.

I ought to warn that this post will be a lot of pictures, and that some of them will contain ladies and some gentlemen not wearing very many clothes at all. Not real ladies and gentlemen, though, arty, book cover ladies and gentlemen. So that should be okay. You have been warned!

Over the past week I have been working in three separate libraries for about four separate reasons: the usual studying and shelving which I do in the Sackler, in addition to which I have been working as a part of the “weeding” team at the Taylor Institute/Modern Foreign Languages library. I have also been helping to catalogue and sort out the library of the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Group, or “OUSFG” as it prefers to be known.* This also may undergo a kind of weeding. Or, as we have been calling it at OUSFG, a “cull”.

OUSFG cataloguing the library!

The difficulty of working in a library is that you discover, to your dismay, the complete and total non-existence of L-Space.** It transpires that, like museums, libraries actually never have enough space in them, being built for collections which are already too big and only ever expand. Therefore periodically the libraries must be “weeded”of books which take up space and are never used, of which there are duplicates, and on which the precious library space cannot be wasted.

Suddenly, your value system has to change. I have recently read Fahrenheit 451, although I haven’t mentioned it on here I don’t think. The value of the individual book there is outstanding, although really the value is placed on reading rather than the physical object. How valuable are the many volumes of bibliography which fill the corridors at the Taylor Institute now that we have an online catalogue? The dust on some of the volumes suggests that they may never have been used at all. Ray Bradbury was said to have hated the internet, calling it a distraction. But for an academic, having that much easy access to certain kinds of information, is refreshing, and frees up considerable amounts of time for other things, like research. Furthermore, scientific journals go out of date within years, if not months. So when libraries like the Taylor and the Sackler have journals going back to the mid-19th century on their open shelves, it does seem to be a little out of date.

With the OUSFG library the value judgements are different, and much more difficult. The part which we have been sorting and cataloguing is the “open stacks”, from which, theoretically, if you knew what was in there, you could request a book and get it fairly easily. The open shelves are where the library meetings take place every week (usually, if they’re available), while the closed stacks are hidden at the back of someone’s garage, and have not been seen in many years (at least as long as I’ve been an OUSFG member… which is slightly less than two years). Given this state, one must wonder whether these books are being valued as objects at all given that they are difficult to access, have no permanent home, and hardly ever get read.

This picture was taken after cataloguing and sorting about half of the open stacks.

There was a tiny cull last year, and when I say “cull” I mean some duplicates were donated to OXFAM. This also resulted in the creation of the open stacks. This year it looks likely to be bigger, if we can decide what we need to get rid of. The books are old, some are in terrible condition, many are works of which I have never heard. Several are classics. It includes an old Penguin classics version of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which, being out of copyright, is freely available on Project Gutenberg and will probably go. But when we don’t know anything about some of these books, how can we judge them? By their covers?

Of course, it is usually terrible to judge a book by its cover, unless you’re six and your mother has bribed you or something. But I am sure I used to know a blog which would post terrible fantasy and science fiction covers call “Covers of Doom”, even if I can’t find it on the internet. I present here some of the most striking covers from the sorting of the OUSFG library. WARNING, some of them are terrible.

* As China Miéville is said to have said, we say it “as though it was some kind of word”.

** With reflection, I should have realised this when I worked in an OXFAM bookshop, which was also limited in space. But that is an afterthought.

What could be cooler: not only Samurai, but surfers, and robots! For some reason, also a bird wearing a hat.

What sums up New SF to you? Is it a naked woman floating about a green face plugged into a machine with maybe a rocket there too? If not, WHY not?!

This one just struck a chord because my girlfriend’s been away. I agree, it would be a TERRIBLE DYSTOPIA. I ask you, Ray Bradbury, what would be worse – a future without books or one without kissing?!

I’m sure, in the mid-sixties New Wave glow of LSD and excitement and everything, this would have been a sensible cover. In 2012 naked ghost-like lady with green-yellow boobs: less popular.

You don’t get titles more dramatic than this. It could be the last episode of House (which I haven’t seen, please no spoilers). FINAL DIAGNOSIS. No word on if treatment follows, or what.

Not a mind I would like to be trapped in, that’s for sure.

I don’t want the nearly naked people on the cover to put me off reading “The Golden Penis” sorry, “Sword”, but it doesn’t exactly scream quality literature. Plus I don’t think the gold nipple coverings are quite enough armour for the sort of combat that sword would actually be useful for.

