by Neil Gaiman


Fantasy is an interesting genre. When most people think of fantasy, they seem to think of Lord of the Rings and its derivatives–Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, even World of Warcraft. Modern fantasy seems to be all about constructing a fiction world and populating it with “realistic” characters. Neil Gaiman does fantasy a little differently.

I hadn’t even heard of Neil Gaiman before around 2012, when my friend drunkenly told me that American Gods was one of his favorite books. I took his advice. I then read another of his books, then bought a couple more, and finally got around to reading Stardust this year. While Gaiman has plenty more out there that I haven’t read, I’m familiar enough with his style that I’m beginning to understand what he’s trying to do. I think.

In my ‘umble opinion, Gaiman cares more about creating the feel of a fairy tale than building a gritty world for his characters to inhabit. It’s the feeling that yes, there’s a real world, but you have only to draw back a curtain to find things that are absolutely fantastical. Fairy tales blur the lines between reality and fiction, either by setting their stories in a mythical past–as in the Arthurian legends, Greek epics, Star Wars, or pretty much any culture’s folklore–or by playing to the idea that the world is a big, sometimes scary, but inherently magical place. See: Grimm fairy tales, Disney movies, X-Men, Jurassic Park. These stories, these fairy tales, seem to say: “Magic is real, or at least it was real in the past. And maybe someday it will be real again.”

It’s a bit of a fine line to draw, but I think it’s tangible when you actually start reading it. Let’s take for example, oh I don’t know, Stardust. This is clearly a fantasy novel but, like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this story takes place in our world. Or at least, that’s where our story begins. Tristran Thorn lives in the English town of Wall, a town named for the literal barrier between the known world and the magical land of Faerie. On a whim, a stupid promise to a girl he thinks he loves, he sets off beyond the wall to catch a falling star.

Let’s pause for a second and consider why Gaiman sets it up this way. As a resident of Wall, Tristran is vaguely aware that there’s a “second” world outside of England, but he’s about as aware of it as an ancient African would be of India. Sure, it probably exists, but if you’re never going there, what’s the difference? It’s interesting to contemplate, or to tell stories about, but it’s completely irrelevant to your life. When the foolish young man makes his promise to do the unthinkable, but not the impossible, he’s forgoing all of the knowledge and certainty about what his life would have become, and stepping into a mystery. Would the story be as effective if Tristran was living in Faerie to begin with? I’d say no. StardustTaking a young man on the edge of reality, both literally (physically living at the border with Faerie) and figuratively (moving from childhood into adulthood), gives him one chance to do the unthinkable before he finds his permanent place in the world.

The structure of the story thus established, I think it’s fair to say that the book went in some pretty unexpected directions with its plot. Tristran comes across plenty of danger in Faerie, but some of it is so unexpected that you might be left scratching your head. In addition to Tristran’s admirable mission to secure the star, Gaiman introduces a good variety of subplots involving witches, feuding brothers, and all sorts of magical creatures and settings. Though Tristran’s story is relatively straightforward, Stardust proves that Neil Gaiman isn’t necessarily interested in writing traditional fairy tales.

And of course, just because Gaiman writes fairy tales, that doesn’t mean we always get a happily-ever-after. Like Tolkien, I think Gaiman understands that a fairy tale should end not with possibility, but with possibility lost. Not every plot thread ends on a high note. While the book encourages its readers to have big dreams for the characters, many of these hopes will be dashed by the end. A young man can’t stay young forever, and the magic that allowed him to do the unthinkable will not repeat itself. Such is the nature of magic.

As an aside, I think the irony of Tolkien’s influence is that while yes, he did succeed in creating big, beautiful worlds, filled with unique characters and cultures, he never lost sight of what he was really doing. He was inventing myth out of whole cloth, creating a bible of stories for a distant past that we all know never actually existed. His works might have often contained more detail than those of the Brothers Grimm, but they were meant to accomplish a similar goal. I would posit that modern fantasy’s major flaw is its disregard for the myth-making at the core of the genre. Treating these stories as legend, rather than history, might reintroduce some of the magic that they largely seem to lack. (The Nerdwriter makes a similar point, though he goes in a somewhat different direction with it.)

