I’ve just written a long screed about the title of this blog, which for the sake of people uninterested in rambling introductions and yet more angst on the subject of the 2016 presidential election I’ve broken off into a separate post. This rambling post is about the best books I read this year.
All The Birds In The Sky
I feel nervous recommending this one, not because it’s less than brilliant, but because a large part of its brilliance is tonal, and tone is so much more finely balanced on the sharp end of individual taste than other aspects of writing. I can more easily imagine this annoying people than many other things I love; and I do love it.
But whatever. Magic meets science, fantasy meets SF, dark comedy meets romance, and deep genre facility is on display throughout: pure slam-dunk storytelling, written by someone who knows pop culture inside and out. Later in the year I bought a whole anthology because it had one Charlie Jane Anders story in it.
I am going to say almost nothing about the actual stories of all the books I talk about here, by the way. I am the most spoiler-averse person alive (I will fight all comers for the title), so I’d be inclined to this approach anyway; but a disproportionate number of these are mysteries in one way or another. The less you know, etc.
The Philosopher Kings
Jo Walton’s The Just City was one of my favourite books of 2015, and therefore I was reluctant to pick the sequel up. But it does not retrospectively ruin Walton’s intellectual adventure. On the contrary. The time travelling utopian philosophers who set out to found Plato’s Republic have schismed, and now there are multiple competing versions of the Republic. The children of the incarnate god Apollo are reaching adulthood. The question of robot sentience has been resolved. If you’re not intrigued yet, this is certainly not the series you should be reading.
Walton has said that this is not a utopian story. I’m inclined to disagree, but the question is definitional, and therefore interesting primarily to… exactly the people who will most enjoy this series. In any case it’s a world I want to live in. What surprises me most about it in the abstract is simply that it isn’t dystopian; so many stories about planned communities could be subtitled “How the best of intentions collapsed into Lord of the Flies” that it almost feels like Walton is breaking the rules, as opposed to demonstrating how imaginatively bankrupt this strand of speculative fiction has become. What surprises me most about the world and the books when I consider it more closely is… everything. Walton is more able to surprise me than just about anyone I read.
I was going to make myself wait a full year for the Allen & Unwin edition of Necessity, the third and final book, but after I gave up book reviewing back in Winter (see below) I gave in to temptation and bought the American edition. If anything I like book three even more than its predecessor: a rare and precious progression in any series, and with Walton’s Small Change trilogy (a dystopian trilogy, incidentally), I liked each book significantly less than the one before it. The arc of Walton’s career has been towards better and better storytelling: she’s a voracious reader and she seems to hate repeating herself, and I can’t think of another writer who gives me such a strong sense that she’s read everything I have, most of what I haven’t, and wants to take ideas from lots of sources and then do unexpected things with them.
Also, I like the way she approaches her characters. Cruelty and greed and bad luck exist in her worlds; but there is no sense that she relishes them. I have the sense that if she heard someone using the word “gritty” in praise of a writer she’d snort with just as much irritation as I would.
I would enjoy seeing the philosophers of the Just City debate whether or not this is Francis Spufford’s first novel. (Surely that was the supposedly non-fictional Red Plenty?) In any case: this is almost a book you can judge from its first sentence. Here, taste:
The brig Henrietta having made Sandy Hook a little before the dinner hour – and having passed the Narrows about three o’clock – and then crawling to and fro, in a series of tacks infinitesimal enough to rival the calculus, across the grey sheet of the harbour of New-York – until it seemed to Mr Smith, dancing from foot to foot upon deck, that the small mound of the city waiting there would hover ahead in the November gloom in perpetuity, never growing closer, to the smirk of Greek Zeno – and the day being advanced to dusk by the time Henrietta at last lay anchored off Tietjes Slip, with the veritable gables of the city’s veritable houses divided from him only by one hundred foot of water – and the dusk moreover being as cold and damp and dim as November can afford, as if all the world were a quarto of grey paper dampened by drizzle until in danger of crumbling imminently to pap: – all this being true, the master of the brig pressed upon him the virtue of sleeping this one further night aboard, and pursuing his shore business in the morning.
Are you not captivated? Then this is probably not your book. I was instantly Spufford’s willing thrall, and I can’t quite say he treated me well, but he certainly met the implied promise of that virtuoso opening. This is historical fiction as grand opera, performative and full of mind-blowing arias for a first rate cast of soloists. (The characters: so good, so well imagined). Also, this is New York as you’ve almost certainly never imagined it.
On that “did treat me well” point: Spufford is one of the most interesting and unlikely writers alive, but he is not, as you’ll gather from The Child That Books Built or Unapologetic, in possession of the happiest of outlooks. That’s a useful thing to know; except that it might put people off reading. And really, this is such a tour de force. Take a deep breath and dive in.
Too Like The Lightning
Oh dear god, what to say. Are you fond of world building? Do you like an elaborate mystery? This is the most purely impressive thing I read all year, in the sense that it hit me like a gold-plated brick and left an impression the size of a large crater. Recovery took some time. That performative idea I reached for with Francis Spufford — with him, imagine a man of enormous talent, substantial reputation and possibly fragile self-esteem, walking onto the first-time novelists’ stage at mid-life and reaching inside for absolutely everything he has. Ada Palmer is doing the Brilliant Young Thing’s version of that, which involves less pent-up terror, but possibly even more willingness to take wild risks. When she belts out her solo, “absolutely everything she has” turns out to include so much more than the kitchen sink. (Any one of the seven new nation-state equivalents plaited together here could fuel a book on its own). Imagine the judges quivering in their chairs as she strides off-stage afterwards. “What just happened?” “I’d ask her, but she might answer”. “Tell the rest of the contestants to go home”.
So: an insanely elaborate 25th century Earth, where “insanely” means both “plausibly complex”, i.e. so, so, so much more complex than most imagined futures manage to be, and also “so very romantic, and so very full of all-the-important-people-know-each-other coincidences that the complexity is belied and nearly reduced to window dressing”. But not quite. It’s too well imagined and too well done.
Like Spufford’s book, this has a central character whose past is mysterious & kept that way for a good proportion of the story. As with Spufford’s book, this places a heavy burden on the eventual revelations, and as with Spufford’s book, they can take the weight.
The book does absolutely nothing to warn you that it’s only the first half of a two part story. This is mildly infuriating, given the number of urgent unanswered questions that are up in the air by the final page, but on the other hand, Palmer’s world is the kind I want to spend as much time in as possible.
League of Dragons
A funny thing happened on the way to Warterloo… Nine books ago, Temeraire arrived on my doorstep looking like an inane high concept fantasy potboiler: the Napoleonic Wars, but with dragons. I was thrilled. So few writers have attempted novel series about unusually competent and honorable men serving in the British military during the Napoleonic Wars, and god knows we need more people following in Anne McCaffrey’s footsteps. I read the first page because I had to and then I read the rest because I couldn’t stop, and it became a bestseller and two sequels appeared within months and Peter Jackson optioned it for film and it was huge and then everyone I know got a little bored. I understand that last part, and yet it’s always surprised me a little.
The thing is that Temeraire is the odd book out in this very long series: it’s very fast paced, it’s structured as a platonic interspecies love story, and its military action leads up to a sort of superhero origin story climax, where the thing that saves the day is that one of our protagonists turns out to have unexpected powers. It’s all very wish fulfillment. It starts the series off with a whoosh and a roar, but it also functions as a kind of false advertisement, because in the next book international politics becomes a thing, and our heroes are sent off on the first of many long journeys. Taken as a whole the nine book series is a travelogue of an alternate history, organised around military set pieces written, considering the participation of dragon-based air forces, with a startling degree ot tactical realism. In other words it’s very slow moving: lots of sitting around on ships dealing with naval etiquette, lots of slogging through deserts and appeasing or being chased by locals who refuse to understand that British imperialism is for their own good. Each book after the first introduces us to a new part of the world, in detail and at length, and the battle scenes are chess matches between players of highly differing skill using pieces with very specific abilities: not at all showcases for the day-saving special powers of our particular heroes. So it makes sense that people who loved the first book began to find the later ones rather drab after a while. And yet they’re so intelligent and well written, and their sense of what history is and how people of the Napoleonic era thought and behaved is so sophisticated.
Napoleon, especially, comes off very well here: I’ve met him half a dozen times in fiction, not counting cameos, and Novik’s version of him is my favourite. All the virtues, all the vices, vain, energetic, chivalrous, self-centered, demonstrably a genius. The ability to demonstrate the reality of genius being one of the major tests of any writer. Watching him exploit the political and military options opened up by the existence of highly sentient dragons amounts to reading a brilliant extended essay on the abilities and aims of the real historical figure, but it’s a lot more fun. I particularly enjoyed the way Novik bends her history towards ours, so that by League of Dragons, the long-awaited final book, the European war has essentially broadened out into a world war, and then concentrated back into a ruinous Russian campaign and a grand European aftermath; and yet with the plausible possibility that Napoleon might still win. Meanwhile Temeraire and Captain Lawrence, our heroes, continue to be lovely, well matched characters: intelligent and capable and utterly honorable, in two very distinct modes (avaricious dragon/nineteenth century British serviceman) which give them complementary and narrative-driving blind spots. I’ve enjoyed every book in this series (including the slow-crawl-across-the-Australian-outback one, which was where many readers jumped ship.) The finale does everything I wanted it to. So much so that I went out and bought Uprooted, Novik’s 2015 fantasy fairytale-ish novel about a girl taken from her village to serve a possibly nefarious sorcerer. Loved it. The first few chapters are rather exasperating: everything seems very heavily telegraphed and obvious. First our heroine is certain her best friend is about to be chosen as the village’s ritual sacrifice, and we know perfectly well it won’t be the best friend (or else she‘d be the narrator), and then she’s certain of something else which is even more clearly not the case. But once the book moves past these spin-your-thumbs-and-wait-for-the-unshocking-revelations bits, it’s quite beautiful: strong characters, an evil forest presence with the raw and frightening feel of a fairytale which develops into something far more complex and interesting, a wonderful magic system, and a story that goes places I didn’t expect.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
No one should read this who isn’t a Vorkosigan person. If you have no idea what a Vorkosigan person is, read Cordelia’s Honour or The Warrior’s Apprentice, or, if you want to find out with minimal time expenditure whether this very large narrative universe is for you, the novella “The Mountains of Mourning”. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen comes at the far other end of the series. It’s the thing I’ve read this year that I most purely love and that I’ll probably reread most often.
Two days before my 50th birthday I rode into Whitianga at the end of a brutally vertical day of cycle touring, pitched my tent, and found a fish and chip place. While they were making me one of the most appreciated dinners I’ve ever eaten, I began reading this for the second time. I am sufficiently invested in Bujold’s characters that I can’t much enjoy her books the first time I read them — I’m too worried about what she might decide to do and which story possibilities she might close off forever. The first read is about scouting for danger. The second is about enjoying the terrain. The memory of reading this one on that three day 50th birthday Coromandel loop tour, and especially of sitting with it in that fish and chip shop feeling relaxed and hungry, will be with me for the rest of my life.
I don’t want to say very much about this. Even the necessary warning, which is that both words in the title absolutely apply and no one needing light or levity or joy should touch this with a barge pole, feels like giving too much away. It’s a stunningly gorgeous and original graphic novel about sweet little people who live in the woods, and it’s also a long look into the abyss.
I’m so glad I read it though.
Words Are My Matter
Wildly uneven: Le Guin’s fourth non-fiction collection ranges from why-is-this-so-short-dammit to three of the best essays I’ve read in years. The extended assessment of Saramago, “the only novelist of my generation who tells me what I didn’t know… the only one I still learn from”, is assembled from several shorter reviews and book introductions; the seams are visible, but just barely, and the critical thinking is of the very highest order. As so often with Le Guin, the essay sent me off to try my luck: she’s more likely than any other writer to steer me to new writers. (Or, in Saramago’s case, back to writers I’ve previously failed with. Those long, long, unpunctuated sentences. They bugged Le Guin as well. She got over it. I am currently about a third of the way through The Cave, reading it aloud, as she suggests, and I seem to have got over it as well.)
The excellence of the Saramago piece does rather underline how frustrating many of the other reviews in the book are: most of them written for The Guardian, and therefore standard newspaper length, which is just not long enough to develop a complex line of thought. Never mind; these little windows on Le Guin’s reading life still have their interest. And then you get the essay on architecture as a vehicle for moral ideas, “Living In A Work Of Art”, one of the most autobiographical things Le Guin has ever written and also one of the most beautiful and interesting. And a brief writer’s journal, full of little diary jottings and observations and entirely delightful. And an essay on meaning in fiction which actually manages to say things on this tired old subject which I’d never encountered before. There are no bad Le Guin books.
Some Luck, Early Warning, Golden Age
This was the great central reading experience of my year. Central in that I read all three of these books through late Autumn and Winter; in that I lived inside it for several months, so that even when I was doing other completely absorbing things the real center of my life was in some sense off where Smiley’s characters were; and in that it functioned as a hinge moment. These were not the first really good books I read this year, but they were the ones that created such a large and complicated world that I couldn’t live in it and still have time to do regular book review reading. I put off my compulsory reading, then I did it resentfully, and then I looked at how little I was enjoying it and sat down and made a list of all the really good books I’d found through reviewing in the last two years that I wouldn’t have read anyway. Then I gave up book reviewing, which left me the time to read a lot more Jane Smiley after I finished the trilogy.
I think Smiley and Hilary Mantel may be the most intelligent novelists I’m currently following, at least in a certain narrow sense — Ursula Le Guin has a broader and deeper intellectual scope, and Kim Stanley Robinson is more inclined to sit down and apply focused analytical thinking to large problems and work the results into fiction in a way that causes my thinking to expand. But in terms of the fluidity and complexity of the mental construsts they seem able to run — psychological, narrative, economic, historical — Smiley and Mantel are just the cleverest people I read. (I think Eleanor Catton has an equally powerful mind, but she’s a couple of decades younger than I am, whereas Smiley and Mantel are older; the wunderkind who leaves you in awe and the elders who leave you in their dust are different phenomena. Or try this metaphor: Catton has much better eyesight than I do, but she’s standing lower down the mountain.)
