The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

The Fellowship of the Ring, cover by Pauline Baynes

However much I’m blown away by the sheer storytelling power of The Lord of the Rings (I think, once The Fellowship of the Ring gets into its stride, that first volume in particular is up there with the greats of pure adventure fiction, like The Lost World, Treasure Island, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), when the Ring’s darker, more subtle effects start to make themselves known (particularly in the second part of The Two Towers, with Frodo, Sam and Gollum journeying together) things, for me, step up a notch.

In ‘On Fairy Tales’, Tolkien calls Faerie ‘the Perilous Realm’, and his own most characteristic imaginative creations often have this quality of the ‘perilous’, in being alluring and fascinating, but also subtly dangerous. There are, though, different kinds of ‘perilous’ in The Lord of the Rings. Lothlórien is beautiful-perilous: paradisiacal and peaceful, but hazardous to those who are not pure in heart (‘only evil need fear it, or those who bring some evil with them’ — and who doesn’t bring at least some evil with them?), for they’ll have the darkest recesses of their heart laid bare by the Lady Galadriel. But while Lothlórien’s peril lies in the escape it offers from the world’s cares, Sauron’s Ring (not beautiful-perilous but powerful-perilous) offers a vastly different way of dealing with worldly troubles, the power to control or destroy them, and so is that much readier to draw out the evil from its bearers.

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

The Two Towers, cover by Roger Garland

It also gives the One Ring not just a magical power in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but a literary power in ours: the power to make two-dimensional characters three-dimensional. Possessing the Ring, or being tempted to possess it, draws out a character’s flaws and strengths. The simultaneous and contradictory desires to use the Ring’s powers and be free of its burden split characters in two. (At the Grey Havens, Gandalf talks of those hobbits who haven’t borne the Ring as being ‘one and whole’, in contrast to the inner division of those who have.)

When first encountered in The Hobbit, the Ring is simply a magic ring that turns its wearer invisible. But this is just the first stage in an ever more complex relationship between the Ring and its bearer, a tempting invitation to enter its world of power and fulfilment. Preying on the quite natural desire to hide, at times, from others, even in minor ways (Bilbo’s wanting to avoid annoying relatives, Gollum wanting to gather gossip and engage in petty theft), it soon becomes a guilty secret, poisonously entwined with its bearer’s very identity. In the first part of The Fellowship of the Ring, ownership of the Ring is all about keeping secrets and not being seen. It isn’t to be named or spoken of, even to one’s closest friends, and the enemy who seeks it is embodied as the most obvious symbol of the opposite of being hidden:

‘The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable.’

Gollum, who, like Renfield in Dracula, is the human (or hobbit) summation of the Ring’s powers of degradation, is so sensitive to being seen that he flees the sun and the moon — ‘the Yellow Face’ and ‘the White Face’ as he calls them — because they are, to him, seeing things. It’s as if, despite owning a ring that makes him invisible, he needs to invest the world with watching, knowing eyes as an excuse to escape even further. He hides in the deepest, darkest caves beneath the Misty Mountains because ‘The Sun could not watch me there.’

Similarly, when Frodo is asked to produce the Ring at the Council of Elrond:

‘He was shaken by a sudden shame and fear; and he felt a great reluctance to reveal the Ring, and a loathing of its touch.’

That shame is the result of being seen — and feeling, in the gaze of those who look at you, how far you’ve already been seduced by the Ring’s promises of power.

But what power does the Ring promise? We know destroying it will not only lay waste to all that Sauron has built up, but Lothlórien too, as though the One Ring has power over all that is ‘perilous’, both the beautiful and the powerful, but what actual abilities does it confer on its wielder? As far as I recall, we only get one concrete, though not obvious, example of its use in The Lord of the Rings, immediately after Gollum attacks Frodo on the slopes of Mount Doom. Gripping the Ring, Frodo says:

‘If you touch me ever again, you shall be cast yourself into the Fire of Doom.’

And the next time Gollum touches Frodo, that’s exactly what happens. After biting off Frodo’s finger, Gollum falls into the volcano’s fire pit. Did he trip, or was he obeying Frodo’s final command as Ring-bearer?

But, whatever the details, we know what the Ring’s power ultimately is. The Ring allows you to impose your will on others, and on the world. The Ring allows you to have your own way.