A second aside: Since this post went further than I expected into how myths are made and stories told, I just want to take the time to disavow JJ Abrams’ take on the “mystery box.” His view of the mystery box originates, I think, in the idea of the fairy tale, and I don’t think he’s too far off the mark. But Abrams seems concerned about the effect of the mystery box on the audience: what we think is in the box, what we want to be in the box, and what we’re afraid is in the box. Fairy tales concern themselves more with the effect of the “mystery box” on the characters. Abrams talks about the mystery of Princess Leia, but that mystery would be meaningless if it wasn’t for Luke’s interest in finding out who she was. Rey from The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is a classic Abrams-style mystery box. The mystery surrounding her serves no purpose in the movie, but Abrams just can’t help himself; rather than leave some things unknown, he has to stamp his work with question marks, just in case we don’t find it interesting enough on its own.

While much of Gaiman’s work is indisputably fantasy, Stardust doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a literal Faerie tale. I readily admit that sometimes the plot became a bit too weird for me, but I can’t say it wasn’t unique, or that it didn’t spark that feeling of wonder that fiction so often lacks.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

by Mark Haddon


On Labor Day weekend, after attending a party in Falls Church where much cornhole was played and much beer was drunk, I found myself (and my ride) unwilling to make it all the way back to DC; we ended up sleeping at my ancestral dwelling in Arlington. I didn’t bring a book, and my phone was dead, so in the wee hours of the morning, unable to sleep, I decided to pick up a novel that would kill some time, something I’d read before, something that I could potentially finish quickly. If you’re good at following clues and taking hints, you know what book that is.

Actually, clues and hints aren’t a bad segue into Curious Incident. The title refers to a dead dog discovered by a teenage boy with undisclosed behavioral and emotional disabilities, perhaps most similar to the autism spectrum. Upon finding the dog’s body, the boy, Christopher, takes it upon himself to discover who might have killed the animal. Despite his reticence with and fear of strangers, Christopher identifies and interviews suspects in the neighborhood, following the clues and crossing people off the list as he gets closer to uncovering a major conspiracy.

I love that the plot of Curious Incident both follows and deviates from the whodunit structure that Christopher lays out. He realizes he’s writing a mystery novel, dutifully following clues wherever they may lead him, but he remains almost completely oblivious to what’s really going on, no matter how many of his “suspects” hint at the truth. Curious IncidentOn one level, yes, the mystery of the dead dog is the plot of the book; the search for the killer’s identity drives the first half of the novel, while the second half reckons with the killer’s motivations. However, were we given a more conventional narrator, the dead dog might better be described as the catalyst for the novel, rather than its central mystery.

As you can probably tell, the unique narration plays a huge part in the novel. On top of treating a neighbor’s dead dog as a Sherlock Holmes novel, Christopher omits composite numbers from his chapters, digresses into math or scientific fact at inappropriate times, and, most importantly, fails to even realize what his own novel is about. In one sense, he’s an unreliable narrator; we can’t trust him to accurately report on the goings-on around him, simply because he doesn’t always understand what’s happening. He misinterprets the intentions of strangers and loved ones, and he fears everything that he’s not familiar with. On the other hand, he is always truthful, especially with his own thoughts and feelings. He explains why he hates certain colors, why he likes to listen to white noise at full volume, and any other behaviors that most would consider “abnormal.” He’s honest to a degree that is unusual for fictional characters, especially in the noir world of mystery novels.

One important question will come to anyone who picks up this book: Does it accurately reflect the way autistic people think, feel, and experience the world? I couldn’t possibly answer that; I have no personal experience with it and I’m nowhere close to being qualified. I think it’s comforting to believe that the book is accurate. I mean, for one thing, Haddon is such a good writer that we desperately want his words to be a reflection of something real. Christopher’s narrative is so believable, and his line of thinking so logical, that we’re tempted to assume it must be grounded in either expertise or first-hand knowledge. But more importantly, I think we all want to believe that people on the autism spectrum, especially the more extreme ends, are more similar to non-autistic people than behaviors show. I’m guessing that this is why the book’s publisher, and the public, latched onto the notion that Christopher’s behavior was not only a portrayal of Asperger’s, despite the author leaving us without a diagnosis, but an extremely accurately portrayal of the syndrome. It would be reassuring, in a way, to think that a simple, short novel could bridge the gap between those with autism and those without.

Alas, I don’t know if these beliefs are warranted. I’m not saying they’re not; I really just do not know. I have read conflicting opinions on whether this novel portrays autism realistically, and I’m not going to jump into the fray with people who know way more than I do. Haddon himself does not specify what disabilities Christopher might have, and readily admits that he’s not an autism expert. Some might think of this as a cop-out, given the book’s marketing strategy clearly hinting at autism or Asperger’s.

