Saturday, January 14, 2006

Absence makes the heart grow melancholy: Hazel Marshall, Troublesome Angels and Flying Machines. Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004.

It's very rare that a book leaves me baffled, but I really am not too sure what I think of this book. I can't find any reviews (there is only one on and no other commentary.

First of all, I decided to read this book because, even though it has angels and magic, it's about Blanco Polo, great nephew of Marco Polo, and his desire to build flying machines. But there is a curious absence at the heart of this book and it's the flying machines themselves (of which more in a moment).

Blanco Polo goes off to join the absurdly named Count Maleficio who wants to build flying machines and on the way picks up Eva who is being sent to marry an old man because she is clearly mad. She talks to angels. Except the angels exist and clearly have plans which involve Eva and Blanco defeating the Count as part of an on going conflict with heaven in which they have been punished for involvement with human beings. These angels are sexed: the female is white, blonde, beautiful and was punished for falling in love with a human; the male is black and beautiful and punished for assisting human curiosity. Well done on the race presentation, five demerits for the sexism.

There is something about the angelic business which bothers me. Eva's angels are in conflict with other angels who want to interfere to help humans become destructive. God seems to be a bystander who doesn't want aliens to be involved at all. The second book is available but I haven't read it yet, and a third may be coming (then Marshall says the story will be complete) but I have a nasty feeling that lurking in here somewhere is evangelical fantasy a la Shadowmancer (G.P. Taylor) only a bit more subtle.

But back to the Flying Machines. On the back of the book the blurb recommends this novel to children who liked Mortal Engines and as I've never believed that magic precludes a book from being science fiction (that's not what my "rigid division" is about, you can have sf in a magical universe if the attitude is sf) I gave it a go.

I don't know if anyone reading remembers the Flambards series? You couldn't publish them today: in the first book Christina goes to Flambards, gets on a horse and spends most of the rest of the book chasing foxes. We learn everything there is to know about bit and tackle, and the finer points of riding to hounds. Then in the second book, The Edge of the Cloud, Christina marries the younger, aeroplane mad brother Will. And in this book we learn about engines, aerodynamics and what to with your hat when you're in a bi-plane.

In Marshall's book we learn nothing. We are constantly told Blanco is obsessed with the problem of flying machines but apart from one description of the 'plane he and the Count build, that's it.

Compare Marshall's book to Geraldine McCaughrean's Kite Rider to see what I mean: that's a book set in the past, in which science and engineering are considered interesting enough to talk about.

So in the end, Troublesome Angels and Flying Machines, which could have been a hybrid sf/fantasy becomes a fantasy only, not because of its content as such, but because of a worldview that regards angels as more interesting than engineering. I am not surprised that it is the flying machines which disappear from the title of the next book, not the angels,

I enjoyed this book, but in a puzzled, expectant sort of way.

Author bio


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Farah - angels and engineering: tough choice. Perhaps if theologians could describe the inner workings of angels in the same way that engineers can describe the inner workings of machines, angels would be part of SF?

To put it another way, I suppose I'm wondering, is your distinction primarily between *what's* (not) being described, or the *way* it's (not) being described? Are certain subject matters intrinsically more fantastical than others? Are certain ways of approaching them intrinsically more SF-ic?


1:20 PM  
Blogger Farah said...

Definitely what. The flying machines, if described at all, are described in terms of looks, not in terms of how they are made.

2:41 AM  

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