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Gollum is certainly the most interesting character in The Lord of the Rings, if only because he’s the most duplicitous. Thanks to the Ring’s starkly polarising effect, he’s both Gollum and Sméagol (or Slinker and Stinker as Sam has it), always debating with himself, self-divided, and so that much more isolated from the undivided normal people. And while one side of Gollum is drawn to the possibility of trust and fellowship (with Frodo at least, being a fellow victim of the Ring), the other wants to get the Ring back, preferably served with a generous dollop of gleeful revenge.

Fritz Leiber has criticised Tolkien for being ‘not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards…’ But it would be fairer to say this is the sort of villainy Tolkien is most interested in — a far more human-level (or hobbit-level) villainy than the vast and abstract evil of Sauron. Sauron, I don’t think, is that interesting, at least in terms of character. (Evil is a diminution of humanity, not a deepening of it.) We get only one direct glimpse of Sauron as an actual person, when Pippin looks into the Orthanc Palantír, and when he speaks he sounds disappointingly formal and suave, like a Dennis Wheatley Satanist:

‘Wait a moment! We shall meet again soon. Tell Saruman that this dainty is not for him. I will send for it at once. Do you understand? Say just that!’

It is, rather, the effects of evil on lesser, more human, creatures that Tolkien wants to explore:

‘Work of the Enemy!’ said Gandalf. ‘Such deeds he loves: friend at war with friend; loyalty divided in confusion of hearts.’

And Gollum, being self-divided and at war with himself, is the ultimate vision of what Tolkien is warning against: not an absolute, pure and abstract evil, but a corruption of the soul.

The forces of ‘good’ in The Lord of the Rings are equally human in scale (whether hobbit, elf, dwarf or man). Tolkien’s ‘good’ is about striving towards what is right, with a free and often uncertain will, about doing one’s best and accepting that you may make mistakes. (Frodo at one point says ‘All my choices have proved ill.’ Aragorn says something similar, and both Gandalf and Sam express grave doubts about what they should be doing at key moments.) The true evil of Sauron’s Ring comes from the way it allows its bearer to deny their own humanity, their essential weakness, thanks to its overwhelming power. The Ring is abstract power, and is defeated in the end by the most ‘human’ (fallible, weak, self-doubting, powerless) characters, the hobbits.

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Return of the King, cover by Roger Garland

The Lord of the Rings is, then, a book in praise of human weakness, and — particularly in the third book, The Return of the King — a sort of paean to endurance in the face of unrelenting despair. A moral, though not a moralistic, book, it’s about the ultimate triumph of ‘Pity, and Mercy’, of ‘understanding, making, and healing’ (which are the aims of the three Elven Rings) as opposed to ‘Knowledge, Rule, Order’ (Saruman’s ‘high and ultimate purpose’), or Sauron’s ‘One Ring to bind them’ totalitarianism. It’s a book that has long outlasted the immediate allegorical interpretations of the age in which it was written (Sauron as Hitler, the Ring as the Atom Bomb) to remain relevant in a world where abstract power has become an end in itself (say anything so long as they vote for you, then do whatever you want once you’re in), and where a whole political class of doubt-inducing Wormtongues and sweet-talking Sarumans seem to have taken over. What we need right now is an Ent or two to tear down a few ivory towers! Or, better still, a Gandalf to offer some withering comments and a little magical, perilous-but-revealing light. If nothing else, at least The Lord of the Rings tells us that we small folk, we hobbits of the human world, can make a difference even in such doubtful times, against such vast odds, in the face of such peril.

The Adventures of Alyx by Joanna Russ

Russ's The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx, cover by Judith Clute

I bought Joanna Russ’s The Adventures of Alyx a while ago because I read somewhere of it having affiliations with Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd & Gray Mouser stories. For a long while it sat on my ever-lengthening to-read shelf, because whenever I picked it up for a shall-I-read-it skim, it seemed more SF than sword & sorcery. So I did some Wikipedia research — it turns out Alyx the Pick-lock is referred to in “The Two Best Thieves in Lankhmar” and “Under the Thumbs of the Gods” — then started reading.