I tend to side with the author, though. To me, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether the writing is real, or whether it corresponds in some way to a specific disease. Haddon’s goal in this case was to portray a way of thinking that is both human and alien at the same time, and in that he succeeds beautifully. Christopher appears to feel emotion like we do, but is simply unable to express it in the way that most people would. His preference for touching his palm to a loved one’s over a hug shows that he understands and sympathizes with the need for intimacy, even if he himself is terrified by being so physically close to another. These characteristics humanize behavior that might be jarring for someone encountering it for the first time, to the point where, towards the end of the novel, Christopher’s unique behaviors begin to elicit the same emotions in the reader that more “normal” behavior might; Christopher’s acceptance or rejection of an open palm gesture comes to mean the same thing as the acceptance or rejection of a hug, which is itself only a symbol of the acceptance or rejection of unconditional love.

The wonder of Haddon’s book comes not from the mystery, but from his ability to bridge the gap in understanding between narrator and audience. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time accomplishes this and more, breaking down and brushing aside human symbols and embracing the pure emotions behind them.

For Your Eyes Only

by Ian Fleming


A change of pace for Bond, Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only significantly deviates from his formula for the first time. From Casino Royale to Goldfinger, Bond’s adventures spanned about two hundred pages, in which he usually got the girl and rarely missed his man. (Some girls die too, but that’s just how things are. Bond should know by know that mixing business with pleasure doesn’t end well.)

What’s more, Fleming drops a bit–just a bit, mind you–of Bond’s imperialist-misogynist-racist crap, in favor of a more introspective, contemplative secret agent. Sure, perhaps three of the five stories are just condensed versions of what we would normally get in a Bond novel, but the other two switch up the structure pretty drastically. Shit, they even show Bond’s compassionate side. Yes, I said it, compassion; not exactly a trait Bond’s known for.

Alright, here are the short stories:

From a View to a Kill–A NATO courier is intercepted by enemy agents. Bond, being in Paris mostly for plot reasons, is approached (by a young female agent) and asked to find out what happened.

For Your Eyes OnlyFor Your Eyes Only–Some friends of Bond’s boss, M, are killed in Jamaica. M tests his relationship with Bond, trying to gauge whether he’d be willing to find out what happened as a personal favor. Bond jumps at the chance, given his unquestioning loyalty to M and his utter disregard for MI6 regulations.

Quantum of Solace–Bond makes a dumb remark at a party, the kind of outlandish thing you say when you’re bored with your surroundings and yourself. A companion latches on to the remark, and asks Bond if he’d like to hear a relevant story. Looking for any distraction, Bond agrees.

Risico–MI6 sends Bond on a mission to disrupt the drug trade in southern Europe. But things are not as they seem! Well, mostly they are, I guess.

The Hildebrand Rarity–Our hero accompanies an American businessman and self-styled philanthropist on a hunt for a rare type of fish. En route, he develops sympathy for the man’s abused wife, and has to decide whether he should take some action against his host.

The first, second, and fourth stories are more or less what you expect from 007. He gets a mission, runs into the occasional problem, and generally shoots his way out of it. For Your Eyes Only at least injects some moral ambiguity into the equation; the personal nature of M’s request changes things a bit, or at least it should. For Bond, though, and perhaps for Fleming, M is England. Loyalty to the nation necessitates loyalty to the man, and vice versa. The resolution of this ethical conundrum seems to suggest that there’s nothing Bond wouldn’t do for his superiors or his government, and Fleming seemingly presents his as the morally correct way of viewing the world. This very imperialistic ideological stance shouldn’t surprise anyone by now, and it’s hard not to see the Jamaican origin of this plot as relevant.

On the other hand, the last story, The Hildebrand Rarity, is surprising and somewhat confusing departure from the tried-and-true formula. Bond isn’t on a mission, and never finds one; instead, he’s confronted with a more mundane form of evil, and must decide what his personal obligations are. To elaborate on our admittedly meager explanation above, Bond embarks on a journey with Krest, the businessman, and his English wife Elizabeth, who is often beaten at night with a stingray tail, an illegal and especially cruel form of spousal abuse. The group finds the fish they’re searching for, but on the way home, Bond is finally fed up with his host’s rude and condescending manner.