The specific thing that got me thinking of how similar Smiley and Mantel are is actually one of the major differences between them, and the one major thing I disliked about Smiley’s trilogy. I’m saying “disliked” rather than “dislike”, because I’ve argued this through with one of my sons, who sees a feature here where I saw a bug, and now I’m not sure what I think. The trilogy follows a single American family from the year 1920 to the year 2020, a span Smiley chose because she sees World War One as the calamity that ended the 19th century. She finished the third book I think in 2014; certainly not later than 2015. The last five years of the trilogy therefore occur in an alternate history to ours. This initially read to me as a major defect. Part of the astonishing richness of what Smiley does with her exponentially expanding cast — a young farming couple and their baby son, in 1920, a large clan spread across the continent, in 2020 — is how they do and don’t bounce off the century’s larger and smaller historical milestones. It’s a story about a family, and a story about families, and a story about America, and a story about what history is, and a story about the twentieth century. Every chapter covers one year. This is the sort of idea any writer could have and most sensible writers would know better than to attempt to use. Smiley steps onto her greased high wire and walks briskly across, doing occasional cartwheels.
But those last five years. Oh, they did annoy me. They are palpably science fictional. This is not a pejorative in my normal usage, but it becomes one when 95 chapters of more-or-less realism are capped in a quite different mode. Perhaps — this is my son’s argument — it shouldn’t; perhaps the ways in which Smiley allows herself to compress decades of environmental and economic collapse into a very short span give those chapters a necessary weight. My sense was that they impose a sense of resolution and conclusion onto a story which doesn’t naturally incline towards having one; a century is an artificial construct, and there’s too much human complexity in Smiley’s characters and in her understanding of history for the story to bend easily to the decimal system. I have felt this with a lot of Smiley’s books: she is so very good at capturing the processes of consciousness and the feeling of living in different people’s heads, moment to moment and day to day, but she isn’t equally good at structure. I think this may be why she’s so given to using artificially constraining forms: rewrite King Lear, write a book about a year in the life of a university, write a book following two years of the American horse racing calendar. She knows that endings aren’t her strength, so she writes to a pre-set limit and stops.
I’ve felt something related with Mantel: not that she can’t do form, but that she’s so subtle and fluid that she benefits from constraint. I find that her historical fiction works much, much better for me than her contemporary fiction, and I think the reason is that her characters are so complicated they have no discernible inner compass. They can do anything at any point. When Mantel is free to steer them wherever she likes, I experience her stories as random, as though she were plotting them by throwing the i ching. When she works within the events of history, her ability to justify any move any character happens to make becomes a crowning strength. So her Thomas Cromwell trilogy and Smiley’s 100 Years trilogy are in a sense very similar: three book masterworks created by great novelists working within a tight historical framework. The key difference between them is a process difference. Smiley wrote her books one a year, bang bang bang. Mantel spent years on her first two books and has already spent even more years on the third, partly because she took time off to write the BBC adaptation, and partly because, as she’s said many times to all of us who keep on asking, she’d rather keep us waiting than rush to the ending when she isn’t quite sure yet of the route.
I wish Smiley had made us wait. It would have been a long wait, because what I’m envisioning is that she’d have let the years from 2015 to 2020 play out, and then used their events as grist to her mill, as she did with the previous ninety five. It would have been some compensation for the Syrian crisis, Brexit and Trump to have seen her characters deal with them, the way we’re having to.
But on the other hand, two things. One: Smiley is a process person. She works to a rhythm, which is how she wrote these astonishing books so quickly, and why by the year 2020 she’s likely to have written more. Mantel’s achievement will perhaps end up being the greater; but Smiley is going to end her life having written more books. At her level of accomplishment, saying “Could you slow down a bit and make them better?” seems a failure of perception.
And two: my son’s point. The chapters covering 2015 to 2020 may not, in the long run, end up seeming the formal blemish I saw them as on my first reading. Their presentiment of a coming American economic and ecological catastrophe may be the necessary ending that allows this trilogy to speak to what the Trump years — so unforseeable even a year ago — are going to mean.
I have found in the last ten days that I avoid saying or writing the name of America’s new president, possibly in the same way that I would avoid putting weight on a broken limb; though it may be more like the way I used to avoid looking in the dark corner where the monster might be hiding, when I was six years old. I could say that I’m just tired of our new monster, or that I know that attention is the thing he wants above all else and it’s a small thing I can deny him. Really I’m in a state of violent recoil.
I was at a book launch yesterday. The introductory speaker, a librarian, spoke about the capacity of books to place us inside other points of view. She mentioned the US election, the terrible divisiveness of it. I’ve seen a few people in my particular cultural foxhole — the horrified book person foxhole — make this point lately. Stated more bluntly than people tend to state it, it would go, “Books promote empathy, empathy promotes understanding, understanding will help us save the world from Him We Must Not Name”.
I don’t know about this. Consider the analytical-thinking equivalent of empathy, the capacity to see complexity. This is valuable to me partly because it can lead to the capacity to be indecisive. Indecisiveness is something that frequently plagues me; to some degree talking up its virtues is like insisting that a deforming birthmark is in fact a beauty spot. But I do happen to believe that false certainty is the root of a large fraction of our species’s problems. It isn’t just that the American right live inside their own carefully curated consensual reality that makes them dangerous. It’s how fervently they insist on their reality. It’s their lack of capacity for self-doubt. On the other hand, people who don’t doubt themselves can get an awful lot done. The ability to see all seventeen sides of a question may turn out to be the thing that stops my people from stopping the people who think in bumper sticker slogans from trashing the planet. (For the joint purposes of this blog and of my ego, “my people” shall refer to people who find the world interesting and do their best to understand it.)
In the same way, the capacity for empathy may be strongly correlated with the inability to be ruthless when faced with ruthlessness. Again, I’m not sure about this; it’s a complicated question. (You see what I mean.) When people talk about the importance of books, and especially of good fiction, in promoting empathy, there’s an implied claim that empathy is in some way going to help us face the things we now seem to need to face. In certain very narrow tactical senses, that’s possibly true. (The writer Joe Klein gives a nice account of the way Bill Clinton, backed into a political corner by Newt Gingrich’s domination of the US congress after the 1994 elections, came to understand Gingrich’s surprising degree of emotional neediness, and used it to wrong-foot him and gradually regain the upper hand.) In a larger sense, empathy and understanding will save us only if we can teach them to people who have no interest in being taught. They were the right solutions a generation ago, when today’s radical right and blinkered swing voters were learning to see the world; if we can manage to teach them to those people’s children, we’ll be glad of it in a few decades. But for us now, they won’t solve much. They’re not superpowers. They’re merely the fundamental values that give our lives meaning.
It’s good to embrace complexity and refuse the jihadi mindset and see the other point of view. I suspect these qualities are going to matter less in the short term than a willingness to fight like dogs, stand up for our neighbours, and call bullshit in loud don’t-fuck-with-me voices. Even here, in New Zealand, where you might think that the only true danger Trump poses is the little matter of our species possibly going extinct after we miss our very last late chance to stave off the worst effects of climate change.
That sounds so alarmist. Don’t you get bored and annoyed when people reach for hyperbole, in this age of permanent mandatory outrage? But it isn’t hyperbole, it’s just the nastiest of the range of possible outcomes of a process too complex for us to make firm predictions. I choose to believe it won’t happen, because despair is paralysing and also a form of self-indulgence; the problem with this noble stance of positivity is that it slides so easily into complacent idling. I choose to believe it won’t happen: so I am living in a reality where it won’t happen: so no problem. I also chose to believe we wouldn’t elect Seriously I’m Not Naming Him.
This was actually meant to be a post about books, not about politics and the possibility that America’s new president will be every bit as bad as he’s promised us he will be. I began writing it in July, having been aware for a while that despite my best intentions I was letting this blog die on the vine. I’ve been offered more interesting writing jobs this year than I’d anticipated, which is one of several ways in which my private 2016 has been much more positive than the calamitous public 2016 it’s embedded in.
However. A second good thing to happen to me this year: I had a revelation in the wake of the Auckland Writer’s Festival, in May. After twenty years of reading mostly to deadlines, I found myself looking at all the books I’d bought at AWF, and I realised I wanted the freedom to read them whenever I wanted. I also wanted to read all of Jane Smiley. And reread all of Ursula Le Guin, in chronological order. I abruptly discovered that I wanted to read whatever I liked, for the whole rest of my life, like normal people do. So I decided to stop writing book reviews. In the time I’ve been contributing to the books pages of various New Zealand magazines and newspapers, the space devoted to reviews has gone down substantially, and so have review fees. This is partly to do with corporate consolidation and partly to do with digital disruption, and there are various arguments about what it does or doesn’t mean for our literary culture; what it means for me personally is that giving up regular book reviewing was an extremely affordable decision. I count this as unusual good luck. I’ve seen any number of people get trapped in occupations they no longer love by awkward financial reality.
So it happened that by midyear, when I actually began writing this post, I had a long list of good books I hadn’t written about. I decided I would do a midwinter books blog. I wrote down the list of titles. Then something distracted me for half a minute and the New Zealand International Film Festival broke over me like a tidal wave, and a month later I found myself gasping on the beach surrounded by angrily quacking deadlines. The blog has been parked until now, when it occurred to me that a tiny positive thing I felt like doing in the wake of the election was steer people towards some really good books.
I am going to make that list of books — which by now is now more or less my Best Of 2016 books post, doesn’t time fly — its own separate post, because possibly, who knows, people might like the option of reading it without wading through pages of election maunderings first; I’ll link to it at the bottom of this. But I’m still thinking about how people keep telling me that books are good because they promote empathy and understanding — the bumper sticker would read, “We need empathy, read more books!” — and about the fact that for the last two weeks I’ve only just been able to think about the election and the four years we’ve got coming to us. I wasn’t kidding about not wanting to say the bastard’s name. I really do not want to go there.
I will of course get over that. We have to go there. No way out that doesn’t go through. But while some of the books I’m going to write about do happen to offer some very good tools for thinking about the world we now find ourselves in, that really isn’t why I’m writing about them now. Truthfully, I’m turning to books at the moment for one of their other important functions. Nothing wrong with escapism, as my beloved C.S. Lewis famously once said: if someone accuses you of reading for escape, remind yourself that people opposed to escape are known as jailers.
It’s nearly summer in New Zealand right now. But it’s cold outside. Here are my books of midwinter.
Hello. I am a recovering arts journalist. For a lot of the last 20 years I was putting most of my time into parenting. (This is not a parenting blog. See my possibly-never-to-be-written post, “Bragging, Complaining, and Letting Your Friends Know Your Choices So They Can Worry About Their Own: Why Writing About My Children Makes Me Queasy”). This began when Said Children were pre-verbal, and, brief break from the not-talking-about-children policy follows, being at home 24/7 with human beings you adore but who can’t talk to you in words of more than one gurgle will drive anyone mad quite quickly.
So I started writing book reviews for local papers, and this grew into a substantial hobby, and ultimately into about 2/3 of a career, by which I mean that arts journalism of various types began to take up most of my spare time, and then quite a lot of my parenting time (we home schooled; I’d take the children with me to shows or to meet people I was interviewing, it was a whole thing) – but without ever paying what you might call a commensurate percentage of the bills.
For a long time this was fine and more than fine. I had a supportive co-parent and the money worked out, in the sense of there always being just fractionally more than we needed. The writing was fun, the films and books and concerts were wonderful, and the chances to talk to people I admired – writers, mostly – was a great gift.
My children are now grown, and looking around for opportunities to extend my 2/3 career into the real thing, I find that journalism – who knew? – is somewhat in a state of crisis, especially in my tiny little country with its tiny little economy. I’m a New Zealander, which is a wonderful thing to be. New Zealanders like to append phrases starting with “but…” to this sentence. I think it’s our British heritage: the silver lining must always be seen to have a cloud, or you’d be tempting fate. In my case, the cloud is that I can’t earn enough money doing the work that I’ve been putting most of my time into lately. So while I shall still be writing for Metro and ARTicle and The Spinoff and various others, I am expecting to make more of my living doing other things in the future, and I am expecting to do more of my writing about writers and films and books and music and the infinite etcetera here on this blog. (WHERE NO ONE CAN EDIT ME). (Only journalists will understand how attractive this is.)
Most of the posts on here at the moment are older bits of work I did for various local publications on the basis that it was work I wanted to do, they needed copy for their own blogs, and they didn’t have a budget for this so they didn’t pay me. This is how most arts-related online-only journalism functions in this country. (See “can’t earn enough money to make a living.”) My new policy is not to write for anyone else unless they pay me: radical indeed. Unpaid writing will go here. This is the plan. Will I end up doing any unpaid writing? One other reason I got into journalism is a tendency to finish things only when someone hands me a deadline; but we shall see.
Meanwhile, here are a few links to things I was in fact paid to do!
This is an extended interview with Kim Stanley Robinson, conducted just after his novel 2312 was published in mid-2012. He spoke to me by phone from his home in California. The conversation ranged over Robinson’s career to that date; I’ve inserted a few notes where comments about one or another of his books did not seem self-explanatory. There are a few minor plot spoilers for a number of the novels. For anyone wondering where to start reading Robinson, 2312 is a good entry point, or Red Mars if you want something epic in scale. I discovered him through his short fiction myself, which you can sample in The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson, available here in book or ebook form. A short article based on this interview appeared in the New Zealand Listener.
I finished 2312 yesterday, so it’s somewhat freshly in my mind. Could I start by asking you about pseudo-iteration. And specifically, to begin with, by asking you about pseudo-iteration and Frank. Frank?
Yeah… Frank Chalmers – Oh you mean the way the name keeps coming up?
