26 April 2009

A haphazard way to move through life and treasure...

When Ray Girvan (JSBlog) asks to borrow a book, you can be sure that it will come back with interest – in both senses of that word. His request for Queenmagic, kingmagic will be no exception, but in the short term has itself set me trundling along other lines of thought. Thinking about Ian Watson in particular and, in general, what forms our perception of an author.

The first Watson book I read was God's world, an ideas novel with interstellar travel powered by love, poised somewhere between fantasy and science fiction . That's a difficult triple point to occupy without falling into either tedium or derision, but (to my mind, anyway) he succeeded: God's world struck me as fresh, potent and stimulating.

I was in the middle of a long tramp through East African mountain scenery at the time, and there were no other books to follow it (a fellow traveller let me read this one before using it as toilet paper), so there was ample empty time in which to study it in my mind and appreciate how remarkable it was. As soon as I again had access to libraries and bookshops, a year or so later, I randomly picked up those Watson novels and short story collections which came first to hand. Chekov's journey, Slow birds, Miracle visitors, Deathhunter ... all brilliant.

I was lucky in the chance sequence which presented itself to me. All of those shaped my perception of him and his fiction. When I found The book of the stars and The book of being less satisfying than their predecessor The book of the river, that was OK – every author is allowed fluctuation.

Queenmagic, kingmagic was, in chronological publication terms though not in my order of reading, to be the last novel before Watson turned to a different style. With Evil Water, The Power and The fire worm, he switched to using schlock horror as his vehicle.

Not that those books were any less well envisioned, constructed or written; they were just not ... me. I've never been a horror fan, and (I'm a devout physical coward) least of all physical horror. At that particular time I was also inclined to feel that there are enough real horrors in the world without inventing any. Nevertheless, having built up a high opinion over so many books, I went on reading – those three and another before I gave up. I put him aside and didn't return for a couple of years.

If chance had led me to The power, for example, first or even second, I would probably have put him aside and never returned at all – which would have been a great loss. Even if The book of being had been the first I read, though it was SF and not horror, I would probably have shrugged and not bothered to go further.

Iain Banks us another example; so is Salman Rushdie; in each case, I was lucky in the first couple of examples and that carried me through those which I felt less impressive. Ditto Joanne Harris – Five Quarters of the orange drew me in, where Evil seed or Holy fools certainly would not have done.

It seems a haphazard way to move through life and treasure, but there you go.

Of course, even if an author knew in advance which books would grab me and which would not, other readers would react differently. I was deeply impressed by Under heaven's bridge, written by Watson in transatlantic collaboration with Michael Bishop; other people whose opinion I respect were completely unmoved by it.

Coming back to Queenmagic, kingmagic, I agree with Ray's comment that it goes into fast forward towards the end. There is a feeling that Watson has worked through the ideas now and is impatient to be finished ... though I personally liked the Go section, finding it the most evocative of the whole book, which I suppose only goes to show that every reader is different. The central ideas, though, always Watson's driving force, are fascinating. And the mapping of fictional physics variants onto game play is an effective frame, which Ray (judging by his post title and closing line) apparently intends exploring further; I'm looking forward to that in anticipation. (Update, 2307Z on Monday 27 April 2009: Ray's post has, since I wrote that, been extensively expanded.)

  • Ian Watson,
  • Chekhov's journey. 1983, London: Gollancz, 0575032138 (hbk), and 1984, London: Panther, 0586059792 (pbk).
  • Deathhunter. 1981, London: Gollancz, 0575030232 (hbk) and 1982, London: Corgi, 0552120715 (pbk)
  • Evil water, and other stories. 1987, London: Gollancz. 0575039531 (hbk), and 1988: Grafton, 0586201939 (pbk).
  • God's world. 1979, London: Gollancz, 0575026839 (hbk), and 1982, London: Granada, 0586052100 (pbk).
  • Miracle visitors. 1978, London: Gollancz, 0575024747 (hbk), and 1980, London: Panther. 0586049355 (pbk).
  • Queenmagic, kingmagic. 1986, London: Gollancz, 0575038837 (hbk), and1988, London: Grafton, 0586074147 (pbk).
  • Slow birds, and other stories. 1985, London: Gollancz, 0575036753 (hbk), and 1987, London: Grafton, 1987, 0586071431 (pbk).
  • The book of being. 1985, London: Gollancz., 057503596X (hbk), and 1986, London: Grafton, 0586063897 (pbk).
  • The book of the river. 1984, London: Gollancz, 0575033967 (hbk), and 1985, London: Panther, 0586063870 (pbk).
  • The book of the stars. 1984, London: Gollancz, 0575035080 (hbk), and 1986, London: Panther, 1986, 0586063889 (pbk).
  • The fire worm. 1988, London: Gollancz, 0575043008 (hbk), and 1990, London: Grafton, 0586207635 (pbk).
  • The power. 1987, London: Headline, 0747200319 (hbk) and 0747230412 (pbk).
  • with Michael Bishop, Under heaven's bridge. 1980, London: Gollancz, 0575029277 (hbk) and 1982, London: Corgi, 0552120316 (pbk)
  • Joanne Harris
  • Five quarters of the orange. 2001, London: Doubleday, 0385601697 (hbk), and 2002, London: Black Swan .0552998834 (pbk)
  • Holy fools. 2003, London: Doubleday, 0385603649 (hbk) and 2004, London: Black Swan, 0552770019 (pbk).