. . . yeah. This exists.

The meat cleaver is what I go for every time there’s a floating, balding middle-aged demon in the foetal position on my chaise longue. Don’t normally bother with the cap, though.

– No judgement is being made about the quality of these books by their covers, of course! They could be brilliant. But… wow.

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Do you remember the first time?

A couple of things have prompted this blog, which is about authors’ first novels. Primarily it is a combination of reading Endless by Matt Bone and the fact that my girlfriend’s first novel is currently being edited for release in January next year. But a second prompt came from the author Sam Sykes, whose work I have never read and whom I do not follow on twitter, but the publisher Gollancz re-tweeted this a few days ago:

[View the story “A message to independent writers” on Storify]

Now, I don’t agree 100% with the sentiments expressed in these tweets. As Sykes himself confesses, he hadn’t found his voice by the time he was published. And there is a reason, for example, that I “publish” this blog rather than keeping a diary or something which would be private, rather than public. Even though only a few people look at it the response of the public, of people I don’t know, can generally be very interesting. Sometimes it can be offensive or rude, but those can hopefully be ignored. But some of the most constructive criticism you can get is from people who will be blunt, because they don’t know you. And in this way, you can improve.

The idea that a first novel should be very good is in some ways an anathema. After all, it is the curse of many bands that, after an exceptional first album, the second just cannot live up to the hype. Arcade Fire suffer from having an excellent and well-loved first album despite their later success and I firmly believe that by most other bands Neon Bible would be regarded as a classic and one of their best; for Arcade Fire it is sidelined, hidden away, simply because it could not live up to Funeral. Fortunately, The Suburbs was magnificent enough that it challenged the first album for greatness. A better position to be in, however, is that of a band like the White Stripes who, as far as I can tell because I wasn’t really paying attention at the time, had two fairly OK albums, and then two magnificent ones a bit later on. As Sykes argues, the first books often don’t have a voice. If you emerge with a voice fully formed, then all you will attract later is complaints when you try to change and develop it.

To apply this to novels, the first author who springs to my mind is, as ever, Ursula Le Guin. Her first novel, developed from short stories, was Rocannon’s World, a fairly good science fiction/fantasy novel which, as she would later comment herself, is not as good as what Gene Wolfe does with similar concepts. The ensuing trilogy, Planet of Exile and City of Illusions is fine, but much of what is done with these books – the ethnographer on a strange planet in Rocannon’s World, the permafrost of Planet of Exile – is picked up again and developed in The Left Hand of Darkness, an undoubtably superior book. At around the same time she began the Earthsea series, and again we see improvement as the trilogy goes along, but personally I feel that the trilogy as a whole shows a lot more competence as a writer because she had grown more, learned by doing, and reached a better point in her skill to do what she wanted as an author. Should Rocannon’s World have remained unpublished? Of course not! Then the series may not have developed, and we would not have Left Hand nor The Dispossessed, and the world would be a more impoverished place.

A counter-argument perhaps emerges when a first book is phenomenally successful, or belongs in a series which becomes phenomenally successful and relies on reading every volume. I’m thinking of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling. I don’t think I’m going to be expressing too controversial an opinion if I suggest that Stone is not the best of the Harry Potter books (it’s Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban) but it has to be good enough to fit with the standard of the rest of the series. And I would say it does, perhaps because in the latter part of the series the books become too long and perhaps were less successfully edited. But here I would suggest the problem is more Arcade Fire, and the series has to be considered as a whole rather than as individual parts. The “second novel”, therefore, is not Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets but The Casual Vacancy. Comments on the internet are already being bitter about the success of the well-loved by all ages Potter and the fact that Rowling can’t write anyway so it will be rubbish blah blah blah; these are people who will never be pleased. But even for those who devoured the Potter books as children, writing something different after such a long time poses difficulties, and it might be a lot easier (if not necessarily better, or more successful) were the first series not to have attracted the attention which I did, and if there were less pressure and fewer assumptions about how the book needs to be.

I think I will have some more thoughts on this topic in the future, when I have read King Rat, China Miéville’s first book, which is unlikely to be as good as The City and the City. As a concluding thought I would perhaps say this: when my literary intentions were greater, and I was reading about the publishing industry, I kept on being told that most authors have an unpublished first novel. Others, for example The Flood by Ian Rankin, are published but sink without a trace only to find a new lease of life when the author finds success elsewhere, such as in the phenomenal Rebus series. The first is not the most important. It is important, as a foot in the publishing door if nothing else. But, really, the follow-up is much more important. Showing that you have longevity, and can keep on going – that’s what you want in an author.

Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)

I started to write this blog immediately after I had written the previous Prometheus blog, which can be found here. That was some time ago. My life has kept me away from writing this blog and the film has faded into memory a little, now generally only refered to as a joke (saying “So that’s what Prometheus was about!” whenever someone says something profound, or stupid) or as a proverbially bad film. Furthermore, what I wanted to do with the blog changed after I read Film Critic Hulk’s very long analysis which I felt covered everything which needed to be said about why the film was bad, and what needed to be done with it.

After reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell I began to have some more profound thoughts about the questions prodded by Prometheus. One of my problems with The Sparrow was that the aliens did not feel to me to be suitably alien, as they engaged in what was basically a Capitalist system, and while there were a couple of fundamental differences the aliens were fairly similar to humans, with similar motivations and desires. One of the beautiful things about the Alien franchise was that the xenomorphs were so completely alien in so many ways. The lethal, perfect predator desired by The Company, evolved for survival. It did not appear to be intelligent in the way that we are, but it was smart and skilled. It adapted. In Prometheus we learned that, contrary to known facts about the evolutionary process, they shared the same creators as us, which were basically massive humans (even having the same DNA!).

In the Hainish Cycle/Ekumen books I find that Ursula Le Guin has a good excuse for the similarity all the species have to human beings: they are descended from the same ancestors, the Hain, who colonised the universe in a far distant past. Some, such as the Gethen, appear to have been the result of genetic engineering, while the Athsheans have evolved to be very different indeed. There differences are intended to reflect on aspects of Earth society and this works. I suppose that in The Sparrow they are intended to look very similar, but to turn out very, very different. In Alien, it seems to me, they were intended to be absolutely terrifying. In Prometheus they were designed to… what? To generate a question. To ask “what if we were made by another species?” But the answer is provided by the film: “Ah, but who made them?” It’s not actually an answer. It’s a deferral of the question. It’s like asking what a Lego structure is made from and answering “Lego”. The real answer is plastic, but it’s being deferred to sound clever, even though it isn’t.

With the xenomorphs ruled out the most alien aliens I know of are the Areikei/Hosts in China Miéville’s Embassytown. The Areikei are very different to the human beings whom they host but are changed by their contact with the outside world in a number of ways which make them more similar to humans, but they are still incredibly different in both biology and social structures. This is perhaps due to my ignorance with a lot of SF but they seem very alien in ways that I can’t see being easily topped. But what, then, is the point of creating an alien species? It is different in Embassytown, which explores the nature of language, to the use in Prometheus, which is closer to The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. These three narratives aim to ask questions of the place of human beings in the universe and in relation to god when there are other intelligent beings in the universe. One of the key questions, both in the fictions and for the Catholic Church, is the importance of the crucifixion in the wider universe.

I didn’t notice the correspondence in Prometheus between the disaster which occurred on LV-223 and the crucifixion – that they were both 2000 years ago. Once this is pointed out one can begin to see that the problems began to occur because humanity killed the Engineer’s embassy to Earth who was Jesus Christ. I’m not entirely certain what Prometheus is trying to say with this. Catholic dogma always taught me that the crucifixion was necessary to the forgiveness of human beings for the sin of Adam (who they also taught me was fictional). Also, it is followed by the resurrection. Removing the divinity of Christ from the question and the resurrection as the proof of the power of god’s love seems to me to render the story of Christ fairly meaningless. He is not much more profound than any other ancient philosopher, it’s just that his story thrived in a way that others didn’t. It suggests to me a great ignorance about the religions of the world in the early Roman Empire – why, for example, was it not Mithras, or Alexander of Abonoteichus who was the Engineer, and the rejection of their teachings the problem? It seems to me that Christ has done very well, and being annoyed because he was sacrificed (when individual Engineers had been sacrificed to create life anyway, in the opening scene of the film) disregards the fact that he was the most influential figure on the last 2000 years of human history. Although I suppose portraying god as a petty, stupid creature actually comes as close to the god in which I could actually believe as any representation of god I have heard.

