August 31st, 2007

Cylons = gods

I Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust

About a month ago, lodessa made an excellent post of things to read in a post-Harry Potter world. One recommendation was His Dark Materials:
3) Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy
* Huge aspirations
* Being made into a major movie
* Interesting Theological Concepts
* Strong World Building
* Bit off more than it could chew... but still chewed enough to be worthwhile
* Classified as Children's/YA fiction but more appropriate for adults

The major movie had piqued my interest in the books, which I had heard of over the years, though I can't remember why. Perhaps you have heard of them too, whispered in the hallways, invisible waves ofapproval radiating through the air. The movie marketing led to discussion of the book by fans such as hobviously and atropos116, whose claims that the books were "SO AWESOME" finally convinced me to give them a shot.

The Golden Compass has one of the most confusing first chapters I've ever read, perhaps rivaling Foucault's Pendulum. Pullman just drops you into this world with Lyra and her dæmon as if it's perfectly normal. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Lyra's world is very similar to our world, but not exactly the same (for instance, the whole dæmon thing). Even though Pullman specifically explains that the first book takes place in a universe like ours and that our universe does not appear until the second book, it was still hard to comprehend. The first chapter feels like you're in the middle of the book (as Tropie said, he takes in medias res very seriously), but, when you look back, it truly is the beginning of the story, for Lyra. It's the reader's handicap that he doesn't know what the hell is going on. Thankfully, Pullman drops in some helpful exposition in the third chapter, and he continues to explain the dæmon concept by showing and not telling, which is pretty masterful. A lot of the fun of the first book, in my opinion, is learning what dæmons are and how they work, so I don't want to say too much about it. Suffice it to say that they are animal companions (and not demons).

One thing that struck me (and got me through the confusion) is that I really liked Pullman's writing style. It was prose-y enough to be interesting but not so prose-y as to be trying too hard to be an Important Piece of Literature. He plays a wryly omniscient narrator for the most part, connecting the story to the past and future when appropriate. What's fun about the narration is that, despite its omniscience, it is rarely intrusive. That is, there are many times where a character learns something that, to the reader, has great significance but to the character is not immediately relevant because he does not know all that we do. And Pullman lets the reader put the pieces together himself. He also has a great talent for simile and metaphor: "Lyra's knowledge had great gaps in it, like a map of the world largely eaten by mice."

The Subtle Knife raised the series to the level of awesomeness I had been expecting, as it had me flailing at points. This was truly one long story being told in three parts.

The Amber Spyglass, unfortunately, did not completely deliver what I was hoping/expecting. While I was not catastrophically unsatisfied, I was not deeply satisfied either.

People may ask—okay, people do ask how this series compares to Harry Potter, and I give the following response:

I think Philip Pullman is a better prose stylist than J.K. Rowling, and he tries to be a little more complex and adult, but his characters aren't as vibrant and alive. Really, it's hard to compare the two because they're...not really comparable. One is a seven-book series about a boy wizard defeating the Dark Lord. The other is a trilogy about a whole bunch of other shit.

The thing about Pullman's characters is that he relies on their inherent natures rather than truly characterizing them. I like them, and they are cool, but somehow, they don't feel as real as Rowling's. Like, I think J.K could tell me what Harry ate for breakfast on any given day. I don't think Pullman cares what Lyra ate for breakfast on any given day. Except that she would lie about it.

Why do I recommend this series? Any number of reasons. I like that Lyra's defining character trait is that she is a liar. Protagonists in children's literature are so often goodie-goodies because, well, they're kids. I really like, as a correlation, the theme of truth in the books. It's hard to explain, but there's a recurring thread about how true things are true, and it sounds stupid when I say it like that, but it's really neat in context. I like the important role that storytelling plays. Really, my favorite thing about the books is the ideas. One thing that becomes apparent in Lyra's world is that they don't seem to have anything called "physics"...but they do have this field called "experimental theology" that sure sounds similar. Yeah. In much the same way I love Christopher Pike for mixing vampire mythology with Hindu mythology, I love Philip Pullman for mixing Christianity with quantum physics. Also, there are witches and talking bears. (Hey, you got sci-fi in my fantasy! Hey, you got fantasy in my sci-fi!)

In case you haven't heard, there is a rather large religious component to the books, and Pullman is an anti-theist. So, if you are deeply religious, or especially deeply Christian, you might find the books deeply offensive. The story is highly influenced by Paradise Lost, from whence the title of the series comes. Personally, I found some of the religious concepts fascinating, but I also thought the narrative was pretty imbalanced toward painting religion and God as bad. I'm not entirely sure it was necessary in order to get across the ultimate message of the book, which I did like, but it's there all the same, for better or worse.

So I think that's it for the unspoilery section of this post. If you were considering reading the books, may this be the final kick in the pants you need. If you had never heard of them before now, may this be your chance to learn more and perhaps check them out yourself. They appear to be immensely popular. It would make you cool.

If you are already cool, follow me behind the cut. Uncool ones, beware of spoilers in the comments.

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