Not just the name. If not the person then the persona, if you know what I mean.[Interviewer’s note: Pseudo-iteration is the term used by Wahram, one of the two principle characters of 2312, for the way patterns continually repeat in a structured life, but with endless variation. Frank Chalmers, one of the central characters of Red Mars, is in significant ways very similar to Frank Vanderwal, one of the central characters of the Science in the Capital trilogy; and also to Frank Churchill, of the short story “A History of the Twentieth Century, With Illustrations”. And, though I’d forgotten this when I asked KSR this question, to Frank January, of the story “The Lucky Strike”.] Yes… well the iterative and the pseudo-iterative I got out of Gerard Genette, French structuralist, whose main book was translated into English under the title Narrative Discourse, in which he explained everything that novels can do using just Proust’s novel for all his examples. It’s a funny joke, because Proust’s novel is so strange in so many ways, and yet it has examples for every point Genette wanted to make, many of which had to do with chronology. Genette’s structuralist point of view was much more useful to me as a writer than the Anglo New Criticism angles. So I’ve used him all along.
When did you first read him? I read Narrative Discourse first in the late 1970s, and have reread it several times. The pseudo-iterative is just one of many useful concepts in the book, but the one I have used the most. It addresses a big problem for the novelist, which is to to describe daily life and the whole texture of life instead of just adventures where unusual things happen. If you want to describe daily life, you need to find some intelligible or interesting or hopefully exciting ways to write about it, to avoid just doing summarisation. Genette talks about the strange tenses and moods in French that Proust took advantage of, in which sentences often start with “he would…” or “in those days they would…”, implying these were repeated actions, but the descriptions would quickly become so specific, in the usual Proustian way, that they had to be understood as standing for many other incidents that would be more or less like it, but not quite the same. I used that mode a lot in the Mars books, and often elsewhere when I’m describing stretches of time or lived experience, as in The Years of Rice and Salt or Galileo’s Dream. It isn’t quite summary or dramatisation, but is something of both.
The concept of the pseudo-iterative is something I also find to be useful in my life. I am a creature of habit, I like the elements of my daily life to repeat with only small variations, which I enjoy performing. You know, sort of same but different.
Yeah, I kind of sensed that Wahram was the character in 2312 who’s closest to you personally, would that be fair? No, only to the extent they all are. Certainly I can relate to many things he was thinking, but he also was an attempt to come to grips with someone quite unlike me. I think I’ve got just as much of Swan in me, to tell you the truth.
Really? Yeah, sure.
There’s quite a lot of Saturnian characters, so to speak, in your fiction, though, and I tend to locate your point of view more strongly with them. There’s an optimism and a solidity to them, which seems more in line with the overall mood of your work. And also with the the on-going project of successfully producing novels – I mean Swan keeps on producing art, broadly defined, but I can’t imagine her keeping on doing the same thing again and again and again to the extent that you have in your career. Whereas with Wahram, I can imagine that. Yeah. That’s probably right. But I feel fairly labile and variable in my own mental life; I find it very easy to inhabit these different characters. And Wahram in particular is somewhat of an attempt to cast myself into the mind of someone with an equanimity, you might say, that I don’t have myself. I’m often doing that, trying to imagine various others. Ultimately these characters come out of myself, but I’m also watching the people around me and trying to cast myself into the different mindsets of the people I see. And I feel a bit chaotic in my own interior life, so that these phlegmatic or steadfast characters, that’s not exactly my self-experience! [laughs]
Well I wanted to ask actually, in terms of Michel’s system of the four humours, where would you place yourself? [Interviewer’s note: Michel Duval, a psychologist in Red Mars, uses structuralist semantic analysis to combine two personality oppositions that have proved robust in many psychological studies – labile/stabile and extrovert/introvert – to produce a new theoretical underpinning for the pre-modern personality sorting system, the four humours.] I think I would place myself as sanguine, but I look at that quadrant figure and think maybe everybody who is dominantly one thing has the reverse as well, like a coin, so that the sanguine person would be melancholy underneath all that, and feel biochemically lucky not to be melancholy, since the world seems to provide a lot of ammunition for melancholic reflections. But mainly I’m sanguine. But I do think the quadrant might have that double aspect to it.
Would a melancholic person really have a sanguine side? That surely isn’t a good description of Ann Claybourne, who must be your most melancholic character. Well, but many melancholy people forge on very steadfastly in the world, it’s a kind of courage. Their sanguine underside, so to speak. Ann is a good example of what I’m trying to express, yes.
To rerturn to the idea of pseudo-iteration, when Wahram is contemplating marrying Swan, he reflects “Experience has taught all it is going to teach, more experience will be a reiteration, yet nothing ever repeats. Feel that and go on”. How does that relate to the experience of being a mature novelist, with a large body of work behind you, trying to create something which extends that body of work but at the same time is new? How do you establish reiteration as a novelist? What I think it really comes down to is simply the ideas, the ideas for the novels demanding new forms and characters and sentences. That’s where you get new variations even within the form. And the novel is very flexible in that sense. Naturally I fall into my habits, and my characteristic modes of attack on the various problems, so I don’t think I come up with novels that look wildly different from each other, but they feel pretty different while I’m working on them.
They feel pretty differently on the inside too; while obviously, they’re your novels, you couldn’t mistake any of them for someone else’s writing. I guess the last two [Galileo’s Dream and 2312] have felt more strongly connected to your greater body of work than some have, in the ways they tie back into the Mars books, and also tie those books back even more into the earlier science fiction, The Memory of Whiteness in particular. Yeah, that’s right I think. Galileo made a huge difference to me. It was Galileo himself, and also the fact that I moved my writing outdoors. I work only in my front courtyard, with a Japanese maple overhead to give me shade so I can see my laptop. The climate here is the back end of a Mediterranean climate, a little too cold in winter and a little too hot in summer, but I put a tarp overhead when it rains, and write outside no matter what the weather is. It’s quite a beautiful experience. There’s the birds, the clouds, the weather, and facing up to the cold if it’s cold.
And Galileo was such a tenacious stubborn worker, a grinder. Writing about him I came to admire the old man so much, I thought well, I can grind out a few more novels without complaining about it. And the material was just gold for a novelist, Galileo was a beautiful character. So that book brought me back to enjoying the process, and 2312 is a continuation of that. I felt like I had a good idea, and I had a very helpful push from my editor, Tim Holman at Orbit. He was really supportive of the Dos Passos format.
What was the book looking like before his input, in what ways did he encourage you? He encouraged me to portray the whole society that Swan and Wahram lived in, to go big. It was a challenge, and I kind of groaned, but the more I thought about it the more I thought, he’s right. This is an obvious opportunity, and the love story won’t work unless it’s in a credible society anyway, and so you get the social aspect as well as the personal aspect of the novel, and the more I thought about it the more excited I got.
How did you arrive at the idea of using the intertextual extracts and lists the way you do? – because that really expands the book. It was a bit of an accident. A small press here in America, Centipede Press, was reprinting John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up, and I was asked to write the introductions. I said yes and went back and looked at his books, and saw again that his formats came from John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy, but I had never actually read the USA trilogy. So I did, and it boggled me. I think it’s equal or better than the novels of the greats of American twentieth century literature, Hemingway, Falkner, Fitzgerald and the rest. It is a great novel.
I don’t know it at all. Very few people do. It’s not in the canon. He was a leftist in the 30s and a rightist in the 50s, so he was absolutely backward to the American literary-political zeitgeist in both decades. In the Fifties Dos Passos was like Arthur Koestler, he turned hard against the left and became a cranky old right-winger, and this damaged his literary reputation.
Anyway, his USA trilogy invented the format I used, and it’s quite powerful. There is a stream of consciousness strand, and prose poems that describe prominent Americans, which are tremendous pocket biographies; then also newspaper clippings, either true or invented, all of them examples of American weirdness. These sections alternate with more typical scenes that follow characters who keep changing, and the characters all pinball around, and only in the third volume do they strand together, in quite a clever way, in terms of plots impinging on each other. But the way the characters bounce around, out of control of their lives, is something I tried to mimic a little in the Kiran chapters of 2312.
Yeah, that’s fun. It also approaches being a weakness in the book, in that Kirin only just escapes feeling like a plot mechanism wandering at large. Events always sweep him exactly where your larger structure needs him to be. Because Swan and Wahram are allowed much larger internal realities, the fact that they also go where the story needs them to be doesn’t feel contrived. They’re driving the book, the book’s not driving them. That’s true. Still I’m glad Kiran is there, I think his story is a good angle on Venus, and it’s a relief from the interiority of both Swan and Wahram. I think readers need variety in pacing. Every chapter should not confront you with the same pace and the same mood, there should be some flux and heterogeneity.
Yeah. And in fact, Kiran works fine. Would you consider a book in which he’s the principle character, or one of two principle characters? No, I’m done with 2312. I like the idea that a novel encapsulates an entire story world. The feeling that there are possible sequels or loose ends is a good feeling for a reader to have, but not something one should actually try to satisfy.
You still haven’t told me about Frank. By my count you have three of him – Right. – I may have missed one… when did you decide to do that? How conscious – no, it must have been extremely conscious. Why did you do that? Well let’s see. [laughs] My explanation may cause you to groan, but what it comes down to is that all of my liars are called Frank.
[Laughter in quite large quantities; interviewer had been gnawing on this question for years, and did not see this answer coming] That’s too good. It started with the first one, with Frank January from “The Lucky Strike,” Janus being two-faced. I like to be kind of Dickensian with character names. The Mars trilogy in particular is filled with meaningful names. And so, when I realised that Frank ought to be named Frank in the Mars books, being also very duplicitous, I had the pattern, and it was easy to name Frank Vanderwal in the climate trilogy, because he too is two-faced.
Trilogies. You’ve done three. So a trilogy of trilogies. Did you do that as a kind of conscious completion of the meta-form? No, it was basically just an accident. The first one I always thought of as being some kind of triptych, and not really a trilogy anyway. Interviewer’s note: The Wild Shore, The Gold Coast and Pacific Edge offer three different near-future Californias, linked together by the presence of an old man called Tom, who seems to have been a boy or a young man when the three time lines diverged.
It’s interestingly similar to the situation with Frank, in that you’ve got the three Toms – I mean the one Tom who exfoliates in three ways – I wondered when there were three Franks if that was in some sense a continuation of that idea. [This was a better theory before interviewer noticed there are at least four Franks]. Maybe a case could be made for that subconsciously, but for me those exist in different departments. I always knew that Tom would be in the first three books, he was the structural element being repeated and having different lives. I felt that was a new structure, the triangular structure of the California books. Then the Mars book was intended to be one novel, the climate trilogy was intended to be one novel. So I think of them as Victorian triple deckers, but of course I guess that’s what a trilogy is anyway.
Kind of, yeah. So essentially I’ve done two very long novels, and another quite long novel in The Years of Rice and Salt, though I did try to compress things there. 2312 is another attempt at compression – hoping for the same amount of information, but squishing it down.
I think it’s a more successful attempt than The Years of Rice and Salt. 2312 has the advantage that there are all those links to your wider body of work, so you don’t need to fit as much in. The entire history of the Mars books is grandfathered in, for one thing. At the point where Swan looks down on Mars and someone comments “I hear it’s an interesting place”, that’s a very nice line. So consciously resonant. I thought that would be the only time we’d touch on Mars in the whole book, it’s such a nice little glance. Although it’s lovely to end there as well, in that same John Boone crater – Thank you for that. I thought 2312 would never go to Mars, so it was my little joke, to wave at it while passing by. And I really am done with Mars. So it was a late decision to make it the place of weddings, and to tie it back into the book. It struck me as a little surprise at the end, a last little poke. Surprises are good, and so I was pleased, but that was a very late decision.
Ha! Oh, that’s very nice to know, actually. That changes the reading experience interestingly, because I imagined, with that line of Swan’s, that I was being told to expect no more glimpses of Mars, and then at the end I felt double-bluffed… speaking of the Mars books – another repeated pattern. Pauline was John Boone’s AI. Now Swan has one with the same name. Yeah. This is English major stuff, the explanation for Pauline. That was Robert Browning’s first poem, an imitation of Shelley, a poem about a tortured young poet with an ideal, basically a rewrite of Shelley’s “Alastor”. A Memory of Whiteness is another rewrite of this early poem of Shelley’s. But Browning turned against his poem, he actually bought up copies of “Pauline” and burned them, and tried to suppress the memory of it, and he largely succeeded, although of course he didn’t get all the copies, and people interested in Browning have more of an interest in “Pauline” rather than less. It’s not a very good poem, but it’s an homage to Shelley by a 20-year old, very unlike the mature Browning. I was interested in this when I was doing anxiety of influence studies amongst the British poets, a project in graduate school, and I liked both Shelley and Browning. It’s funny, when you’re young it’s all Shelley and Keats, and as you get older suddenly Byron looks so much funnier, and wiser too. I thought Byron was a cynical old bastard when I was 20, and now there’s nobody funnier. Anyway, that’s why all of my AIs are named Pauline: she was the guiding spirit for the young poet in the Browning poem, a kind of Ariel figure, and thus somewhat like my personal assistant AIs.