The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience never directly reference the crucifixion, as I recall. Jesus plays something of a side-part in their narratives; perhaps analogous to contemporary Christianity? But they do question, if there is other life in the universe, what part do they play in creation? Like Prometheus they don’t really provide an answer – how can they? We have not yet encountered extraterrestrial life and it is questionable whether religious belief will play much of a role if we actually do so. The likelihood is generally decreasing. But they ponder the question in a way Prometheus completely fails to do. Blish mentions that the Catholic Church has guidelines for the treatment of extraterrestrial life, but the internet is not very forthcoming with them. It involves the question of whether the beings have a soul; if they are fallen (as we are) in which case they need to be saved; if they are not fallen then how do we interact with them? A Case of Conscience was written before he knew of this guide, if it exists; The Sparrow appears to exist in ignorance of it.Prometheus doesn’t even seem to think that it will cause a problem, except in the sense of deferring the question which I mentioned above.

Something which is acknowledged by The Sparrow but which appears beyond the grasp of Prometheus is that science and religion aren’t actually in competition. Not really. The argument is that while science can tell you what happened it cannot tell you why it happened. As The Sparrow puts it (and I have heard elsewhere, an In Our Time on the subject can be found here) “God is in the why”. This is a fault inherent in both modern religious thinking – which tries to insert god into science where it doesn’t belong, as in the intelligent design hypothesis – and in modern atheism – which in general can prove that religion probably isn’t right, and has no real basis, but can’t actually prove it wrong in most cases. I believe that there are actually some biological arguments to suggest that religion is actually wrong, but I don’t know them so I won’t come down on that side of the argument. Instead, I will resort to popular culture. For you see, the real answer to this question (which a lot of proper atheists will accept and probably tell you) comes from a lesser-known quotation of the Jedi Master Yoda in the film The Empire Strikes Back:

There is no why.

This is fundamental to being an atheist. If you think there is a reason why, then you are agnostic. That’s OK too. Here we have reached the state of philosophy, and there are no right answers. Or rather there should be no way of confirming the right answers. If a god appeared to me and explained all the whys to me in a logical way which made sense to me I’d start believing that there was one. Or would I know there was one? I’m afraid my philosophical education was cut short when I decided archaeology was the most interesting part of Classics.

Does this make life pointless? Is this a negative attitude? I believe Jean-Paul Sartre had something to say on the matter, but in this circumstance my actual source for my personal philosophy is Mr Joss Whedon again,* in his second greatest television series (bearing in mind I haven’t watched Dollhouse) and, if you are reading this Jonathan, this is a SPOILER ALERT but I am going to remove character names and not mention where it is from to reduce that, if you want to read it nonetheless.** This is what I think:

“[…] it’s like nothing I do means anything.”

It doesn’t.”

Doesn’t what?”

Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.”

You seem kind of chipper about that.”

Well . . . I guess I kind of worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if . . . nothing we do matters . . . then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, finally, just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.”

Now you do?”

Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Yikes. Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.”

That’s what I keep saying, but nobody’s listening!”

So where to conclude? That I got more out of an episode of one of Joss Whedon’s shows than I got out of the entire film Prometheus? Is that such a surprise? I think I get more out of that than I get out of most of the ancient literature I’ve read, except perhaps Lucretius, which taught me not to believe in an afterlife and won me a lollipop from Josie Long. Perhaps that asking the question isn’t enough, proposing an answer is necessary? But I have admitted to believing that there is no answer. Accepting, then, that there is no answer. But this is not good for everybody. Some people want an answer. Sometimes it is hard, believing or understanding the universe to be pointless.

But perhaps it is this. I loved The Sparrow. I liked A Case of Conscience. And I was raised Catholic. While I was wondering around colleges the other day I commented to the girlfriend that I was glad we’d had religion, as it had produced so much or beauty. And it still does, if you would like to look at Aaron Sorkin’s question of theodicy in the excellent West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals” below. I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t think that it is necessary to do so. But I do think that it is essential to come to that conclusion yourself, and to have a reason, and to understand that it means no reason. But no reason doesn’t matter. If there’s no reason, everything is important.

Which perhaps is the more scary answer, after all.

* This episode of this particular series is actually written by Tim Minear, but as he was an executive producer on Firefly and worked on Dollhouse too, we can say fairly strongly that he was close to Mr. Whedon.

** Obviously it’s from either Buffy or Angel, as you’ve seen Firefly and Dollhouse (which I haven’t). And a later point than I know you to be at. But you can get an idea about it, if you don’t read the quotation, from the commentary on Objects in Space, if you have the Firefly DVDs. Or if you know anything about Sartre, which neither I nor Joss Whedon really do.

