So it turns out that when I can’t decide how to log the books I read, I just don’t log them. Oops. I’m making an arbitrary decision that Farmer’s The World of Tiers series counts as six separate books, even though I’ve got them collected in two volumes, but the collection of short spy novels just counts as one.
(I guess it’s a good thing I mostly do this for my own amusement. Oh yes, and for yours.)
- The Mammoth Book of Short Spy Novels, ed. Bill Pronzini & Martin H. Greenberg
- Inverted World, Christopher Priest
- The Maker of Universes, Philip Jose Farmer
- The Gates of Creation, Philip Jose Farmer
- A Private Cosmos, Philip Jose Farmer
- The Lavalite World, Philip Jose Farmer
- Behind the Walls of Terra, Philip Jose Farmer
- More than Fire, Philip Jose Farmer
- The Ghost Writer, Robert Harris
Haunting, strange and sad: that would be Inverted World. The novel follows a culture’s strange quest. They have to move their city fast enough to stay in place, while all around them local people are sucked into a zone of warped time and space. The protagonist character isn’t exactly the hero, as he ends up defending the status quo and is shattered when he learns what’s actually happened to his people. I was pretty shocked by it too, but it’s good enough that I don’t want to hint at what’s really going on. Read it, think through the implications, and I bet you’ll find yourself filled with the same sense of horrified melancholy that it gave me.
The World of Tiers series, on the other hand, is so subtly subversive that half the time I’m not sure what the hell Farmer’s doing . Not that the books are bad taken at face value! They’re full of action, adventure, clever puzzles, hairbreadth escapes, malevolent villains, bioengineering, literary allusions and dimensional travel. What’s not to love? Except, of course, the women who serve as rewards, the noble Native American tribes, the jungle pygmy savages, and the like. Half the time it’s impossible to read it straight, like the Teutonic culture full of Yiddish-speaking Arthurian knights. Half the time it’s hard to read it any other way.
This time around, though, I found myself paying a lot of attention to the way Farmer builds problems for his characters to resolve. The problems he introduces are largely external. (Someone has taken over your world! Someone has kidnapped your wife! Evil creatures out of the past are loose again!) While you do get to see into the heads of Robert Woolf and Kickaha, the two main characters, it’s more important how they solve the problems at hand than how those solutions change them. Usually this irritates me beyond belief. What, the main characters aren’t going to solve the crucially important problem that’s the crux of your plot? But Farmer manages to make the process of problem-solving interesting, even when the outcome is clear.
He does this in two ways. First, he is incredibly inventive in the problems he presents to the characters. Every few pages something new, exciting and usually dire happens! Even though you know the main characters will succeed, you keep reading just to find out what other clever things he will do to them before they get where they are going. Second, he does a wonderful job of giving the characters texture without internality. The problems they face don’t change them much, but you get to watch them be characteristically themselves in solving them. Just watching Kickaha be Kickaha is a pretty glorious thing. (I admit I don’t like Woolf nearly as much, but then again you don’t see as much of him.)
As far as spy novels go: The Ghost Writer is a mediocre excuse for a thriller, especially compared to a lot of the short spy novels in the Pronzini collection. It takes a long time to get moving, and when it does, the payoff isn’t as dramatic as I’d hoped. It seems like Harris relied on “OMG A PRIME MINISTER” for a lot of his interest, and while I found the commentary on modern politics interesting, Lang’s supposed stature neither convinced nor moved me. O’Donnell, just for example, did a whole lot better in far fewer pages in “The Giggle-Wrecker.” He set up the problem and two great characters with economy, devised a clever solution, and even managed character insight and development. Plus he was funny to boot! I want to see if I can find a good collection of the Modesty Blaise stories, but I’m not sure I’ll bother picking up a Robert Harris book again.