I’ll ask you about another echo. Different sort. Wahram thinks of Swan as Diana on the hunt, when they’re following the caribou they’ve just reintroduced to Earth. Now earlier on, immediately after the reanimation, she thinks of herself using the exact same words. It’s just a passing metaphor when it goes through her mind, but when he uses the same phrase it becomes codified. Which has an odd effect. It’s like this similar line of thinking is threading itself through two characters. It’s not particularly implausible that they should have the exact same thought; but you do this in a number of contexts, in a number of books – allow the same phrase to thread from character to character as though they’re all in some sense inhabiting the same mind; which of course they are. How consciously do you do that? I often do that very consciously. In the attempt to make novels beautiful objects, like vases, there’s a shapeliness that is invisible and has to be intuited or felt. I have a tremendous joy in stone work, by the way, because I can finally see the patterns and touch them. Anyway, in terms of creating beauty in a novel, these repeated phrases have an effect, I hope, and I also like to alter them slightly, in the manner of a villanelle. Often it’ll take the full two years of work to have these ideas come to fruition. For instance, in the Galileo book there’s this phrase “the tumble of days” which recurs several times, and in the last page I realised I could change tumble to tumbrel, because Cartophilus was in the French revolution going off to the guillotine. That was very satisfying, a sweet twist, although actually Bantam thought I had made a mistake, and thus misprinted it as tumble, and I had to get it corrected. But it was a nice needle poke out of that repetition. I have no idea if people notice these things, but I do think they have an effect. You read the novel and you feel there’s something going on. It doesn’t have to be a conscious perception to have an effect.
The phrase “horizontal brothers and sisters”, used to describe animals during the reanimation – I’m not entirely sure I like it. Is it yours, did it come from somewhere? My problem with it is that not all animals are quadrupeds, so it doesn’t quite work for me literally, and all siblings are horizontal in terms of a family tree schematic, so there’s no distinction there between animal brothers and sisters and human brothers and sisters – so I’m not quite sure what work the phrase is doing. That’s an interesting point. The phrase comes from John Muir, the California nature writer.
Yeah yeah. He’s in your story “Muir on Shasta”.
Yeah. Muir is an important figure in my life, because of the Sierra connection. And I liked the phrase when I ran across it, because he was trying to get people out of that Victorian or Biblical mindset that the beasts of the field are there to be our servants. So as a first statement of wildlife preservation I’ve always liked it. Muir left the church, but he shifted his religious feelings over to the high Sierra. I have a lot of sympathy for that, and his phrasing is often quite good; but you know, no phrase will serve entirely with something as big as that.
You must have some idea how your language effects readers – if nothing else you must discuss them intensely with people who read them as you’re writing them. And you must get feedback once they’re published. Not at that level of fineness. While I’m writing them nobody else is reading them, so they don’t get discussed. I don’t want to show them to anybody til they’re done. And after they come out, the discussions are not usually at that level of fineness. Although I have to say, the academic discussions have gotten tremendously stronger. During the course of my career it’s gone from nearly nothing to nearly more than I can keep track of. I read essays about my work now that boggle my mind. They teach me things I didn’t know.
How does that change your thinking about your work? Are you pleased, displeased, neither in particular, that you haven’t been getting that kind of feedback for the entire length of your career? Would it have changed your career? I presume it would, because it is audience response, and it is an interactive process. It’s one of those hypotheticals I can’t really track, and I’m glad I don’t have to. But mainly I am pleased. Ever since Red Mars I’ve felt that the people who find me are the ones who are meant to find me. I had a transformative experience in the writing of the Mars books – for whatever reason, they gave me a way to do everything that I wanted to do. There was enough room in them to try all the things I wanted to try. I threw off certain mental restraints and decided to do anything it took to get that story told, including looking slow, looking cumbersome, the various complaints people have about the Mars books – I think they manage to overwhelm these problems of hugeness or monstrosity.
Oh they’re not huge or monstrous. Well good, thank you! Although they are in a way. They test the Plimsoll Line.
No, but there can be no argument about that, surely. As you say they’re one great novel, and the scale of them and the things you take on, and the various problems you’re solving simultaneously – I won’t hear words said against the Mars books. Well thank you for that. I’m proud of them, I think they hold up, I can actually go back and read them as if I’m just a reader myself, because they’re so big and so far in my past that I don’t remember them, so I can read them. And I’m glad I don’t have that project before me now. God knows what I would do with it. Now I have this urge to cut to the chase. I might not be as patient as I was when I was writing the Mars books. And they needed that patience, that was right for them.
To what extent – very possibly to no extent at all – is your Accelerando future an act of advocacy? To what extent could it happen, to what extent would you like it to happen? That’s a good question, because I don’t know if it could happen or not. One of the things 2312 is is a question. Could we both wreck the earth, and have a rather active space civilisation at the same time? Could the earth be thoroughly wrecked, and yet also be flourishing in certain limited respects? I don’t know the answer to those questions. They’re proposals that I’ve put out there, saying could it be this way? Whether it’s physically possible or not I’m not quite sure. I have this double feeling, that the sciences are making us immensely powerful, so that the potential for a flourishing future civilisation a few hundred years from now is really quite realistic, and yet at the same time we’re in this dangerous moment, where we’re thrashing the environment and we have climate change, and it’s quite clear that politically the system is being manipulated by certain people who want to keep the destruction going, because they’re not convinced that it is destructive, or they don’t care because they don’t think it’ll apply to them or their families. So they’re going to be hard to beat, even in the best scenarios, because they have amassed a lot of money and political power resulting from money. So in 2312 I’m contemplating a future that seems to include environmental disasters like the raised sea levels, not at all unrealistic to postulate, and yet at the same time have things flourishing, because of materials science, because of medicine, because of all of the things that we’re learning. The ways we can manipulate nature and biology are becoming rather stupendous with potential. 2312 is an attempt to splash all that into one story. It’s a distorted lens aimed at 2012, at where we are right now. Science fiction always works like that, 2312 is not a particularly special case. Science fiction is a way of talking about right now by way of strange forms of metaphor, that have to do with temporal dislocation and cognitive estrangement, etc.
Specifically though, would you like to see us colonise Mars? Could we, should we? I think we should, but I also think that for a very long time it’ll be like what we’ve done in Antarctica. So you can’t really talk about colonising it so much as having some scientific stations there. Mars could be more like Antarctica than the New World, or Australia; not colonisation or full inhabitation, but scientific stations in a very bleak place. Interesting as such, and useful. We’ll get important information out of it, and we’ll get a sense of adventurousness and beauty, but it isn’t at all central to the human story. I think we ought to do that on Mars as soon as we can.
The terraforming project is a different order of business, on a different time scale. You have to postulate a healthy earth, a healthy human civilisation, expansive and powerful and not screwed up. So it’s kind of a utopian wish. But yeah, sure, we should terraform Mars, and make it a second Earth. And if we do that we will have done a great thing, because we will be in a somehow healthy situation on Earth itself.
I’m intrigued to know that you’ve done time as a house husband. Because so have I, and the scenes in the Capital trilogy where Charlie is trying to keep his working life afloat while looking after Joe – it’s authentic, anyone who’s been there can tell it’s either researched very well or written from personal experience. Life with primary charge of a young child while you’re trying to get things done – there’s nothing quite like it. Yeah. It was a blessing in my life. I was taken by surprise… I mean by the time we had kids I was 37 and had my habits all in place, and so it was kind of a revolution – to become servant of this little inarticulate god, etc. Also, they don’t teach male writers in America about child rearing, the model is always Hemingway or Kerouac, it’s pretty much alcoholic solitary adventure; family life just doesn’t come into it, and nor do portraits of young kids. So as I lived it, I began to realise, not only was I getting a lot of joy out of it, in terms of the day to day, but also it was material for more fiction, where once again I could write out of my life, rather than out of books. Because I have a horror of writing only out of previous books, out of one’s book knowledge.
That’s the great problem with the professionalisation of writing. Yes. And I am not outside that problem, because once I gave up teaching, which was an awfully long time ago, I haven’t done anything but write either. But I have parented, and I have wandered in the mountains. And I’ve worked a garden. So the things I’ve done myself I’m desperate to find ways to write about. That’s a real driver for me.
James Joyce says to you, in the introduction to The Planet on the Table story collection, that you must solve the aesthetic problems of your time – it’s a resonant phrase. What have you perceived those problems as being?(Interview’s note: KSR’s conversation with Joyce is only to be found in the first edition of Planet on the Table; it was left out of subsequent editions. For a number of reasons, including Joyce’s use of a logarithmic scale to describe the increasing complexity of his own books, and his furious pursuit of a hastily retreating KSR across the winter snowscape of Zurich after the latter asks, “Typos, in Finnegan’s Wake? How could you tell?”, it’s worth tracking down.) That’s a good question. I think I was trying to place Joyce’s blessing on my head for choosing to be a science fiction writer. I made that choice because I thought it was the best realism for our time. Because we are all now living together in a science fiction novel; that’s what history has become. The 25 years since I wrote those words about Joyce have just made that ever more obvious. So, one basic aesthetic problem one faces is, what genre do you choose? I chose science fiction. But I wanted it to be a science fiction open to the general public, who if they happened to pick up my book, would be able to comprehend it without the genre training and background. If you did have the genre background, then all the better, you would see how I might be playing off the earlier science fiction writers. But it wouldn’t be necessary.
Okay then, can we talk about the quantum walk chapters of 2312. It strikes me that those really demand the kind of reading strategies you learn as an English major. There are only the three of them, dispersed throughout the book, and they’re very short – the first one took me by surprise, and I didn’t really succeed in reading it. I mean I read it; but when I struck the second I realised I needed to physically focus my eye on each phrase, absorb it, and then move onto the next. I usually scan prose text continuously. Now that switching of reading strategy is something you don’t necessarily need to know how to do as a science fiction reader, by and large. I can see why you take the risk of forcing your readers to figure it out; you’re trying to portray a different kind of consciousness, and how else could you do that – but did you hesitate? I was confident that in the body of the larger novel, if I kept the quantum walks short enough, that people would slow down and deal with them. The lack of punctuation and the gaps would force them to look at it phrase by phrase, and quickly twig that this was an artificial intelligence, and begin to think hard about what does that mean, what is consciousness, and what happens if you’ve got a computer mind that is spinning a trillion times the speed of ours but doesn’t have human connective faculties or body or upbringing, etc. So a scattershot collage of phrases that are popping into the foreground of this artificial consciousness – it was actually problematic, to think is this how it would be, is this how it would work? For those passages I looked back into a lot of the stream of consciousness novels, so it is an English major’s thing, but I thought, make it short, make it clear that it is a computer mind. Try to keep the reader’s focus on the characters, in this case, on a quantum computer mind. And in the end those passages are only about 15 pages out of 575.
Yeah… that is true. And it’s a novel that calls attention to its own techniques – you’re constantly changing voices, the intertextual bits do that. That isn’t a problem. But with the quantum walks, the first one frankly defeated me. By the third one – I was wrapping up the novel in my head at that point, I was reading it to resolve the plot, so again, I didn’t get the full force of it. The second one was gem-like, it was lovely to read, the “gaudeo”s in particular – so beautiful. Thank you. It helped that this particular computer has been heavily programmed with the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
Yes I did notice – I thought you were taking a risk, having an actual Dickinson poem on the last page. Yeah. But she was the appropriate commentary. She is kind of like a quantum computer. You can’t understand her.
Okay, I have a follow-up question I want to leap to, but just parenthetically – what order did you write the book in? I naively tend to think of books as written in reading order, but there’s no particular reason to have done that with this one. Did you write the various extracts and lists whenever you needed to drop them in, or after you’d written the rest of the book, or some other way? I think the best way to describe it is that the first draft mostly told the story of Swan and Wahram, and their scenes, and then I wrote Inspector Genette and the Kiran scenes, and all along I was trying to write supporting materials. It was a really mixed project in that regard, and one of the things that happened as a result was, I lost my sense of what it would be like to read the thing in the same way that readers would read it. I couldn’t simulate that in my mind. That always happens, of course, but this time it was worse than usual.
How much time will have to pass before you can do that, do you think, if you ever can? Oh a long time.
I mean you can read the Mars books that way now, but that’s going back a bit. Yeah. It takes years or decades to be able to read my work as if an outside reader. But in 2312, there was a certain point where I had the thing in more or less its order, where the extracts and lists served not just as arbitrary interruptions, but actually helped the plot; so, for instance, right when Swan is getting irritated that no one wants to solve Earth’s problems, that’s where you have the list of bad excuses that we always make for not doing things to help others. So I did place everything as carefully as I could. But how it then would read to people, well, I was really dependent on my first readers getting back to me.
You’re familiar with Ursula Le Guin’s late short stories, the ones she was writing in the middle 90s? Anthropological pieces where each one is set on a different planet and she manages to give you a whole planetary society, usually in the course of a reasonably short story. Yes, I’ve read those. Four Ways to Forgiveness, and also in Birthday of the World I think.
They’re experiments in form, as much as anything, and what’s really striking about them is the density of information she achieves, a novel’s worth of detail typically, built into a short story. 2312 struck me very similarly, but a trilogy’s worth of detail, expressed in the space of a novel. Playful, formally inventive. Really fun. It was fun. One of the things the form gave me was the ability to jam a lot into a small space and then call it a prose poem, rather than an expository lump. You can play all kinds of games. You can cut sentences off when the reader will be able to supply the end of the sentence on their own, because the trajectory is clear. Those kinds of games added a real pleasure for me – not only was it getting more compressed, but it was getting funnier, and more springy, and I could use those repeated phrases that I spoke about. By the time I was about halfway through I was having a blast. Which doesn’t always happen.
Was Galileo’s Dream a pleasure to write? It was, yes.
The Mars trilogy is a single novel, you’re right that you have to view it that way, and it’s your great novel, if one has to say that you have one great novel. But as a thing compressed between two covers, Galileo’s Dream is also your great novel. It’s the single richest volume you’ve written. But it’s such a densely woven thing. You have to live in it, it’s more work to read than 2312 – 2312 has a lightness, an expansiveness, it’s very easy to read, in a way that Galileo’s Dream is not. I can easily imagine that 2312 was fun to write. Yeah, well with Galileo’s Dream I wanted to make sure that I did justice to Galileo himself, and be accurate to his life, so that despite my backstory and my science fiction dream-life, the detail of Galileo’s real life is properly conveyed. That meant a mass of interesting small points. It also meant covering about 25 years of his life. Even that is something of a stretch for a novel. So it has a density, and a length, that makes it yet another big novel, yes. Cartophillus was really the saving grace there, the idea that I wasn’t the narrator. I feel that in focusing on Galileo, and moving outdoors to write, I brought back a great deal of joy to my writing life.
