Sunday, May 29, 2011


No, I'm not planning on turning my blog into a series of book reviews, but I'm finding it difficult to simply enjoy the books I'm reading without saying anything about them. I guess grad school has finally won.

I finished Brian Aldiss' The Long Afternoon of Earth (1962) this afternoon (one that I would describe as long). It didn't reach the heights of A Case of Conscience, and overall I found it disappointing. But first, the good: it has an awesome title and the novel's setting (an Earth that has become a murderous jungle, much like standard SF depictions of Venus before people found out what it was really like there) is fantastic. The ecology of that setting is worked out in such detail and complexity that it rivals (though it doesn't quite surpass) Herbert's Dune. Seriously, Aldiss does a great job of painting the world his characters inhabit. You can practically see vines and branches start to emerge from the pages of the novel.* The section of the novel that takes place in Nomansland is both terrifying and exhilarating, mainly because of the sheer variety and inventiveness of the plants that Aldiss comes up with. Of particular interest is the character of morel, an intelligent fungus with plans for world domination. The speculative or fantastic elements are entirely biological, which is a welcome respite from hard, glittering worlds of computers, spaceships, and cities. The emphasis on living things, on the ways life adapts to changing environments makes the whole novel throb and hum. There's a kind of sexiness to its focus on the violent struggle of life (a sexiness that, unfortunately, is entirely lacking in the novel's sex scenes) that is a rarity in SF. The old masters--Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein--are many things, but they aren't sexy. There is some nice and surprisingly subtle social commentary and philosophical speculation on the question of slavery and what it means to be human, as well.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems that (for me, at least) sink what is otherwise an engaging novel. It reads like a stitch up (the practice of turning independent short stories into a novel) even if it isn't one. The novel was originally serialized in five parts, but only three parts are labelled in the novel itself. The break between the second and third parts is particularly arbitrary (it would make more sense at least one chapter later than when it occurs). Similarly, the first part of the novel spends most of its time laying out details and putting in a motion a plot that--while it is finally resolved in the closing pages of the novel--acts for over two-thirds of the novel as an an annoying question mark because of its apparent disconnect from the main thrust of the story.

Indeed, not one, not two, but
three (arguably four) sets of characters are introduced, only two sets of which belong to narratives that are resolved. The vast majority of the characters seem to exist only to be killed off in elaborate set pieces that show off the danger and mystery of the world Aldiss has created. The characters the reader spends the most time with are not very compelling (the “hero” of the novel, Gren, is particularly unpleasant), and the minor characters are irritating to the point of distraction. The fate of the second set of characters--they literally walk out of view--is never resolved, or even mentioned by any other characters, though Gren is initially part of this second cast. The novel's treatment of its female character manages to be both atypical (they are not the descendants of dime novel stereotypes and film noir femme fatales that inhabit so much SF) and wildly misogynistic at the same time. Much of the energy and momentum the first half of the novel gains from its unique setting is squandered by too much time spent simply following the characters from one setting to the next in the second half (each less unique and interesting than the one before it). The ending reneges on many of the promises set up earlier in the novel in favour of a fairly conventional closing that seems to negate the character development Aldiss takes care to repeatedly emphasize leading up to the final chapters.

All in all, I have to say that I was disappointed with The Long Afternoon of Earth. It can be suitably imaginative (the first half is a minor masterpiece), but too many balls are left in the air for too long and too many questions go either unanswered or are lamely explained away for it to sustain the energy of that first half. The Long Afternoon of Earth reminds me in many ways of William Tenn's masterful Of Men and Monsters, but it lacks the black humour of that novel to pick up the slack when the action wanes, and Aldiss' Gren is less interesting than Tenn's Eric. If pressed, I would probably recommend Tenn's book over Aldiss', though it is a joy to experience the care and craft Aldiss puts into imagining his jungle earth.

*This made for an uncomfortably tense experience this afternoon as I ran along a trail in a nearby park. After several hours with Aldiss' forest, I never expected to make it back to my apartment alive.

No comments:

Post a Comment