The first Alyx tale, “Bluestocking”, has several Leiberish resonances: a Lankhmar-like city called Ourdh, whose name recalls Leiber’s Ourph the Mingol (later stories make it clear the setting is Earth at the time of ancient Greece); most of the story has its two main characters adrift on the ocean in a small boat, reminiscent of Leiber’s “Their Mistress, the Sea” (though that story was first published in 1968; “Bluestocking” appeared in 1967); and at one point Alyx mentions having known a “big Northman with… a big red beard — God, what a beard! — Fafnir — no, Fafh — well, something ridiculous.” “Bluestocking” begins with pickpocket Alyx being hired by a slightly spoiled rich girl, Edarra, to help her flee an impending marriage. During their time together, Edarra loses her more refined, delicate edges, and Alyx gets to kill a sea-serpent and a trio of pirates. In the following story, “I Thought She Was Afeared Until She Stroked My Beard”, jumping back in the character’s timeline, Alyx leaves her abusive husband and pairs herself with a far less chauvinistic pirate — though she still has to teach him a lesson or two in true equality, when she matches his body-count in a bloody fight.

Joanna RussAs in so many sword & sorcery tales, what these initial stories are about is defining a hero. And here, unlike the usual S&S strategy of defining a hero by what he or she fights, Alyx is more often portrayed in contrast to a companion — the spoilt Edarra in “Bluestocking”, the well-meaning but still slightly prejudiced Blackbeard in “I Through She Was Afeared…” In these first two stories, I felt that was pretty much all that was happening — they were far more about defining Alyx as a character than telling a story with her, though this defining is nevertheless an important step when a writer is trying to do something new. As Russ says in her biographical note at the start of the Women’s Press collected edition: “I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” (This was the late 1960s. As Aldiss & Wingrove say in Trillion Year Spree: “Russ’s Alyx stories were something quite new to the genre. Alyx is a female rebel. A thief and adventuress. A highly competent and aggressive woman. She was a revolutionary fictional character, challenging the competent male/wilting female syndrome that had dominated the magazine genre for forty years.”)

The first tale that really worked for me is the third, and the most sword and sorcery-like of the lot, “The Barbarian”. Here, Alyx is hired (as so many S&S heroes have been down the ages) by a sorcerer in need of a bit of thievish skill and swordly brawn. This story has some of the best writing in the series, for instance when Alyx leads her sorcerous employer through the benighted rooms of a building they’ve broken into:

“Her fingers brushed lightly alongside her, like a creeping animal: stone, stone, a gap, warm air rising… In the dark she felt wolfish, her lips skinned back over her teeth; like another species she made her way with hands and ears. Through them the villa sighed and rustled in its sleep. She put the tips of the fingers of her free hand on the back of the fat man’s neck, guiding with the faintest of touches through the turns of the corridor…”

The ending shades into science fiction, but in the well-established manner of the Unknown school — with a primitive protagonist encountering advanced technology and defeating it through uneducated but nevertheless scientific thinking. I’m not really sure if that’s cheating or not, but it works, as a story, and the goodie wins, which is the main point…

Picnic on ParadiseThe next tale, “Picnic on Paradise” marks a break in two ways: it’s much longer than the previous stories (it was initially published as a separate novel, in 1968); and in it, Alyx has been whisked into the future by the Trans-Temporal Military Authority to guide some tourists across hazardous alien terrain to the safety of a base where they can be taken off-world. Things go wrong, of course, but not before Alyx’s relationships with the leisure-softened, over-psychoanalysed tourists doped up on “stimulants and euphorics” have been stretched past their plastic limit. This short novel is, really, an expansion of that initial story where Alyx was stuck in a wilderness (the ocean) with a pampered rich girl, whom she brought into more vibrant contact with the feeling of being alive. It’s a sort of science-fictional version of Crocodile Dundee (not at all meant as an insult — Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala would be a similar comparison). Like the best sword & sorcery, the Crocodile Dundee type of story is about getting back in touch with far more real, far more meaningful and basic values through a bit of down-and-dirty, barbaric common sense. But here, the picture isn’t as clear cut as in Crocodile Dundee, as, ultimately, Alyx gets as affected by her contact with these over-civilised future civilians as they do by her. But we do get, at last, her heroic credo:

“…nobody ever let me do anything in my life before and I never let that stop me.”