There are two interesting points to be made about this story, other than its lack of a mission for 007. First of all, Bond is placed in a legitimately murky situation and has to figure out on his own what should be done. In contrast to For Your Eyes Only, nobody is sitting across a desk from him, telling him what’s right and wrong. There is no MI6, no M, no England in the Seychelles; Bond is no longer an agent of the Crown, and thus has to reconcile with his own humanity for once in his life. It’s also unclear where exactly Bond’s distaste for Krest comes from: Is it his boorish manner? His abuse of his wife? His phony philanthropy? His quintessentially American disregard for Europe? All of these things grate on Bond but, taciturn man that he is, even in thought, we never get an answer.

Secondly, Fleming’s caricature of an “Ugly American” betrays a pretty astounding lack of self-awareness on his part. James Bond, “her majesty’s loyal terrier, defender of the so-called faith,” isn’t exactly a social justice warrior. If he was, we wouldn’t be left to wonder whether he really cared about Krest’s spousal abuse, or took umbrage with other aspects of his host’s personality. After all, Bond has at times been “forceful” with women himself, and takes a pretty blase attitude toward their feelings. Perhaps we can conclude that Bond hates Krest because he represents an imperialistic America, arrogant towards other nations and their citizens, caring little for the natural environment, believing he can do whatever he wants to whomever he wants. It’s not a coincidence that the abused wife is English. Of course, I’ve spent the last few years chronicling the ways in which Bond, often considered an idealized version of Fleming himself, represents English imperialism. Whether Fleming is completely clueless to this hypocrisy, as I suspect, is impossible to determine. Possibly, he believes in English superiority to such an extent that this sort of behavior is acceptable, provided one has the right “blood.” Nonetheless, the dynamics at play make for an interesting new look at Bond.

The best of these stories, or at least the one I enjoyed most, was Quantum of Solace. The entire story consists of Bond listening to another man speak, only occasionally interjecting with comments or questions. A man and a woman fall in love and fall out of love, very publicly and very drastically. It doesn’t sound interesting, but it’s exactly the kind of story Fleming’s great at telling, filling in the details perfectly and satisfyingly. (It didn’t hurt that I read this story on the porch of a New Orleans mansion in July, buttressing the lazy, tropical atmosphere that Fleming so adeptly projects.) Importantly, Bond admits, for once, that he’s wrong. Not only does he realize that his mean, unsupportable comment was an insensitive way to treat his company, by the end of the tale his absolutist view of the people around him has been shattered. And yes, he might even experience a feeling that one could describe as compassion.

For Your Eyes Only is an uneven collection, but Fleming elevates a couple of the stories by probing parts of Bond’s personality that readers hadn’t yet seen. Honestly, I might even recommend this to be a newcomer’s first foray into 007’s world. If you can’t find something to like here, I don’t think any of the books would do it for you.

Doctor No

by Ian Fleming


In keeping with tradition, this will be brief.

This is one of the better Bond books. Our hero travels to exotic locales, meets a few interesting people, and generally either kills them or leads them to their deaths. Such is the life of a double-oh agent. The plot here involves M sending Bond on what should be a relatively easy mission investigating the disappearance of an MI6 agent in Jamaica. Knowing Bond as we do, however, that’s obviously not what we get.

Fleming’s, ahem, biases, this time come down primarily upon the ethnic Chinese minority living on Jamaica. Fleming calls them Chinese Negroes or “Chigroes,” a term that I can only assume isn’t used with the kindest of intentions. Doctor NoFleming also has an obsession with ascribing traits to specific nationalities, a tendency not unlike science fiction’s predilection for creating a whole race or planet with the same characteristics or vocation. (Why are all Kaminoans cloners? For that matter, why was the plot of Episode II so needlessly complicated?) In Fleming’s mind, the Chinese population of Jamaica stands together as a criminal syndicate, led by our eponymous villain Dr. No, himself only half Chinese. (Since his other half is white, he’s a genius, whereas the “Chigroes” are little more than henchmen.)

Fleming, if you weren’t dead, this is the part of the post where I’d ask you to drop that kind of nonsense from your books. Those ideas kind of fell out of fashion a while ago. Luckily for us, the modern James Bond is much more politically correct, though his decision in Skyfall to surprise a sex trafficking victim in the shower is questionable, to say the least.