The manoeuvre of moving outdoors really interests me. Could you describe your outdoors environment a little bit more? How much nearby noise-making activity is there, to what extent do you have an open space around you? I’m in a suburbia on the edge of town, so there’s a county road that can be loud. In spring the birds’ singing is amazingly loud. In the winter they’re much subdued. I’m in a courtyard at the front of my house, I’ve got a café table and a comfortable chair. If it happens to be raining I put a tarp overhead, tied up to the trees at a tilt so that the rain runs off toward my feet. I’m under trees, a Chinese tallowberry, a Japanese maple, and also a mock orange, so there’s dense shade. The birds are sparrows, goldfinches, scrub jays, doves, and hummingbirds, with crows and magpies and hawks and geese above. I actually know some of the birds on an individual basis. So I’m surrounded by greenery, and in the winter it’s a little bit bare, and in the summer it’s a little bit too hot… but summers I’m generally in the mountains. I take the summers off, somewhat, and then in the school year when I’m home writing, I write every day now. It sounds gruelling, but it actually helps a lot. Every day out in that courtyard.
How long do you write? Per day, how many hours? Doing first draft I write about three hours per day, and then when I’m revising I write much more, because I can look at sentences and fix them pretty much as long as I’m awake. Revision is where I begin to feel that I’ve got some power over the material and some results sitting in front of me that look satisfactory.
Yeah, the effort of imagination involved in primary creation – Yeah, it’s a push.
So doing this six, seven eight hours, seven days a week, this isn’t too great a strain on your family life? Well, it’s my job, so they’re used to it. I do take breaks to do the family things, then I go back to it.
Can I take a hard left to another passage I wanted to ask you about, kind of the inverse of the quantum walks, which is Galileo’s science lesson, if we can call it that, the passage where he overflies the history of mathematics in his mind. I said that the quantum walks seem to require the reading strategies of poetry – this seems to require reading skills that you’d pick up from science fiction. Yeah, they’re dense, gnarly scenes. I wanted Galileo’s future math tutorial to be a visual experience, a pedagogy of the entire body. So I had to get quite imagistic, and the concepts themselves are difficult.
It’s ecstatic writing; I think it’s one of the definitive hard science fiction sequences. It’s also embedded in a novel which in the main strikes me as more accessible than it is itself. It’s a potential sticking point the same way the quantum walks are. Sure. All I can say is, I do like variety in novels.
Can I ask a few questions about your early life. What did you read as a child, when did you know you wanted to be a writer? Oh, and also – why do you use the name Kim Stanley Robinson? I began reading young, and I loved it. I seldom watched TV, I didn’t know anything about movies, I was always a bookish kid.
Did you not watch TV because you had no TV, or because you just chose not to? No, we had TV, and I watched a little of it, but it was never as good as the books I was reading. So that if I had a choice, and I did, I would rather read a book. I early ran into Huckleberry Finn, which was a magnificent book with an enormous impact on me. I was living in an agricultural community, and I felt really that I could be Huck Finn. This was a mistake, because I was right on the edge of the giant translation of southern California into suburbia. Southern California got wrecked right in front of my eyes. Out of that childhood I became a science fiction writer. When I ran into the new wave of science fiction, that struck me as realism, as the best way to convey California in the 1970s. The literature best describing the way that time felt was new wave science fiction.
When you say New Wave, you mean which authors particularly? Well, Le Guin, Delany, Zelazny, Disch, Russ, Ballard, Wolfe, M. John Harrison, Keith Roberts. Michael Moorecock was in command of the British new wave since he was editing New Worlds, you know, publishing writers who were making science fiction into something extremely exciting and dangerous.
Okay. When some people say the New Wave they just mean two or three people; you really do mean all of them. I mean it as a period, as all the science fiction being written between 1965 and 1975. Following Fredric Jameson, I like to talk about time periods rather than styles or individuals, and so by New Wave I simply mean those years. That gets you some people like Jack Vance or Poul Anderson who were doing good work but were not defined as New Wave. And many things changed in those years, it felt like history itself was coming off its axis, rolling in new directions. So that was very exciting to me. I became an English major and began to write poetry, then science fiction short stories. Happily, Damon Knight was an editor who was distributing the literary credit he had accrued over the previous thirty years to new writers he liked, and he bought my first stories and got me started. I sold a story to him when I was 22.
What was that first story? “In Pierson’s Orchestra,” which later became the first chapter of The Memory of Whiteness.
And the use of your full name – I sometimes wonder whether that creates a kind of distance – whether it’s a conscious act of self-creation, you know, my writer self is different from my private self. That is very true, yes. I am Stan, and that distancing from the books can be a comfort. But Damon said to me, your parents gave you a very good name. It’s a travel name, you sound like a travel writer, because Kim is of course Kipling’s Kim of India, whom I was named after, and Stanley is like Stanley searching for Livingston, and Robinson is like Robinson Crusoe. And also it’s gender-ambiguous, he said, so that won’t do you any harm. He was very canny.
Two major threads that run through your work are memory, the imperfection of memory, its implications for knowledge and especially for the discipline of history, and also brain damage. Brain alteration. I’m thinking particularly of Sax, and also of Frank, in the Capital books, and of the “Ridge Running” story, and also of what Swan does to herself in various ways; but particularly of Sax and Frank, who both have head traumas and experience various forms of somewhat ambiguous change as a result. Where do those threads come from, why are they so huge for you? For a long time I felt like I had a nearly photographic memory. That faded on me through my thirties. As that went away, I thought, well what if you were 600 years old? Would you have forgotten huge tracts of your life? – and then would it matter that you were 600 years old, or would you effectively be gone? And so I wrote Icehenge.
And there’s also something very peculiar about memory, which is if you had someone to tell you what you did at a dinner party in 1985, it might pop back to you in its fullness. But because you don’t have a recall mechanism, you can’t find it in your own head. And so it sits in there, and will never be accessed. I know this is true, because I keep a daily journal, very minimal, merely the facts of the day. My wife and I play a game where we check what we were doing on that day 20 years ago, and now 25 years ago, and a lot of times I’ll read a passage and we’ll remember the day and be able to tell each other about what happened at that dinner party that night. But without me looking at the journal and giving us that prompt, we never would have thought of that night ever again. So I think evolution accidentally gave us a great power to lay down and store memories, but not an equally good recall mechanism. It’s odd, this discrepancy, a strange part of being human.
I was interested in brain damage all along, as with Joe in “Ridge Running,” and I thought that was what should happen to Sax, because I wanted him utterly transformed. I wanted him tested, forced to grow a new mind starting from his ultra-rational position. Then while I was writing the climate books, I was playing softball and misjudged a line drive and caught it on my nose. It was a quite terrific hit, it knocked me to the ground, broke my nose, I was bleeding like you couldn’t believe. Essentially it was what happens to Frank Vanderwal. I was stunned for about a week afterward, and I had to contemplate what could have happened, from instant death to brain damage to more lingering problems. I think all it was in reality was a mild concussion and a broken nose, but it was quite an accident, one of the worst of my life. And in those climate books, if interesting things happened to me in those years, I put them in the story. So it was similar to Sax’s story, but different enough that I felt it was okay to use it. In fact quickly it became very right.
Last thing. I wanted to seize the chance to ask you about A Short Sharp Shock, because it strikes me as being really out on left field, among your novels. If you were grouping them in physical space, you’d need to position it further from the centre than any of the others – perhaps it’d be out in one direction, and Years of Rice and Salt would be in the opposite direction, equally distant from the main body – it’s just not like the other books. How did you come to write it? When our first child was born, we weren’t getting much sleep. I was gearing up to write Red Mars, and I knew it was going to be a long novel, a historical project, a realist project. I was often insomniac, and I had always had a desire to do a book that was like George MacDonald or David Lindsay, because I felt that a fantasy novel should be truly strange, like theirs are. There should be new elements. And I was living in Washington DC and I wanted to be back in California, I had a kind of dream California in my head. So often I’d be there in the middle of the night with our kid, trying to give my wife a break, and I wasn’t getting any writing done, it was just in the first months of his life, and I was thinking to myself, I’m not a writer just because I’m a professional making a living. I’m a writer as a way of being in the world, as a self-definition, and I should write no matter what. So I said to myself, let’s just write whatever comes and do that fantasy. Now’s the time for it. It should be short, it should be sharp, it should be shocking. And as I wrote it, I let happen whatever happened, I let the story lead me around that world on that peninsula. I’m quite pleased with it, because of that personal history and because of the way it turned out. I would actually have dreams and say, okay, that’s what happens next. And in the end it seemed to work.
That is how it feels! It feels like you’re channelling something from quite deep down. It’s really wild, it’s quite unanticipated, and there are all these gorgeous things in it. The folk with the trees growing out of their shoulders. It’s a grand book. It’s a grand little book – a little grand book? – in a way that counterpoints the Mars books very nicely. Thank you. I am pleased with it. I wish things like that would occur to me more often, but wishing doesn’t make it happen, you have to wait and watch.
In which our heroes sit round in tents a lot and forget everything anyone’s ever told them about sand dunes. This is my favourite film of the series, and that is a 180 reversal of my initial reaction. Commercially it’s the least successful of the eight, and the critical consensus has so far been that it comes by its poor-for-Potter box office honestly. I say “so far” because up until the release of the last film, I don’t think too many critics had gone back and rewatched it, and it was only the second viewing that sold me. When we saw it on the big screen, less than a year ago, I was entirely un-wowed. A moody, contemplative Harry Potter movie. Excuse me?
Yates had done his best, I decided, with unpromising source material. When I reviewed the book, I’d written this about the chapters that correspond to the film’s third act:
Cue weeks and months of sitting around in tents. Rowling is sticking to her one book, one school year structure, even though she’s abandoned the geographical constraint of keeping her main characters in school. She doesn’t have a year’s worth of actual plot, so… lots of paragraphs about how, yet again, our heroes failed to do anything this week except argue.
So it makes sense that the film should feel like the price we had to pay to make it to the good stuff. At least, it makes superficial sense. What occurs to me now, and I’ll concede it’s a little strange that I managed not to come up with this startling insight earlier, is that a film is not a book. The camping chapters of the novel are marred by the sense that too much time is passing between significant events: Harry and Ron are risk-takers, and Hermione is a planner, and all of a sudden Rowling requires them to just… pause, and get grumpy with each other. Rather than a genuine dark winter of the soul, it feels like an authorially imposed low to set up the coming highs.
The point being that by now we know these characters very well. But in the films, we’ve never got to spend very much down-time with them; and once Yates fits in all the plot-mandated events even of half a book, we don’t get all that much down-time here, either. The camping scenes come after an hour’s worth of fighting, escaping, being attacked, getting away, and raiding the enemy stronghold in disguise. They last less than forty minutes, in the course of which there are two extended brushes with death, the first of them wonderfully nightmarish, in the literal sense of feeling like an out of control dream that gets darker and darker, and the second supplying the answer to the question which has slowed our heroes down: how do we destroy a horcrux?
Forty minutes of character-driven introspection, less one corpse-animated-by-giant-snake attack and one battle with a fragment of Voldemort’s soul, does not amount to a dreary wasteland of existential gloom. I should not have been so surprised to find, watching this again the night before the final film opened, that I loved these scenes. Ron gets to sidestep his usual light relief sidekick duties and be a person. Harry and Hermione get to talk. They even get to dance. (This much derided scene is a perfect example of the sorts of things critics will pick on when a film hasn’t met their expectations and they don’t have a good working analysis of its flaws: its sweetness can so easily be mocked as cheap sentiment. It’s always tempting to claim the sophistication high ground when a film tries to tug on your heart-strings, in case it turns out that you were just having an emotional day when you watched it and everyone else on the entire planet found it risible. But sometimes, as here, those mockable moments are the real thing).
Yates takes full advantage of the unprecedented opportunity to shoot most of a Potter film outdoors, leaping from scenic location to scenic location in the style I usually refer to as Film Tourism For The Geographically Illiterate. You know how this works: characters set out from the west side of Mt Ruapehu, turn left at Milford Sound, pause for lunch looking out at Kapiti Island, and make camp at Cape Reinga. Yates, however, is dealing with people who have recently learned to apparate. (Full marks to Rowling for being the first writer in ages to come up with a good new word for “teleport”; fantasy novels build their brave new worlds out of language, and, little as she ever describes the things she refers to, she still manages to refer to them with words that make her mostly inherited concepts seem entirely her own). So he can quite legitimately bounce around Britain pointing his camera at the beautiful bits, and beautiful they do look. But the chief pleasure of the film is getting to see Harry, Ron and especially Hermione more relaxed, or at least sufficiently becalmed that there’s nothing for them to do except talk. (Hermione has usually been off in the girl’s dorm when Harry and Ron have had moments like this in the past). The pauses between action beats are never long enough for me to think, as I did with the book, hey, this isn’t like them, even though by the calendar it takes just as long here to get to the story’s headlong final sprint. Instead, what I think is, “Hey. It turns out I care about these people. How pleasant to be in their company.”
This pleasure is partly an artifact of having spent a week working through the series: I’m as deeply marinated in this world right now as I’ve ever been. Rowling’s ability to inculcate that fannish sense of immersion is at the core of her impossible, ridiculous commercial success. I don’t really have an explanation for the degree of that success, and I’m impatient with people who imagine they do; post hoc analysis of something unprecedented so often amounts to a covert scramble to appear knowing in the face of the unknown. I haven’t seen a really convincing account of why Rowling went not just mega, but meta-mega. Rags to riches, that’s a great narrative. Rags to self-made billionaire – guys, we need a new narrative. But I’ll suggest this: it matters that Hogwarts is a boarding school, and not just because it lets Rowling surf on the long tradition of English boarding school stories. These characters get to live together, and we get to live with them: there’s immersion for you. So, my family has just spent a week immersed, and that’s part of why I enjoyed this film so much more this time; its strengths are proportional to one’s investment in the characters. There’s also the fact that it’s designed to be seen immediately before part two – it’s the first half of the five hour final chapter, not a complete series entry in itself. When you watch it and plunge straight on to the finale, as we did this time, both films benefit a great deal. You have to respect Yates for seeing that in the long term, it was worth working to a rhythm that was going to leave his initial theatrical audiences feeling as though they’d been given half a story and sent home, as indeed they had.