Alyx doesn’t appear in the final story in the collection, “The Second Inquisition”, which seems to have been included here only because it mentions the Trans-Temporal Military Authority, unless I’m missing something. Set in 1920s Earth, where the narrator’s family are, for some reason, putting up a visitor from the future, it reads very much like Gene Wolfe at his most oblique — peppered with a stream of apparently inconsequential little details which made me feel that, if I only I knew which detail was significant and why, the whole thing would become clear, but as I know neither which nor why, I wasn’t entirely sure it was worth the effort to read it again to find out.

The_Adventures_of_AlyxI found my level, Alyx-wise, with “The Barbarian”. It’s the most sword & sorcery-like tale, though made all the more refreshing by its emancipated protagonist. Alyx constantly gibes and annoys her employer, never taking him as seriously as he thinks he ought to be taken, questioning his orders and being disobedient, then puncturing his technological/magical superiority with a bit of very non-technological/non-magical violence. Like all sword & sorcery heroes should.

Alyx, as a character, was a sort of experiment on Russ’s part, and once she’d proved herself in the old-style arena of sword and sorcery, there was nothing for it but to move onto far more of-the-times science fiction in “Picnic on Paradise” — only for her to be left out of the picture altogether by the time of “The Second Inquisition”. I’d have loved to have read more stories in the style, and the world, of “The Barbarian”, but I think that, in writing it, Russ had made her point and it was time to move on.

Modern Fantasy by C N Manlove

‘Modern fantasy has a very large readership, and already enjoys considerable academic repute, particularly in America: it is surprising that as yet no serious study of the subject has appeared.’

Modern Fantasy by C N ManloveThus writes Colin Manlove in the preface to his 1975 offering, Modern Fantasy: Five Studies, the first book of academic criticism about fantasy literature (as opposed to books by insiders — Moorcock and Le Guin, for instance) that I read. In it, Manlove looks at the works of five fantasists: Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, George MacDonald’s fairy tales, C S Lewis’s Perelandra, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Mervyn Peake’s Titus books. The treatment of each work is in-depth, looking (briefly) at the author’s life, their stated intentions for their work, and then at how well they realise those intentions.

Each time, Manlove concludes the work to be a failure.

With Peake, for instance, he’s not convinced by Titus’s desire to escape Gormenghast. He says there’s no evidence in the text that having his every spare moment taken up by age-old meaningless ritual has a detrimental effect on the young boy. As this repugnance for Gormenghast’s constant ceremonies and rituals is, really, a fundamental element not just of Titus’s character, but of the three books’ basic worldview, Manlove fails to be convinced by the trilogy.

With Tolkien, he finds three points to criticise. First, that there’s a ‘continued presence of a biased fortune’ in the plot, meaning that ‘it is not mortal will but luck which is the architect of success, the struggles with the evil forces become unreal, mere posturings in a rigged bout.’ Second, that ‘Tolkien has realised [Mordor and Sauron] far more vividly than anything he gives us to oppose them. What we have is… an imaginative imbalance: good is supposed to overcome evil, but since it is less real to us, its victory does not convince.’ And third, that ‘there is no real pain in the laments’ — that the air of melancholy created by the passing of the great ages of elvish magic is no genuine loss, but is, instead, ‘a loss so bejewelled that it is a pleasure to contemplate’.

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

Gormenghast, cover by Mark Robertson

With all of these points, for both Peake and Tolkien, I find myself wondering just where Manlove is coming from. To me, Gormenghast’s ritual — and, specifically, its effect on young Titus — is so much the sharp end of all that shadowy edifice’s oppressiveness, that to say there’s no evidence for Titus’s dislike of it seems to be missing the massive, and fundamental, weight of Gormenghast itself. (Also, I’d say that Titus is the least interesting character in the books, and to judge them a failure because of Titus’s character would be similar to judging, say, The Tempest a failure because of the limp character of its male lead Ferdinand — ignoring the splendours of Prospero, Ariel and Caliban.) To Peake, a free spirit if ever there was one, the need for freedom was perhaps too fundamental to be stated; nevertheless, oppression saturates Gormenghast’s shadowy gloom and soaks every word of those two fabulous books, Titus Groan and Gormenghast, to the point that every word is, surely, the ‘evidence’ Manlove finds lacking.