The appeal of the book comes when Bond decides to take action by visiting Dr. No’s stronghold on Crab Key. Bond and an old accomplice infiltrate the island under cover of night and wake in the morning to discover Honeychile Rider, the prototypical Bond girl played in the movie by Ursula Andress, collecting sea shells on the beach. She’s naked, of course; Bond immediately decides to make her part of the squad. From there, the book becomes fights and chases and torture scenes, interrupted briefly by Dr. No’s introduction and megalomaniacal spiel.

Dr. No seems like the book in which Fleming realized he had a formula and embraced it, warts and all. Parts of it are ugly, but you can’t say it’s not exciting.

The Man in the High Castle

by Philip K. Dick


In the immortal words of Inigo Montoya: “Let me explain–no, there is too much. Let me sum up.” In sum, here’s what’s going on in The Man in the High Castle.

The Allies lose World War II, resulting in the West Coast and Rocky Mountain States splitting from the United States. These regions respectively succumb to Japan’s influence and become a neutral buffer against the rump US, now a puppet of the Greater German Reich. Frank Frink, a Jew living in Japanese-dominated San Francisco, quits his job and decides to go into business making jewelry with his former supervisor. A prospective vendor of these wares, Robert Childan, owns a shop peddling Americana to resident Japanese businessmen and dignitaries. One of Childan’s clients, a Mr. Tagomi, represents the Japanese Trade Mission in the city but is giving the strange task of introducing a Swedish businessman to a high-ranking member of the Japanese military, though he knows not to what end. The Reich’s consulate in San Francisco, naturally, becomes curious about these events, though Germany has problems of its own with the sudden death of its Chancellor and the inevitable succession battle to come.

Meanwhile, a new novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, is sweeping the globe. Frank’s ex-wife, living in the neutral Rockies, meets a mysterious Italian who introduces her to the book, which the couple quickly becomes obsessed with, to the point of taking a road trip to meet the author. The Man in the High CastleGrasshopper presents an alternate history in which the Axis loses the war, after which the world is dominated by two superpowers: the United Kingdom and the United States. Americans, Japanese, and even Germans can’t get enough of this book; whether it thrills, enrages, gives hope, or merely piques curiosity, the characters develop an attachment to this book and its version of the truth.

When you get past the admittedly convoluted plot, Dick’s book unveils a world that is both wholly plausible and completely impossible. While the reader knows what really happened during and after the war, and where the points of divergence between reality and fiction lie, the book combines our wartime fears of failure and our familiarity with the post-war years to create something new, a world that straddles the line between realistic and uncanny. My favorite example of this is the reversal of America’s obsession with Japanese culture. Rather than young Americans consuming Japanese TV shows, movies, and video games, High Castle features upper middle class Japanese scouring America for, well, Americana. If it can be tied to the Old West, or really to anything that predated the war, there are Japanese who will do whatever they can to get their hands on it. Along with other examples of in-world cultural abnormalities, this obsession is interesting in and of itself, but it poses further questions as well. Where does this quirk come from? When a man buys a Mickey Mouse watch, is it because a part of him knows that this piece of Americana would be ubiquitous and kitschy in “our” world? Or is the gesture as meaningless in that world as the watch would be in ours?

These questions get to the heart of what The Man in the High Castle is really about. All of the characters, in their own way, feel the nagging sense that they’re not living the life that was meant for them. The Japanese and Pacific Americans constantly consult with an oracle to determine their courses of action, as if they’ve accepted the idea that they’re powerless in this world. Even those who don’t believe in the I Ching, such as the Germans, come to realize that they’re doing little more than playing parts in an ugly drama. When Grasshopper comes along, it provides a valve for people to release this feeling, the sense that humanity was meant to follow a different path, one which would allow them the freedom to live their own lives. In a way, they wonder whether the fiction of Grasshopper can be more real than their own world.

The only question I really have is, “What’s the point?” Dick creates this world, a world that’s clearly unstable and on the brink of a significant upheaval, but he doesn’t really answer his own questions. Because it’s not our world, the stakes seem pretty low, so the novel is really driven by its characters. These people are all moving steadily towards something, but Dick never shows us what this is. Perhaps this is intended to create in us the nagging doubt that pervades his book; the slight discomfort with the world, the feeling that things are just a little off. I don’t think a lot of authors would go all out for that feeling, but I guess that’s what makes The Man in the High Castle special.

This was my first Dick, but I was pleasantly surprised by how unconventional it was, especially for the stereotypically conventional sci-fi genre. I normally don’t like ambiguous meaning, but the uneasy feeling of The Man in the High Castle makes up for that. I’ll allow it, just this once.