That hollow sense of unfinished business would have been strengthened by the location of the film’s two major blemishes, which both come towards the end. First, Harry, Ron and Hermione’s capture by the snatchers, which occurs after a desperate race through the woods, because obviously it would be cheating to use magic to get to safety. It’s not written that way in the book, and it makes no sense whatsoever; in terms of internal logic it would be no less silly to have them stumble across Ron’s old enchanted car and stage an exciting getaway attempt on four wheels. Perhaps a few lines of dialogue about the extreme implausibility of the car turning up could have been dangled in front of us, to hint that they were too distracted by its presence to remember how to apparate.
And then we get the death and burial of Dobby. How I’d missed Dobby. How appropriate that even watching him die annoys me. There’s a nice moment when he comes to their rescue by unscrewing a giant chandelier and dropping it on Bellatrix – a hat tip to his essential cartooniness which actually comes off. But his brave falsetto announcement that “Dobby is a free elf!”, the slo-mo oh-no spinning knife which seems… to be about… to hit him just as they apparate away (oh look, they’ve remembered how), his touching death in Harry’s arms… no. Sorry. I am not touched. Even before the bit where they bury him – “properly, without magic” – in a sand dune. Sand dunes migrate. Surely it isn’t only coastline-overendowed New Zealanders who know this. Why do Ron’s brother and sister-in-law not take one of them aside and say, “Look, we’re going to end up with bits of decomposing elf on our cute little coastal cottage doorstep, I know the spot’s got a great view, but could you bury him somewhere else?”
That’s how the film ends, and it’s the worst misjudgement of Yates’s Potter quartet. You could mount an argument that Half-blood Prince, being the quintessential Hogwarts story and lacking any serious flaws, is therefore the stronger film. I suppose it would be perverse to respond that a true Potter film needs a serious flaw, to fit in properly, though this idea is part of how I do in fact deal with Dobby, and with the things that annoy me in the last film as well. The reason I’m motivated to make such feeble excuses is that Yates is doing something here that delights me: not just judging, correctly, that you need to draw back before you take a flying leap, but reversing the usual weighting between Harry, Hermione and Ron’s friendship and the furtherance of the plot. If the series were a school time table, which is not a wildly inappropriate metaphor, this film would be the free period. There’s a pile of course work we should probably get on with, but… let’s talk. Let’s argue. Let’s hang out.
Have I mentioned that I like the music in the four Yates films? Not passionately; but it stays out of the way when it isn’t needed, there are some good original tunes, especially Nicholas Hooper’s theme for the training sessions in Phoenix, and the residual John Williams material is deployed effectively. This comes to mind now because the final film opens with a series of scenes in which there’s no music at all, and very little background noise. The distant sound of waves breaking, the odd seagull overhead, and silence, over which people talk in low voices. Warwick Davis, excellently flinty as the goblin Griphook, and John Hurt, as an exhausted and frightened Olivander, provide the central trio with the foils they need to generate an intense, focused, this-is-it vibe. And then it’s off to rob the goblin bank, and all hell breaks loose.
I have not always been a fan of Helena Bonham Carter, and especially not of her Bellatrix Lestrange. Bellatrix is a madwoman; but there’s mad, and then there’s flouncing, mincing, stop-your-ascent-you-went-over-the-top-half-an-hour-ago-and-are-now-heading-into-orbit mad. However. In the bank raid, Hermione uses polyjuice potion to disguise herself as Bellatrix, meaning that Bonham Carter is required to play Hermione attempting to play Bellatrix. There have been a number of these polyjuice potion moments, and this puts all the others in the shade. It helps that Bellatrix normally comes on like a cross between a deliriously drunk British nanny and a rampaging bull elephant; all Bonham Carter has to do is dial it back a bit and she’s halfway to a remarkable change of register. But she goes the rest of the distance on pure skill, giving us an Emma Watson who briefly happens, to her considerable discomfort, to be in the wrong body, and then moving very slightly towards a Bellatrix impression. Very slightly is indeed as far as Hermione would be able to go.
I love the white dragon in the Gringotts vault. (So much weight to its movements, such a strong sense of a real abused animal in its flinches. It isn’t a special effect, it’s what you get when special effects are put in the hands of storytellers who know their business). I love the escape from the bank. I love the use of the John Williams music to herald the return to Hogwarts; I adore the showdown between Snape and McGonagall in the great hall; and when McGonagall, racing to prepare for the imminent arrival of a large army of Death Eaters, pauses to say, “Potter… it’s good to see you”, I am newly inspired to track down every film Maggie Smith has ever been in. In the books, Molly Weasley establishes herself as Harry’s substitute mother, a relationship which never quite gets enough room to blossom in the films. Smith’s McGonagall, who doesn’t get that many scenes either, is very clearly his substitute grandmother: stern, formidable, quietly proud of her boy.
To abbreviate the lengthy list of “I love this bit” remarks, I spent the first two thirds of the film on cloud nine. “It all ends here”, says the poster, which seems an unambitious claim on the face of it – yes, we can now announce that the last Harry Potter movie is the last Harry Potter movie! – but there really is a sense of a grand undertaking coming to a close infusing these scenes, managing to give them added punch without making them seem overblown. Pulling this many threads together into what amounts to a two hour running battle is on the face of it just another instance of the usual challenge facing the makers of ensemble action movies; we see films attempt something similar every year. But this congeries of fight scenes has more story behind it than any comparable film I can think of, and way, way more minor characters to deal with. Many of them spend the whole film in the background; some of them die there. Had I not spent a week refreshing my familiarity with the series, these don’t-blink-you’ll-miss-it send-offs might have struck me as overly perfunctory. (Who was that dead person? Wait, was that another one?) Because I recognised all the characters (even Tonks, who scarcely makes it into the films at all), their flickering deaths registered as an effective way of conveying the unsentimental reality of war. Coordinating it all must have been quite the technical feat. I imagine David Yates and his producers are off lying on beaches right now, muttering, “It’s over… it’s actually over”, and waiting for the nervous twitching to subside.
It’s a very dark film. Literally: when Harry, Ron and Hermione confer in the cottage stairwell at the start, they’re only just visible in the dimness, and when Voldemort’s army appears on the hilltop overlooking Hogwarts, they’re dark shapes against dark land, only the pale glimmer of their heads marking them out. The light levels throughout are extremely low, with the well judged tactical exceptions of Snape’s memories and Harry’s King’s Cross of the mind. We deliberately chose to see the film in 2D, partly because the rest of the series was shot that way and we wanted the continuity, but mostly because this film was also shot this way, and then converted to 3D in post-production. The difference between films shot with 3D rigs and films bumped up to the higher ticket price after the fact is the difference between Avatar and Green Lantern, which is to say the difference between landmark and landfill. But aside from the fact that conversions tend not to have a very strong 3D effect, or to use it to any great purpose, there’s the detail that 3D glasses are polarising, meaning they screen out about a third of the light that hits them. For this film, so dim to begin with, I thought this would mean half the scenes getting lost in the murk. Friends reported this wasn’t the case, though they didn’t find the 3D added much; one friend who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do explained that 3D projectors compensate for the light loss effect by using brighter bulbs. The problem with this – as I discovered when the boys and I decided to go see the film again, this time in 3D – is that the brighter bulb compensated a bit too well. This time, when the death eaters appeared on the hilltop, they were quite easy to make out. I’d liked that “hordes half-hidden in the gloaming” effect. The impact of the 3D, in any case, was negligible, even in the vast caverns of Gringotts, which ought to have felt wider and deeper in this format. I suppose now I need to see the film a third time, in 2D again, to check whether that first viewing’s dimness wasn’t a one-off effect of a sleepy projectionist turning the dial to the wrong setting.
I would see it a third time, actually. So many fan-boy moments. Ron’s expression as he urges Hermione to destroy a horcrux in the chamber of secrets, to which they’ve returned to find a horcrux-destroying basilisk fang: Rupert Grint has not very often been asked for intensity, but it turns out he can burn like a magnesium flare when he needs to. This leads inevitably to the next fanboy pleasure: Ron and Hermione’s first kiss, which is made unexpectedly loveable by the way they laugh together afterwards: “We finally got here”. And speaking of things that have taken a while to happen, when Ron figures out where Harry’s vanished to before Hermione does, she looks distinctly taken aback: at last, at last, it occurs to someone – Yates? Klove? Watson? – to play the “Hermione’s always got the answer” trope for laughs.
Harry is in the Room of Requirement, a risky creation of Rowling’s in that it turns itself into whatever the person entering it wants it to be, and therefore comes very close to being the ultimate in narrative contrivance. The room functions, among other things, as Hogwarts’ equivalent of an attic; as Harry wanders around it, searching for one of the final horcruxes through the piles of things wizards have dumped here over the years, we see any number of props from the other films abandoned in the shadows. It’s one of the nicer “say goodbye to all this, folks” moments, and it provides the perfect setting for Harry’s final showdown with Malfoy. The mix of mutual dislike and faint but real mutual respect Radcliffe and Felton manage here is exactly right – it seems to imply a much richer and more interesting feud than the previous films have actually found time to dramatise for us, an acknowledgement, in a quiet way, that there was always more going on at Hogwarts than we got to see.
Which is also the case with the relationship between Harry and Snape. I worship at the shrine of Alan Rickman, but this role has not asked a lot of him, and, pleasing as it’s been over the years to see Snape’s sarcasm performed by someone who understands the lethal potential of a slow drawl and a raised eyebrow, Rickman can do so much more. We’ve seen hints of his range in Phoenix and Half-blood Prince, but there’s really only one scene in the series – books or films – where Snape steps out of his assumed character and shows us his real one, and it comes after his death. It’s Rowling’s best sudden reversal, and even though anyone with half an eye for a plot twist would have sensed there was a revelation pending, Rickman makes it work. (Reader, I cried). The death scene itself makes precious little sense if you stop and reflect on it. Harry and the others have raced down to the boat house to find Voldemort so they can kill his snake, which they think is the last horcrux; naturally when they find him distracted by a conversation with the man who killed Dumbledore, they’re too polite to interupt. But Rickman and Fiennes play the exchange so well it’s easy to forget that there are secret onlookers just outside the window, who by rights ought to leap in, kill the snake, and apparate away, saving Snape’s life in the process. This is the last and the purest instance of Harry acting as our surrogate presence in Rowling’s world; in fact it effectively reassigns Harry briefly to our world. For the duration of the scene, he’s sitting with us in the audience.
Fiennes. Again, I worship at the shrine. But do you think, when Rowling decided to pay tribute to Voldemort’s close relationship with snakes by denying him a nose, she had any inkling someone was going to have to play the role on screen? You can just about imagine a terrifying dark incarnation of evil who doesn’t happen to have a nose; and in fact you don’t have to, because Fiennes just about manages to present us with one. That soft, adenoidal voice, the sinuous, slightly effete body language. But I’ve seen a few photos of him in costume, but with the nose not yet edited out. He’s so much more sinister when you’re not troubled by that urge to snigger.
Evil is such a problem for heroic fantasy. Earlier this year I interviewed Patrick Rothfuss, whose The Name of the Wind is the best received debut fantasy novel of recent years. He discussed some of the dead ends he’d gone down in trying to avoid the usual fantasy cliches: “For instance, I decided there would be no villain. It’s always bothered me, the way fantasy villains behave. Why would you want to destroy the world? That’s where you keep all your stuff! So I threw out villains, and after about two years working on the story, I realised actually, sometimes you kind of need an antagonist”. Voldemort is the antagonist Rowling’s story kind of needs, and he’s not a lot more. The will to power, the fear of death, and the inability to love: that’s Voldemort, and since the first thing new students at Hogwarts discover is that they’re sharing the place with a bunch of ghosts, the fear of death part has always struck me as slightly underexamined. Still, there it is, the difference between Harry and He Who Must Not Be Named, once you acknowledge that Harry is willing to use all of the so-called unforgiveable dark magics if he’s desperate or angry enough, is that Harry loves his friends, and is ready to die for them. I like the roar of static which crests as he walks towards Voldemort to sacrifice himself. It’s almost the last thing in the film I like unreservedly.
The King’s Cross maybe-afterlife scene works, in the book. Here, it seems to suffer from editing compression. Several times, Harry’s exchange with Dumbledore changes tack in a way which might suggest that Harry is confused – well, he has a right to be – and continually thinking of new things he wants to ask. But the leaps don’t feel entirely natural; Dumbledore’s comments keep ticking the “we absolutely have to fit this bit of explication in somewhere” boxes without quite adding up to a real conversation. My guess is that there was rather more to the scene originally, and it got edited down when the film went long. The sense of disjointedness is faint, but this scene is so vulnerable to errors of tone. Rowling manages to bring on Harry’s dead mentor, have him dump a heap of exposition on us, and then send her equally dead hero back for another bout of wand slinging without making me feel that she’s changing her own rules just to get a happy ending. Here, the demons of narrative contrivance can be heard gnawing on the edges of the screen. When Harry says, “I have to go back, don’t I?”, it feels as though he’s moved from grief at leaving all his friends to understanding he gets to live quite a lot too easily. And Michael Gambon’s delivery of Rowling’s very best line – “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” – falls flat. Sometimes, when you’re asked to say something portentous, the best thing to do, unsubtle as it may seem, is to allow yourself to sound portentous.
