Thursday, April 21, 2005

Ignoring everything you ever learned about writing: Nicola Morgan, Sleepwalking (London: Hodder, 2004).

The most difficult thing about keeping this blog, particularly now I'm reading less, is finding something good to say. Re-reading some of my comments I'm rather forcibly reminded of that old saying "If you have nothing good to say, say nothing." Unfortunately, at least until September when I'll be able to get back into the library, read a much wider range of fiction, and get stuck back into the cognitive development and education work, I'm confined to a small number of books with little control over whether what I talk about is actually of interest or not. (Dissing books is not, after a certain point, very interesting.)

I wish today's blog were something different. It ought to be. Nicola Morgan is a very fine writer. Monday's are Red (about synasthesia) was a brilliant book, and on the edge of slipstream. I get the feeling though that when Morgan embarked on Sleepwalking she somehow decided that the same children who she would expect to work out what was going on when a boy "tasted" red, couldn't cope with a fully constructed and alien future.

Until page 56 this entire book "tells you about". Up to page 31, the book is a short story which tells us about the world, with lots of explanation about Citizens (the drugged), Specials (those who responded badly to the drugs), Outsiders (who rejected the drugs). Even given that this will turn out to be a "told story" it's pretty clumsy. And it's followed by a chapter in which a teacher decides what the children in his care need to do, thinks through them, describes them all to us, and describes the world in his head. Morgan makes a very specific and very basic mistake when she does this, and then later allows him to have told, the students about their mission in a little time elipse. She doesn't really have a choice because she can't repeat the information, but it makes the children (teens) seem very passive.

Off the teens then go to change the world: they meet the Outsiders from whom they have been sheltered (they've been brought up in Balmoral Castle in a secret school), discover the horror of real poverty, and the horror of being drugged up--there is a very unsubtle anti-drugs message here--they discover the world is ruled by a computer which runs the world according to stories, and at the moment the top two stories are 1984 and Brave New World. They replace the stories with one story, a story of a Princess giving birth to Hope. Then they leave and go off and make their own lives, which turn out to be about falling in love and "growing up". The Butler at the castle turns out to be a secret conspirator and plotting to take over the world and we leave it there.

I can offer my usual criticisms: Morgan puts more effort into "teen issues" than she does the sf; the book is mostly about parental expectation and teen rebellion and finding their own place; clearly there is consequence at the end, and I do quite like the fact that Morgan both shows consequence and teen indifference/solispism re the consequences, although her teens lack the idealism I associate with 16 yr olds.

But my real criticisms here are not about the structure of the book, which actually comes a lot closer to my Constant of "real sf" than do many of the books that I've read but about the writing. It's very passive, very explanatory, and unbelievably clunky. Take this one example chosen simply by random opening of the book:

"They ran round the end of the lockers, and hid out of sight of the door. They were each behind a different row of lockers, pressed against the cold sides. Livia was the closest to the door. Marcus was the closest to Livia. They fixed their eyes on each other while straining to catch any noise. She stared at every part of his face, as if she might never see him again." [my italics]

Apart from the really awful, overwrought and inappropriate moment of straining emotion, take a look at the bit I put in italics. Department of x-ray vision? Definitely one for Thog's Masterclass.

And this is a writer I would have otherwise recommended to you unreservedly. Clearly when she set out to write sf, she decided that it had nothing in common with real writing.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm rather forcibly reminded of that old saying "If you have nothing good to say, say nothing."

Oh, don't mind that old bromide. I much prefer "If you dont' have anything nice to say, come sit here by me."

Seriously. We can read only positive reviews as much as we like in any periodical carrying reviews. Print media simply can't spare the space for bad reviews when there are so many good books. It's wonderful to read along as you take a systematic look at a set of books, good, bad, and indifferent.

4:52 AM  
Blogger Farah said...

Thank you [g]

And your comment chimes nicely with the other book I'm reading today, Northanger Abbey. Oh my, Jane Austen wasn't exactly what you would call *nice*.

2:19 PM  

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