28 days later

Jonathan Strahan sent an email a few days ago to the Locus reviewers reminding us that the deadlines for our year-end pieces (to appear in the February 2010 issue) were coming up at Christmas time, and so we should start thinking about what we wanted to discuss there. So I went back and looked at my halfway-through-the-year-novels-post, started making a list of what I’d read and liked since, and…something odd happened.

The thing is, as a reviewer, your interactions with new books tends to take a certain form. You get the book, you have to read it and write about it quite quickly, and you move on to the next one. So you don’t often get the luxury of looking back on a book from the distance of three or six months. You don’t often get the chance to say (in print, at least) “Well, after some reflection, my views have shifted…” I hear a lot of writers say that they’d like to put completed manuscripts away in a drawer for three months. It’d be nice – though obviously not practical – for the same to happen with reviews.

Example. Of the books I mentioned I liked in my half-year post, the one that has grown on me most since is China Mieville’s The City and The City. I haven’t read it again, though I did take part in an energetic discussion about it at Readercon (excerpted for the Aug 22 edition of Hour of the Wolf). The Mieville has preoccupied me not particularly because of the noir story or the writing per se but the central metaphor, and my thinking what an extraordinary, haunting, political way it is to see the cities most of us now live in.

Another example. As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m gobsmacked – as we Brits say – with admiration for Greer Gilman’s Cloud and Ashes. It’s not a book I can claim to understand anything like fully and so, as in the past, I’ll duck out of offering a full review. But individual bits of it, images or aspects of its use of language, keep coming back to me like depth-charge puns you only get three months after the fact. (The same is true of another great playing-with-language novel, Damon Knight’s Humpty Dumpty: An Oval.)

And sometimes the stuff that stays with you is just plain weird, like the cliff made of earlobes in M John Harrison’s otherwise seemingly mimetic Climbers, the description of the desert in Joanna Russ’s “Bodies”, or – perhaps my favorite piece of prose anywhere – the two pages about toothpaste tubes in Gravity’s Rainbow. Nothing really links all of these examples, except that for me (an enormously subjective measure, I know) they stick with me. I can’t even articulate any comprehensive reason why – some of them are visual images, some not; some are specific passages of description, some are more generalised ideas or concepts. I suppose the most prominent example in the field is Delany’s Dhalgren. As William Gibson says in his superb introduction to the current (Vintage) edition, it’s not a book that makes sense in any orthodox way; but if it works for you, it becomes a particular climate of the mind, a way of understanding and perceiving the world that you can’t ever forget.

So, to broaden this out a bit, what stories or books have for you the effect I’m describing? That is, regardless of how you feel about them on first reading, they wind up having a greater effect on you in the weeks and months that follow? And – fully aware that I’ve failed to answer the question myself – why do you think this might be?

2 thoughts on “28 days later

  • October 23, 2009 at 8:46 am

    Forever resonating, impossible to forget–yes, such books exist in the hindbrain where they work on us, incessantly.

    Top of head-wise, I'd say THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS. When I discussed it with Heinlein, I thought the attempt to resurrect the American revolution was the point, plus the enormous linguistic fun of transmongrified Russki-speak, was the point. (I speak Russian, so that worked maybe better than for most.)

    Not so. One of the great virtues of sf is that we can speak to the Elder Gods, usually in the bar. So Heinlein said (at his house on Bonny Doon Road), "I thought the point was that Mike used us, the humans. Got what he wanted, then vanished."

    I've not quite gotten over that moment. Or the novel itself. Been afraid to reread it, really.

    Gregory Benford

  • October 31, 2009 at 4:45 pm

    I am forever grateful to Jonathan for that reminder… and I will think about this topic. It's a good one, because I find books that I thought forgettable are still in my head years later, let alone books I liked a little or a lot.

    I'll shoot for about six. You'd hate me if I went over more. :>

    Anne Zanoni


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