Review: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

I mention my girlfriend a lot in this blog lately, but that’s because in the last four months she’s had a profound effect on my life. This is only a minor effect, but she recommended The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell to me several times, ultimately as a book asking similar questions to the film Prometheus, but which actually engaged with those questions. I have been reading it for a little over a week. For the girlfriend, it was the last book she called in sick to work to finish. I thought that my equivalent was staying up late to finish a book, as I dutifully did last night until about 12:30 (it’s late for me these days!) but then I also failed to go into the library to do work today, so I guess that I do both. A plot summary can be read on goodreads. It is about a Jesuit mission to another planet; the review below contains mild spoilers. It is also a fairly raw review with little meditation on the story besides what I did while reading, and a few minutes afterwards.

First, my problem with the book. The alien societies, while in some ways very different to our own, had too many remarkable similarities. They were capitalists, which highlights a distinct problem with this world that we can’t envision a way of life which is complex and yet different to capitalism besides communism. Even The Dispossessed only manages anarchism, rather than envisioning something entirely different to our own experience. The closest a science fiction book has come to achieving this in my opinion is Embassytown by China Miéville, a book which I already feel like re-reading even though I only read it last year. This theme will be discussed a lot more in my forthcoming second Prometheus blog, which should appear tomorrow.

The next point is one of ambivalence, which will depend on your own subjective experiences of reality to interpret. I believe that, had I read The Sparrow as a teenager, perhaps before the age of twenty-one, it might have made me feel Catholic and believe in a god for a little bit longer. This was the effect of the film Dogma (which I now find to have a fairly juvenile answer to the question of belief, but there you go). I think in many ways it fairly represented the challenge of faith under fire and showed how compassionate and good some priests can be. It mentions but does not explore the darkness which can come from celibacy, or perhaps motivate it. This may simply be a product of the time, but personally I would say that sexual abuse by priests is an issue of the church not of the faith. It is man, not god, who is responsible; thus it is not a concern for this book. Furthermore, I think this would be a very different (and not substantially improved) book had it been written after September 11th 2001. We cannot complain about what the book does not discuss, but in what it does discuss I find many reasons and justifications for faith.

I enjoyed all of the characters, especially Emilio Sandoz, although I would understand how much more difficult the book would be if you didn’t like him. Some of the others fall into the background when they reach Rakhat, which is a shame. But I did not find a single one of them unlikable. In general, I would say the book is a bit better in the build-up to the mission rather than when they are on the planet itself; however it is well paced with revelations and reflections throughout. I would suggest that my (very mild) disappointment with the mission itself is that I did not find the aliens to be as alien as I had been led to believe that they would be; rather much of it seemed like some less developed Earth societies. But this is perhaps because I have focused on the similarities rather than the quite horrific differences. There are a few differences in evolutionary path which make all the difference, and I suppose that is what should be emphasised.

So there we have it: an excellent book which should be food for thought for both the religious and the atheist. I would recommend it to most of the people I know and despite the qualifier I can’t think of a person to whom I would not recommend it. I would be especially interested to hear from anyone who has read it while questioning their faith and the response which they had to it.

Voices

The narrative voice in fiction relates to a number of other issues which I find exceedingly interesting. The most important of these is the approach the novel takes to the subjective nature of reality, the fact that events differ when recited from a different point of view. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, or the short stories on which it is based, but I have neither seen the film nor read the stories. This tells a story from a number of narrative perspectives, each shining a different light on events, each story slightly different. I am getting ahead of myself. The point is that the narrative voice is incredibly interesting and yet I doubt that many authors put much thought into their use of voice. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Would some things be better in a different voice to the one in which they are told? These are some of the questions which have been on my mind recently.*

Reading back over an old diary/notebook of mine recently I came across my discussion of this theme on 6th August 2010. I read it out to my girlfriend, and she told me about a story by a friend of hers which she had read recently which had been written in the first person. It was clearly a very personal piece, she told me, and she had questioned her friend’s decision to write it in the first person. Her reason for the questioning was the issue of “show, don’t tell” and its relationship to the emotions of the narrative voice. Her basic argument was that in the first person feelings can be stated, whereas in the third person they have to be carefully shown. The issue of “show, don’t tell” is a complicated one, which will come up a few more times I think, but I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of it now. I think that it is a good guideline, but believe that there are some things which need to be shown and others which need to be told. The key is to know which, and to have a reason.