In the book, Harry plays dead after he returns to his body, allowing himself to be lugged back to the castle and displayed to his horror-struck friends, and then slipping under his invisibility cloak when Neville provides a distraction. The last great battle erupts around him, and he stays invisible, watching, until Molly Weasley kills Bellatrix and Voldemort is about to kill her in revenge. That’s the moment when Harry throws off the cloak, and, with the whole Hogwarts community watching, duels with Voldemort in front of them, killing him cleanly. This, in the heroic fantasy game, is the very definition of a money shot. Our hero returns from the grave just as the guy who killed his mother is about to kill the mother of his best friend and his girl friend, and not only does he save her, hekills the bad guy and saves the whole damn world, with everyone he knows looking on: does this need tinkering with? Are you kidding me? Maybe the bit where Harry treats Voldemort to a lengthy explanation of why the Elder Wand isn’t going to save his ugly hide could be viewed as dispensable, though it’s perfectly in keeping with the mystery structure the books all adhere to. (It’s Harry’s Poirot speech: “I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you here today…”) But for the rest – film it as written! Circle the pair with your camera and make sure you get reaction shots of every last significant onlooker, and thank Rowling for serving up such a perfect ending.
Or you could do what Yates does, and make up your own ending. This let me down terribly, the first time I watched it. The second time, I found I liked his version well enough, because in fact it works fine on its own terms. But its own terms are generic. Good guy and bad guy fight their way through multiple locations, while supporting cast fight their own battle to give the good guy his shot at victory. (In this case, they have to kill Voldemort’s snake, his very last horcrux). Main fight, minor fight: cut back, cut forth, cut back, cut forth. Victory condition fulfilled! At the last moment! But look! Good guy and bad guy have both dropped their weapons! They elbow-crawl painfully through the rubble… they leap up, armed again! They fire!
Harry wins. Colour me amazed.
This is the finale’s analogue to Dobby’s tragic death: the flaw that I have to explain away to myself by muttering, “Well, a Potter film can’t be perfect, it would just feel wrong”. Though I do like the way Voldemort dies, disolving into fragments of burning paper. It’s as though the films, having got what they needed from him, are giving him back to the books; or, if you prefer, it’s as though the films are announcing that now they’re brought the story to its end, the on-paper existence of these characters can be dispensed with.
I’ve raided the books for details while I’ve been writing this review, and a few times I’ve found myself sitting down and rereading chapters I hadn’t gone back to for ages. I’m currently halfway through The Half-blood Prince, which I’ve never reread before now; together with The Order of the Phoenix, it was my least favourite of the books when I read it initially. Rowling is such an odd writer. It’s hard to comment on her style without appearing to sneer, because sentences really aren’t her thing. Images aren’t, either; or at least, she doesn’t put much of her story across in strongly visual terms. Names, she’s superb at; characters likewise, though sometimes I get the impression that one character or another has remained largely trapped in her mind, never managing to find the right words to incarnate themselves fully on the page. When Sirius Black died at the end of Phoenix, I could hardly bring myself to care, because I didn’t feel as though I knew him. Rowling, famously, wept while she was writing the scene. I conclude from this that Sirius was a much richer character in her imagination than she ever conveyed to me, and that she never realised the internal character and the one on the page didn’t match.
The films round these half-translated characters out. Ginny Weasley never gets much screen time, but I buy her relationship with Harry entirely. I never did in the books. These are, in fact, unusually film-friendly books: even though there’s so much in them that films can’t accommodate, the films let the story take on dimensions the books lack. It will be another ten years before I feel up to watching the early ones again. But watching all eight of them together has been a delight.
Before we began our one-week rewatch, I would have said this was my favourite of the films. I remember telling friends excitedly that there was finally a Potter movie that worked from start to finish: a streamlined, self-contained fantasy action drama. The astonishing thing was that it should be the movie of the longest and flabbiest of the books, the first one written after the film series had got off the ground, and the first to feel like a slog for much of its length. It was like seeing a hippo turn into a greyhound.
Or at least, so I thought at the time. In retrospect, confronted with the longest children’s book ever published, Yates and first-time Potter writer Michael Goldenberg were more or less forced to think laterally rather than literally, and it’s a book that begs to be trimmed. An easy job disguised as an impossible job: the very best way to come aboard the franchise. And look who comes aboard with them. Imelda Staunton’s Dolores Umbridge is the single best character in any of the films; there are better characters in the books, but it’s the juiciest part in the film series, and Staunton knows exactly what to do with it. From her pink woolly cardigan to her prim little laugh, Umbridge (it’s one of the great villainous names of all time) is so perfectly, ridiculously pleased with herself that it takes a while to realise she isn’t a figure of fun. The scene in which she tortures Harry, looking him calmly in the eye and explaining that he knows, really, that he deserves it, is the most frightening one in the series. This is what evil looks like, children. Not a nasally challenged bald guy with a snake fixation: a well dressed, matronly figure who collects cute kitten pictures and believes without question that everything she does to you is for the best. Umbridge briefly goes by the title Hogwarts High Inquisitor, but that isn’t the main reason kids who’ve seen this film will think of her when they read about the Inquisition.
The other new character is Luna Lovegood, played by Evanna Lynch, who’d never appeared on screen when she beat out every other hopeful at the auditions. Luna is a problem for the film, in that she’s attractive, kind, likeable, and gets far more quiet moments with Harry than Cho Chang, the girl Harry’s supposed to be in love with. That relationship doesn’t work as written by Rowling (who writes romance like a 14 year old boy worried his friends will think he’s gone soft), and it doesn’t really work here, largely because Lynch is so good, and because Luna seems to occupy the place in the film where Cho needs to stand. But aside from that, she’s a wonderful addition to the cast: the first teen who comes on board knowing how to act, rather than learning in front of our eyes. In that sense, she personifies the film, which, uniquely among the first five Potters, needs virtually no excuses made for it. Yates, who had a strong TV background but had never directed a cinematic feature before, seems to arrive with a fully formed understanding of how to turn books into good films.
It’s visible from our very first glimpse of Harry, walking through long, sun-bleached grass. The camera is looking up at him, and moving at a tangent to his line of walk: the shot only lasts a few seconds, but it’s dynamic, and the straw colour of the grass is subdued compared to the settings the films tend to favour. It conveys Harry’s mood in the wake of Cedric Diggory’s murder, but more than that, it looks different. The subliminal feel is of looking through new eyes. Or, to switch body part metaphors, of being in good hands. And we are. Harry starts this film walking alone. He ends it at the head of a group of friends, all walking in the same direction. It’s such a simple thing, but it contains the whole film. Note first that Yates is smart enough not to despise simplicity, and second, that this film is organised around a central idea capable of being simply expressed.
Yates focuses in on the most important strand in the book, which also happens to be the most film-friendly. (Or Goldenberg does; or perhaps it should be “Yates and Goldenberg do”; I wish I knew more about their working relationship, but I do observe that the things I like about this film persist after Goldenberg leaves the series). Harry, having had an appalling experience none of his friends shared, is feeling isolated and angry. (Radcliffe is good at isolated and angry. More precisely, he’s good at intense. He can turn himself on and off very effectively. What he can’t do is adjust the volume or, outside a very narrow band of happy/furious/confused, change the channel). Being angry, he turns his isolation into a point of pride. The film is about his friends’ attempts, eventually successful, to get him to see that he needs their help, and that they need his: an idea which you’d only have to oversell very slightly to reduce the film to a happy-clappy Hollywood Hallmark card. Yates leaves it slender and unobtrusive enough that it merely serves as a thread through the book’s maze. The montages in which Harry trains the newly formed “Dumbledore’s Army” while Umbridge extends her influence at the school are fast moving, sophisticated, often funny, and they feel fresh. None of the earlier films manages to convey so much information so cleanly.
The film’s streamlining of the story does cause one major blemish, which I hadn’t remembered. Umbridge ultimately gets her comeuppance from a group of enraged centaurs, after the government she represents enacts a series of racist laws restricting the rights of sentient non-humans. These laws barely make it into the film – one of the swirls of newspaper headlines that Yates uses to keep us abreast of affairs outside the school includes a line about centaur unrest, but it flashes by pretty fast – so when the centaurs attack, it has a deus ex machina feel. What’s up with those horse guys? Never mind, that’s Umbridge out of the way, on to the big fight scene! Staunton’s knit-wear Nazi deserved a less arbitrary-seeming downfall.
But compare that big final fight scene, and especially the culminating duel between Dumbledore and Voldemort, with the clunky big set pieces of the earlier films, which so often seemed to be about throwing dragons around the place just to show the effects budget off to the max. Here the action is fast, fluid and above all visually lucid. A single example: when Voldemort shatters all the glass in the giant Ministry of Magic foyer and hurls it in splinters at Dumbledore and Harry, Dumbledore throws up a shield which transforms the barrage into sand as it passes through. It’s a striking image – impending death turning into one of the icons of lifelessness, a mini-desert showering down around Dumbledore’s feet – and it makes literal as well as figurative sense, because glass, of course, is made from sand. This isn’t how the fight goes in the book; Yates and his team have worked out a sequence of attacks and counter-attacks that follow a purely visual logic, requiring no dialogue, no explanations, just an audience with wide open eyes.
Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince
Hogwarts under Umbridge isn’t Hogwarts. In the seventh film we won’t see the school at all, and in the eighth, Voldemort’s lieutenants will take over as teachers, encouraging senior students to practice dark magic on first years, after which the final battle will level the place. This is the last of the films in which the world’s premiere school of witchcraft and wizardry is itself: the English boarding school reimagined as combined surrogate family, holiday camp and training ground for superheroes. If you want evidence that nostalgia is a form of insanity, consider this: I could not have enjoyed Yates’s version of Hogwarts as much as I did without the sense that I was being granted a last glimpse of a place I’d come to know and love, even as I was simultaneously experiencing the pleasure of finally seeing the school done right, after all those irritating earlier attempts. This pang of regret at losing something that drove you crazy while you were living through it is the essence of the school-leaver’s experience, so you could argue that Yates, in pulling our feelings into synch with his characters’, has managed to turn the weaknesses of the first four films into a retrospective strength. “I never realised how beautiful this place was”, Harry says to Hermione just before the credits roll. It would be a hokey choice for a closing line, except that it feels earned.
Harry is standing on the battlements as he says that line, looking out at the castle and its wide, wild grounds – at once the perfect location for a fantasy school, and one that tells you not to think too hard about Rowling’s world. The despised orphan boy gets to go live in a castle, with the great wizard in the high tower and the kindly gamekeeper in the cottage nearby and the monsters in the surrounding forest: it’s all very Grimm brothers. The reason it’s all very Grimm brothers is that castles began receding into the romantic past the day after cannons were invented, stone walls being an effective defence only if your enemy can’t bombard you with high speed flying rocks; and in Rowling’s version of history the wizards have had far more effective artillery-equivalents than cannons for longer than Hogwarts has existed. It isn’t the castle that keeps Voldemort’s army out (briefly) in the final movie, it’s magic. So what’s the point of all those draughty stone corridors, exactly? If you just liked the look, wouldn’t you keep the outer shell and put something better designed for living in inside it, using the same sort of TARDIS magic as the Weasleys’ tent?
Never mind. The old pile does look pretty. At several points in this film the camera roves around it in long, sinuous takes that invite us to notice what a lot goes on in a school: more than any one person could keep track of. Though Harry’s chief job this time is to act as our surrogate, watching other people and trying to figure out what they’re doing and why, Yates lets us see more than he does; this is as close as the series comes to a film in which Harry is a minor character. In one particularly lovely shot, he sits with Hermione at the base of one of the school towers, comforting her. The camera rises and rotates, and halfway up the tower we get a glimpse of Ron and his new girlfriend (hence the need to comfort Hermione; Emma Watson is great in this scene). The camera keeps moving, still rising but now drifting away sideways, and above and behind the tower we see Draco Malfoy, staring blindly out over the rooftops.
In any of the previous films, Malfoy, were he granted five whole seconds of screen time to himself, would have used them to glower hatefully down at Harry, there being only the one tune in his song book, “hateful person who hates Harry and is hateful about it”. Tom Felton, who plays him, would have worked the moment like a pantomime villain on hard boil, sneering and smirking and maybe pouting a little, because in those early films he was a truly wretched actor. Not that he would have been given the chance; little as Rowling does with Malfoy in the books, the films do a lot less. It’s a pleasant shock to find him suddenly promoted to Harry’s opposite number, a boy required by his mentor to shoulder an adult burden, struggling under the weight and pushing the film’s plot forwards in the process. Somewhere along the way Felton has gone from wretched to halfway competent; and if that sounds like faint praise, consider what a leap it is, and the damage bad acting can do to a good story. Competence is all the film needs in this particular role, which is not a testing one, but it needs it absolutely.
For some really good acting, we’ve got Jim Broadbent playing Horace Slughorn: a typically inspired Rowling name, though in this case the personality it deftly sketches for us is not one I could get enthusiastic about, before I watched Broadbent fill him out. Slughorn is a slimy bon vivante whose virtues are mostly a side-effect of his vices; he’s too timid and too lazy to be evil, but too selfish and too greedy to be good. After Umbridge he seems very low rent. That’s what this film’s more relaxed ensemble story needs; bringing in a new personality as strong as Umbridge’s would use up all the available oxygen. Slughorn’s comfortable relationship with his own shallowness lets us see what a great craftsman Broadbent can be. His best and most complex moment is well calculated, in that it’s also the one that matters most for the plot: the one where, slightly drunk, Slughorn tells Harry, who has been hounding him for information about Voldemort’s time at the school, about a gift Harry’s mother gave him, and the day he learned she was dead. A foolish old man, brought to the brink of taking a very slight personal risk not by principle, but by sentiment and alcohol: Broadbent lets his face relax into a baby’s look of hurt wonder at the failure of the world to keep his golden girl alive, and it’s entirely moving without being at all likeable. Daniel Radcliffe, trying to show us Harry taking in this nugget of precious information about the mother he never knew while simultaneously turning the screws on the only man who knows Voldemort’s secret weakness, is well out of his depth; he can do misty-eyed, but he can’t get his voice to suggest it’s a testing moment for him. Reaching for grief and conviction, all he comes up with is loss-inflected anger, which unfortunately sounds a lot like petulance.
