Monday, 16 January 2017

The Amber Spyglass

 
Philip Pullman The Amber Spyglass (2000)
I probably shouldn't have left it so long. I read the first two of the trilogy back in 2015 and somehow just couldn't quite get around to this one. I generally dislike trilogies, or at least those comprising a single extended story split into three - as distinct from three vaguely related stories sharing either characters, settings or concepts. I generally dislike works of such length because it takes an exceptional author to sustain my interest over so distended a word count, and not many really seem able to pull it off without a degree of droop entering the equation. Michael Moorcock, David Louis Edelman and Peter F. Hamilton have all managed it, as did Stephen Baxter - although the Xeelee books were mostly self contained. C.S. Lewis didn't, and it's probably not fair to comment on Tolkien given that I was about fifteen when I stalled at the beginning of the third volume; of course there are also trilogies by Brian Aldiss and Phil Purser-Hallard, and I still have one book to go in each case.

I had no trouble getting back into His Dark Materials, even if I couldn't quite remember all of what had been before. It opens well, and I had retained enough to keep me interested and not overly bewildered, although I've still no fucking clue who those little people with the dragonflies were supposed to be. Also there seems to have been some kind of switcheroo as to who was the villain, so I read on in the assumption that both of Lyra's parents were probably arseholes, and in the assumption that Pullman had discarded the fantasy tradition of moustache-twirling evil, instead writing something which works more like real life, at least in moral terms.

Lyra travels into the realm of the dead and rescues all of the ghosts for reasons I never quite understood, and the dæmons with which everyone on her world is born seem to be a metaphor for awakening sexuality, or at least the intellectual maturity which hopefully coincides with the advent of the same; and Dust is somehow related, although it's also dark matter - so Donald Trump probably wouldn't have much Dust whilst Carl Sagan would have lived his life enveloped in a cloud of the stuff, or something like that. I don't know. I was a bit lost as to why everyone was doing whatever they were doing and what they hoped to achieve. Like I say, I probably shouldn't have left it so long.

I enjoyed the wheeled beings, but the whole enterprise got bogged down in dreary Tolkienesque battles as the end drew near, so I switched my evening reading session to Lewis Black's Nothing's Sacred for the sake of something to look forward to before I go to sleep. Despite all those sparkling images and delightful sentences, it was ultimately a relief to have finished the thing.

I'd been warned about His Dark Materials being an atheist diatribe, which would have been a problem because I dislike authors assuming their readers to be idiots, but thankfully the warning seems to have originated with someone more sensitive to such things than I apparently am. Pullman clearly doesn't think much of organised religion, and that's fine, but there's no obvious metaphors waggled in our face with the usual qualifier of don't you think this is terrible? If the book has a message, it's more or less delivered by John Parry:

'And this is the reason for all those things: your dæmon can only live its full life in the world it was born in. Elsewhere it will eventually sicken and die. We can travel, if there are openings into other worlds, but we can only live in our own. Lord Asriel's great enterprise will fail in the end for the same reason: we have to build the Republic of Heaven where we are, because for us there is no elsewhere.'

So try not to blow it whilst you're alive, because you almost certainly won't get a second chance. The narrative presents us with examples of those who blow it because they've spent too long worrying over things which don't matter - people who are, as a direct result, generally disagreeable fuckers. The tale works well enough, and it's a good point, and it's told with verve and imagination, but I'm sure it didn't really need to be as overextended as it is. So it's either good but could have been better, or I really shouldn't have left it so long.

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