My preference has usually been for the third-person narrative. As of August 6th 2010 I had read 32 books that year of which 12 had been, at least in part, first person. One of these was the book Gateway by Frederik Pohl, which has become a byword for bad first-person narratives in my mind not due to any explicit problems with the book, but because I could not stand the narrator, Robinette Stetley Broadhead. This isn’t really a legitimate reason – you can dislike main characters in third person narratives, although in those circumstances it is less likely to be so strongly rubbed in your face. I wonder if this is a guide: if your main character is likable, then you can get away with first person narrative. Emilio Sandoz, one of the main protagonists in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, is very likable, but he could not be the narrator for two reasons: the first is that he would have to be an unreliable narrator; the second is that the book contains a mystery.

This brings me to the first “legitimate” use of the first person: the investigator. Crime novels are perfect examples of an opportunity to use the first person narrator, for when there is a mystery to be solved who is better to take you through it than the person charged with solving it? In 2010 my first example was China Miéville’s The City and The City; another would be Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and any number of others. For the Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, we cannot solve the mystery as quickly as Holmes does – that would be too easy – and so Conan Doyle uses Watson as a medium through which we see the events, gather all the evidence, but who is equally stunned by Holmes’ deductive powers as we are. Taking us through the path to a discovery – this is a use of the first person.

Then there is the narrator who knows something which we do not – and who often tries to hide it. Gateway falls into this category; another book I read in 2010 which does is Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is essentially the story of a revelation, which must be revealed by the individual who received the revelation. A further dimension of this is the unreliable narrator. I have only read one/four books which are explicitly known to have an “unreliable” narrator, which are Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. I think these will need a re-read before I can comment fully on this use of the first person. The naive narrator, however, is aptly presented in The Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss Everdeen is so painfully unaware of her own circumstances at times that it’s hard not to shake your head and wonder at her.

A couple more thoughts emerge from The Hunger Games. I think that Suzanne Collins is fairly brave, especially in Mockingjay, not to push Katniss into every event of importance in order to show it. She allows some things to be told. We are taken by surprise, and we don’t know everything because Katniss doesn’t, even if we sometimes have more insight than she does. On the other hand, Katniss often has to explain things about her world which she shouldn’t have to do, unless she knows to whom she is talking (i.e. us, in the far past of her world) about which she gives no other indication. The finest examples of first person literature must be those when the audience is known, and it is believably the reader. Addressing the reader and pulling them in – “Call me Ishmael” – is the trick to the first person, it seems to me.

The Hunger Games and The Book of the New Sun also fall into a category of books which are the “first person historical narrative”; in these cases a major figure from a historical period is discussing the events which they lived through. In my opinion, regardless of what Graves himself says about them, one of the most interesting examples of this are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I read I, Claudius from Christmas day 2006 to an early point in 2007, but had to stop reading Claudius the God as I was studying Roman history I.vi, from Caesar to Claudius, at the time, and it was terribly confusing. But Graves was (very, very) well read in his Roman history, and I believe Claudius is made to highlight the fact that he makes a conscious decision contrary to that of the (real human being) Caius Julius Caesar when he choses to write in the first person. This, it seems, is an admission of bias, and of a subjective perspective on the history through which Claudius lived – and indeed, who else could have seen through Clau-Clau’s act of always playing the fool but the man himself? You wouldn’t trust a historian who told you he was not an idiot unless it was the man himself, prooving the contrary.

Once we are this far back in history it seems no greater difficulty to leap to the first example of a first-person narrative in the western literary tradition: Books 9 through 12 of The Odyssey, in which the travels of the hero are recited by the man himself. We cannot say whether or not there is any element of the unreliable narrator in “Homer”‘s consciousness – after all, we know Odysseus sits down and converses with gods, as he does with Athena when he returns to Ithaca. But we can interpret it as such now – Odysseus is the only survivour of the Ithacan ships which departed Troy ten years earlier; there are no voices to counter his account. If there is a modern literary novel based on this premise I would really, really like to read it, so please let me know.