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

cover to The Lord of the Rings by Pauline Baynes

With Tolkien, I have to say Manlove’s first point may be a genuine criticism, it just never occurred to me while reading the books. (Or watching either Jackson’s films, or Bakshi’s.) Manlove says there are too many narrow escapes from danger for us to believe in them — despite acknowledging that the narrow escape from danger (what Tolkien termed the ‘Eucatastrophe’) was fundamental to the fairy-tale effect Tolkien was after. But does anyone starting to read The Lord of the Rings really doubt the One Ring will be destroyed, at the end? So, we have to accept that, throughout the three books, all we’ll ever have is the illusion of peril, otherwise the quest will fail. And it’s the very narrowness of the escapes from danger that, surely, provide that illusion. It certainly worked for me.

The point about evil in Tolkien’s work is simply bizarre. Manlove argues that ‘Sauron is more real than anything else in The Lord of the Rings because Tolkien has chosen never to present him directly.’ Which surely goes against Manlove’s requirement for ‘textual evidence’ (as in the arguments against Peake). It’s also odd considering most people’s objections being that Tolkien doesn’t do evil very well, precisely because Sauron never appears (Leiber, quoted in Moorcock’s Wizardry and Wild Romance: ‘he’s not really interested in the villains unless they’re just miserable sneaks, bullies and resentful cowards’). I’d say Sauron can’t appear because he’s pure evil, which can’t convincingly be embodied, and it’s a good thing Tolkien didn’t try. Against this, the forces of ‘good’, which Manlove finds unconvincing, are partly ‘good’ because they’re so diverse — because they allow individuals to be individuals, with no single, fixed idea, no ‘One Ring to rule them’, no single figure to embody their various ideals. It’s this very multiplicity — they’re a ragtag many against a totalitarian one — that makes their stand against Sauron all the more difficult.

The Fellowship of the RingManlove’s criticism of the elegiac air of Tolkien’s trilogy comes down to the fact that the elves aren’t dying off, but are merely leaving Middle Earth for other shores. However, they are still leaving our world, and this is perhaps the basis for the feeling of loss in The Lord of the Rings: it’s an elegy for the fact that our world isn’t the world of wonder and magic that we find in fairy tales. Tolkien can’t kill off his elves, because they’re immortal — they will always live, because they live in our imaginations — but still, they aren’t here, with us, and we don’t live in a magical world. This, though, is a poetic fact, something that I find in the books, rather than something Tolkien writes about, and so is, therefore, something ‘serious’ academic criticism can’t address, however vital a part of the reading of the trilogy it is, to me.

I’ve always been interested in the polarising effect fantasy has on people. Some get it, and enjoy it, others not only don’t enjoy it but feel the need to attack it. They can’t just say, ‘It’s not for me,’ they have to say, ‘Of course, it’s rubbish,’ or, at best, ‘Yes, but it’s for kids.’ I still never fail to be amazed to find people writing entire ‘serious’ books on a subject that, at a deep level, they clearly despise. I wouldn’t say this applies to Manlove, who went on to write several more books about fantasy, including The Fantasy Literature of England (1999) and The Fantasy Literature of EnglandFrom Alice to Harry Potter: Children’s Fantasy in England (2003), which are less critical (perhaps because they’re overviews of subjects, rather than in-depth looks, and both are very useful for the sheer breadth of their coverage) — but there’s a feeling of inevitability to his conclusion that ‘not one of the people we have looked at sustains his original vision’. Why? I didn’t understand it at the time I first read Modern Fantasy (in the mid-90s, after finding it in our local library), but have since come to think there’s something fundamental missing from the academic criticism of the time, in its approach to fantasy. By writing a ‘serious’ book on fantasy, Manlove is, of course, criticising using the standards and methods he’d use when approaching ‘serious’ literature (as it was once called): by looking at the various elements like plot, characterisation and style — all vital elements — and finding that the work failed in each of these departments. But I think fantasy criticism requires consideration of another basic element, something that’s to be found in all art, but is so much more evident in the fantastic: I’d call it imagination, or perhaps invention, but perhaps ‘wonder’ is the best word for it, here. Great fantasy has, at its heart, a sort of poetry that’s not grounded in character, or plot, or style — it’s what those elements are grounded in. To ‘get’ fantasy, you have to get the wonder, and that is something you can’t get by taking a critical, analytical perspective. You have to give yourself over to it, and then it either works or it doesn’t. With Peake, it’s Gormenghast — the whole gloom-shadowed, oppressive grotesquery of it, and the way it embodies itself in the various characters who inhabit it; with Tolkien, it’s the majesty of the quest, the heroism of the struggle (not the ultimate success, but how harrowing the journey is), and the whole legend-soaked background of Middle Earth, with its melancholy air of fading elvish magic. These are the central points from which all appreciation of these works must come. To me, both of these works work, and any criticism can only ask why they work. Which isn’t to say that all fantasy works, but I think if you’re not open to that key quality of fantasy, you’re just never going to get the works that do. Certainly, diving straight down into details, as Manlove does, is fatal — it’s the old idea of dissecting a frog to find out which part makes it alive. All you end up with is dead, messy frog parts, and no answers; then you start convincing yourself the frog was never really alive in the first place. Poor frog.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, coverMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore starts with Clay, one-time web designer for a hip and trendy bagel store, being laid off as NewBagel, trying to survive in a harsher economic climate, rebrands itself as the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company, and don’t see a flashy website and chatty Twitter account as part of their new, old-time image. So Clay retreats down the ladder of technological evolution by landing a job at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, whose upper technological limit is a ‘decrepit beige Mac Plus’ and a series of old, handwritten sales ledgers.