The Odyssey follows a narrative structure which was common in the epistolary novel; that is the narrative-within-a-narrative. One of my first encounters with this method was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which features a framing narrative by a Mr. Lockwood, who in turn recites the story which was told to him by the housekeeper at the Grange, Nelly Dean. It is questionable how successful this is, as Nelly is places in several scenes where perhaps one might not expect a nursemaid to appear; it does, however, allow for a great deal of speculation about what Cathy and Heathcliff got up to when she wasn’t around.** Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein also uses the device of diaries and reporting-direct-speech within letters etcetera to tell the story. This is perhaps the best way to use multiple-first person narratives, short of the means used in Rashomon and the short stories on which it is based, which I still haven’t read, even though it’s been more than an hour.

The alternation of narrative viewpoint is a feature I still find strange in novels. The first novel in which I came across this feature was Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. I cannot tell you the reason why it was used in this book, or the sequels which followed it. I could understand if there were two separate first person accounts, that of Takeo and that of Kaede, but there are not – Takeo has a voice, Kaede has a third person narration. But it isn’t told in any really different way, except that Takeo calls himself “I” and Kaede does not. I also ought to point out that I don’t like either of these characters, although I did enjoy the series. Especially the end of the third book, for some reason. The short story “The Tain” by China Miéville changes voice in this way, with one character acting as a first person narrator type figure, which I dubbed “the expositionist” in my diary, on the basis that he sets the scene against which the third person narrative is told. I did find the first person narrative more interesting in this case though, and I wasn’t really that concerned with the third person protagonist.

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World uses this mode in a particularly effective way. The topic of the book is, in some ways, the subjective nature of reality and the way in which our perspectives are changed. I can’t go into any more details without risking spoiling the plot of the book, but there is a good reason for the person change and it is used well.

A final, bad use of the first person must be the “wish-fulfillment” first person. This is where the author inhabits the character about which they are writing and thus the character receives a great deal of favour and will often be infuriating – to me at least. In 2010 I read a fun fantasy story called Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin which essentially fulfilled this. It wasn’t a terrible thing, except that it wasn’t “for me”, and as I said on 6th August 2010: “I do find Severian’s [Book of the New Sun] claims about the beauty of the women he encounters as infuriating as Raine [Magic Lost, Trouble Found] lusting over the men in her life.” A real concern on this front would be the Twilight series – but I must be fair, and I haven’t read them, so I cannot comment.

It seems to me that the third person narrative is the norm, and I would expect this to be the natural way in which to tell a story and an alternative choice is just that – a decision to do something different. But it seems as if so many books in the nineteenth century were first person, that this actually seems to be the norm. That The Iliad is third and it is not until The Odyssey that we have an extensive first person narrative suggests that it is foolish to think one is more “normal” than the other. But it is certainly the case that in my experience third person narratives are more common, and so I’m not so sure that I have that much to say about them.

The advantage is that multiple points of view, or the omniscient narrator following more than one character, becomes more possible and believable to follow. There’s no question why a third person narrative changes protagonist from time to time, and some uses of the third person take the view from inside a character’s – or several characters’ – head. But the depth of this is limited, if the “show, don’t tell” risk is not to leach into the third person narrative, at least for emotions, too. My girlfriend seemed to think that there was more art to the third person, as you have to find ways to show emotions which you can tell in the first; I would argue that what you tell in the first is not necessarily the truth, unless you show it to be. But this is not the be-all and end-all of the choice of voice.

I wonder sometimes about the choice of voice. Why, for example, aren’t the Harry Potter books told in the first person, when most of what we see is through Harry and not (for example) Hermione or Ron? In this case, I think it is a question of the ability to relate to the character. Harry is a lot more believable as an “everychild” in the third person, rather than telling a unique story. We can empathise with his feelings without having them shoved down our throats. Do I think this was a conscious choice on the part of J.K. Rowling? I seriously doubt it, to be honest. Why would she have considered this, if Harry sounded to her in the third person?

My girlfriend questioned her friend’s use of the first person, and I think, if you are a friend of a person writing a book or short story who is reading it, it might be worth asking them about their use of voice. They might not have thought about it, and you might make them really self-conscious about it so that they have great difficulty writing. Uh, but don’t let that put you off. It might stimulate some interesting thoughts in their writing. Or it might just be that the story sounds better to them in the voice it’s in – that is their decision, and it’s unlikely to be a mistake if it feels right to them. First person, third person – their choice of voice is all about finding their own voice, and that is the best way to write.

* I have never read a book in the second person, so I am not going to mention it again in this blog. But that is also interesting and everything, of course, although it’s also really weird.

** They were totally doing it, FYI.