The store has some odd rules and odder customers, some of whom belong to a sort of subscription service which allows them to come in at any hour, often in a state of frenzy or distress, return an odd-named volume (KRESIMIR or CLOVTIER) and take another odd-named volume out in its place — always from the ‘Waybacklist’, whose books are not for sale, and whose contents (when Clay ventures to look inside) are strings of apparently random letters. Everything has to be logged in the sales ledgers, from the customer’s card number, to any random details of their appearance and demeanour.

Bored by his long night shifts, Clay brings in his laptop and idly starts building a 3D map of the shop. Spurred on by his new girlfriend, Kat Potente (who works at Google, and is thoroughly immersed in the techno-optimisim of Silicon Valley), he starts to log customers’ withdrawals — and comes up with a surprising pattern that ultimately leads him to the cult of the Unbroken Spine, an organisation devoted to decoding the final great work of Aldus Manutius, ‘one of the first publishers… right after Gutenberg’.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book with a foot planted in each of two worlds. There’s the world of new-tech, as represented by e-readers, digital books and Google (whose vast computing power is, at one point, entirely harnessed to try to decode Manutius’ work: ‘on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything…’), and there’s the other world of old-style print books, a world known to Googlers as ‘OK’:

“Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know, and have ever known.”

But it’s not a novel that comes down entirely on the side of new tech or old knowledge. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about coexistence, working together, friendship — among people and technologies. For, as Clay points out, today’s ‘OK’ is yesterday’s new tech:

“Printing… was basically the internet of its day; it was exciting. And just like the internet today, printing in the fifteenth century was all problems, all the time: How do you store the ink? How do you mix the metal? How do you mold the type? The answers changed every six months. In every great city of Europe, there were a dozen printing houses all trying to figure it out first. In Venice, the greatest of those printing houses belonged to Aldus Manutius…”

It’s a fun read, driven by an inventive mystery-quest plot and some easy-paced, zingy writing, my favourite example being this description of Kat Potente:

“She’s wearing the same red and yellow BAM! T-shirt from before, which means (a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical T-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”

I suppose it falls into the same category as Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a favourite novel of mine that I reviewed on this blog back in 2007. But Flicker takes its narrator on a quest through the history of film, and ultimately leads to him discovering a secret society on the verge of unleashing worldwide destruction. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about books — printed books and ebooks — and its secret cult, The Unbroken Spine, is no way near as dangerous as Roszak’s Oculus Dei.

Another thing that added to the book’s charm was its being set in San Francisco, a city I only visited once, briefly, for a few hours (Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park), but which has somehow come to be a far more real imaginative presence thanks to novels such as Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, and, perhaps more than any of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s films The Birds (which starts in San Francisco) and Vertigo.