Harry knows all the right things to say to get the information he needs in this scene, because he’s riding high on a luck potion. The moment just after he knocks the liquid luck back and just before he goes looking for Slughorn is Radcliffe’s other acting nadir for the film: as he drinks it the camera tilts up and rotates our point of view right over the top of his head, suggesting the world has just flipped 180 degrees, and Radcliffe tries to give Harry a sunny-stoned voice and expression, to match his abrupt shift in perspective. He tries so hard. Unhappily for him there’s a comparison fresh in our minds: a couple of scenes earlier, Ron has also been dosed with a potion, in his case a love potion, and the idiot mooncalf expression with which Rupert Grint gets this across is priceless. As with a lot of Grint’s best moments, it’s a very broad bit of work, but it’s what the scene asks for, and he delivers the goods.
Great happiness: I’d forgotten there was a quidditch match in this film. We haven’t seen one since Prisoner of Azkaban, and none of those early ones pleased me very much. The reason, I realise now, is that in the books Rowling makes her absurd game so real, and at the same time manages to use it as a handy venue for story-advancing events; whereas in the films there’s mostly been time only for attending to the story. Philosopher’s Stone: Harry’s broomstick tries to buck him off. (It’s Quirrel, trying to kill him). Chamber of Secrets: the rogue bludger breaks his arm. (It’s Dobby, trying to scare him away from Hogwarts before the basilisk can kill him). Azkaban: the dementors attack during the game. (It’s, um, the dementors. They’re just not very nice). Film, once you solve the tricky problem of actually sitting someone on a moving broomstick (ouch), can make the dream of flying seem real, and I’ve always wanted to see a quidditch game that felt like a game, rather than a modified fight scene. The flying has never been allowed to be the main point, before, but here, the only issue at stake is – surely not? – whether or not the match goes well for Gryffindor, and in particular for Ron, who’s been having a crisis of confidence. Yes: we’re allowed to take an interest in the game purely on its own terms. The camera follows flyers round the arena in smooth, fast-rushing motion, until Ron breaks in from out of shot, cutting across our path several times to block goals. The game nets him a groupie who quickly becomes his first ever girlfriend, thus breaking Hermione’s heart and justifying the scene’s use of several of the film’s precious minutes from a character development/plot diagram point of view (scenes that make it from book to screen in these later films have won a fierce battle for scarce real estate), but its real excuse for being here is that it’s so much fun to watch.
The quiet-before-the-storm calm that allows all this jollity to proceed unimpeded ends when Harry succeeds in getting Slughorn to tell his Voldemort story. Dumbledore and Harry go off in search of one of Voldemort’s hidden soul-fragments, the horcruxes that make him immortal, and find it on an island in an underground lake: that is, in near-total darkness. This enables Yates to shoot the scene very nearly in black and white, setting up a wonderful effect when Harry is dragged into the lake by Voldemort’s horde of undead guardians and Dumbledore rescues him, unleashing sheets of flame which fill the screen with violent colour. Michael Gambon moves his arms in giant, effortful circles as he directs the flame in its expanding spiral: we’re looking at a display of immense power, but we’re also seeing an old man strain against his limits. And then – this is my favourite edit in the whole series – we cut to a bird’s eye view of Malfoy, lying motionless in bed. White hair, white sheets, dark coverlet. It’s almost a return to the cave’s black and white, a negation of Dumbledore’s fire. Malfoy is about to get up and let death eaters into Hogwarts, and Dumbledore is about to die.
Can you remember when the words “Harry Potter” carried the same no-weight-in-particular as “Simon Miller” or “Andrew Walker”? One of the many curious things about J.K Rowling’s conquest of the world is the way her hero’s fictional fame has become the real thing. In the very first scene of the very first book, Dumbledore packs Harry off to live with the ghastly Dursleys so he can grow up away from the wizarding world, where everyone is going to know his name. Imagine not knowing Harry Potter’s name! Actually, I find I can’t.
I also find I can’t remember exactly when or where I saw the first Harry Potter film, or how many times my children dragged me to it I saw it that year. It was the same year the first Lord of the Rings film came out, and although I must have seen them months apart, in my memory they stand side by side, like the Argonath statues Frodo and the fellowship see on the great river, a massive announcement that Tolkien was wrong when he wrote that fantasy stories are a minority taste. From now on, the success of those two movies seemed to say, fantasy is for everyone. Like it or not. (Ah, the frustrated disdain of the Kiwi fantasy haters in those years, compelled to watch Harry Potter if they had children, and assumed to be pro-Rings whether they watched the films or not).
In the same way that the Pacific Ocean is not the Sahara Desert, I am not a fantasy hater. I went from being vaguely aware of the books to being completely hooked around the time the fourth volume came out, when a friend, wanting adult enthusiasts to discuss them with, shoved her copies of the first three volumes at me and said, “Read”. A year or so later, when my sons were four and two, I got them the Stephen Fry audiobook version of book one, which they proceeded to memorise. I have a vivid memory of my then five year old eldest turning to me in outrage while we were watching the first of the movies: “Harry doesn’t say it’s not in that sentence, he says there isn’t!” Such desecrations of the sacred text did not prevent him from requesting a second viewing, or a third; I believe my sister took them the fourth time, and after that my memory becomes mercifully blurred.
There are a lot of legitimate criticisms you can level at Chris Columbus, the ironically named unadventurous non-explorer whose films constitute a street atlas of the suburban conventional and the American mundane. For most of the last decade I’ve been using the two Columbus Potters as the definitive how-not-to of book-to-film adaptation, but the truth is that I’m by no means certain how many of their defects should be laid at Columbus’s door. Seven of the eight Potter films were written by Steve Kloves. The exception, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, is also the first to be directed by David Yates, who in the end directed all of the last four films. Yates, as far as I’m concerned, is the single best thing to happen to the series, but it’s reasonable to ask whether some of what allows him to look so good is actually Kloves getting better at his job: or, to turn that on its head, whether the appalling literalism of the first two films is as much Kloves’s fault as Columbus’s.
There’s a reason one of the oldest jokes in Hollywood goes, “Did you hear about the actress who was so dumb she slept with the writer?” Studios, not writers, own copyright in most cases; writers usually have only as much power on a film set as the director, the producer and the studio bosses feel like giving them. But as far as I can gather, the Potter films seem to be a case of a writer having quite significant power: the writer being Rowling, who, quite aside from her theoretical ability to unleash fan outrage with a single phone call to the press, had for most of the series the very considerable leverage of being the only person who could answer the question, “If we do this, will it screw things up for the ending?” Kloves, by all accounts (his own included), became a good friend of Rowling’s over the course of the decade he spent as her cinematic translator, and appears to have had good relationships with all four of the directors he worked under. But “as far as I can gather” is as precise as I can be here. Kloves has given plenty of interviews about his Potter period, but in the nature of things, it will be ten, maybe twenty years before someone writes a large, glossy insider account of what really went on in the making of these films. My best guess, looking at the similarities between the Columbus Potters and the Columbus everything else, is that Kloves was a good and faithful servant to a man scared out of his wits by the prospect of any child, anywhere, complaining that some of chapter seven wasn’t in the film. When Kloves says of him, “he literally had the book in his hip pocket as he was directing”, I think he’s very politely encoding the message, “Don’t blame me!” He’s far too professional to say so openly, and perhaps I’m over-interpreting. (I’ve been known to do that).
In any case, my eventual violent hatred of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone can’t really be laid at Columbus’s door; or at least, despite all the things that are wrong with the film, I did more or less enjoy it the first time I saw it. I’m clinging to this fact. My sons and I are going to the last film in the series in a week’s time. We have decided the only proper thing to do is to rewatch all the other films first. Taken together, the eight add up to something just under twenty hours, of which about five will be spent in Columbus-land. You can fly coast to coast across America in five hours. You can mouth the words “My god this is painful” about seven thousand times.
But I’m sure we’ll be okay.
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone
So, this is unsurprising: and yet I’m surprised. I enjoyed it. Partly, it’s true, because my former five year old is now a fifteen year old, and watching him discover what he put me through ten years ago – “Those kids can’t act at all, can they?” – gives me an unworthy glow of satisfaction. (Listening to your adult children complain about their own babies’ night feeding schedules must be like this). But mostly because the film’s really not so bad. That sense of having a hand pressing on the small of your back, pushing you on past scene after scene – “We’ve only reached page 84 of the book, keep up” – it’s less troubling than I’d recalled. The story comes at you so fast there’s no time to get bored.
A lot of what does misfire here is not Columbus’s fault; or at least, if you accept that his job is to pry words off the page and put them on the screen, he’s handy with the crowbar. Rowling whisks us zestfully into Harry’s world, and has enormous fun playing one of the basic tricks of both fantasy and children’s literature: make your hero discover all the things you need your readers to know, and by the time the process of bringing everyone up to speed is over they’ll identify with him. Where she isn’t at her best in this first book – and it was her first book – is in the silly rent-a-climax sequence, in which Harry and his friends have to solve a series of dangerous magical puzzles in order to get to The Big Showdown. It’s the very opposite of having your finale emerge organically from the story; essentially, the story as such goes on hold, while Rowling holds up hoops for Harry to jump through. Columbus’s attempt to film a game of chess as an action sequence is one of the most risible things the series has to offer, but aside from that he and his effects team do as good a job as Rowling could ask for. The reason it feels like a series of inane action sequences with no relationship to the rest of the film is that the Rowling who wrote the first book didn’t yet have the skills to ask for something better.
The other main problem is my older son’s point: the kids haven’t learned to act yet. (None of them, but the central trio are the ones who matter). Compare them with the child-actors in films like The Road or Kick-Ass. You’ll wince. At the same time, the decent minimum standard they manage is utterly crucial to the film, and thus to the existence of the rest of the franchise; in tracking down three 11 year olds who look right, work well together and aren’t utterly wretched on screen, Columbus’s team did their single most important bit of good work. Daniel Radcliffe is the best of the three (that’s going to change), but watch him trying to look enraged and frustrated when the Slytherins cheat during the Quidditch match. He can’t. Rupert Grint looks as though he’s been cast for his hair, though he’s better than his older brothers, of whom we see mercifully little. Emma Watson is okay early on, when we’re meant to be finding Hermione insufferable, but she never quite turns the insufferable tap off in the later scenes. In a typical early exchange, she rounds on Ron and Harry, who have been sneaking around after dark: “We could all have been killed – or worse, expelled“. Oh, what a mad girly swot she is. But Rowling wrote the line, and Watson sells it well enough. I used to dread Ron’s response, back in the day: staring bemusedly after Hermione as she stalks off, he says to Harry, “She needs to sort out her priorities”. That unnatural stress. Who talks like that? Not Rowling; this one isn’t from the book. I used to imagine someone standing out of shot, mouthing the line along with Grint, doing an encouraging whole-body flex on needs, to make sure he understood which word to hammer. Over the course of however many viewings it was in 2001, this moment became my perfect encapsulation of everything the film gets wrong. Curious to discover now that without the water torture effect of multiple repetition, it’s just one slightly awkward bit of dialogue among many.
The supporting cast. Here’s a fun parlour game. Count up the significant British actors who’ve never made it into a Potter film, and cast them. (Surely Colin Firth would have made a fine minister for magic?) It’s been said so often, but coming to the film after a long break it really is the thing you notice: the adults are a treat. So many strong presences. John Hurt’s Olivander I particularly love. The scene where Harry gets fitted for his wand in Olivander’s shop is the real film-encapsulating moment: it’s hokey (look at the funny magic chaos!), Harry overplays it (look at him looking startled and amazed!) but there’s an adult maestro on hand to give it all the panache it needs to fly.
I was not a fan of Richard Harris’s Dumbledore ten years ago. Something about his whiskery, whispery voice – no resonance to it. I hadn’t yet seen Ian Mckellan’s Gandalf when I first saw this, so I can’t have been comparing them, but it was something like that deep, powerful, sometimes mumbly Gandalf voice I was wanting, I think. I’ve come round to Harris now. He’s whimsical without being silly. Alan Rickman is like a perpetually angry Mr Spock. Supposedly, he was talked into taking this part when Rowling phoned him up and hinted that there was more going on with Snape than the then-published books suggested. Good call, J.K. She was also behind the casting of Robbie Coltrane, who is, surely, the definitive Hagrid, and the real soul of this film.
Diagon Alley: it looks like something out of Dickens. It also looks alive and real and rather wonderful, but I regret the Dickens. “Fantasy = pre-modern” is such easy visual shorthand, and certainly a film this packed with plot needs all the shortcuts it can find, but Rowling is not a great describer. (She’s a great namer, which is a related skill). Whoever had the first crack at this franchise had so much room to create the look of the wizarding world. I don’t know who did the design for this section, but visual originality, total absence of, is a strand you can follow right through Columbus’s films.
Why is there so much machinery in view? The moving stair-cases in Hogwarts, for instance. I imagined them as being like Ursula Le Guin’s Immanent Grove in A Wizard of Earthsea (the book which pioneered the idea of a wizard’s school, a detail, Le Guin has commented rather testily, which Rowling never seems to mention in interviews): moving without moving. Never quite where you expect them to be, but never actually caught in the act. Instead the stairs are offered to us as a giant mechanism, constantly on the move, as though the Hogwarts students were living inside a gargantuan grandfather clock. There is something mechanical about Rowling’s magic; it’s more a morally neutral technology than a numinous transfiguring power. Consider the deluminator, which opens both the film and the book. A purer example of magical claptrap tech you’d never find. (And that’s the point: Dumbledore is immediately established as the kind of character whose approach to doing something slightly eery, like putting out all the street lamps around a house, is to use a pointlessly outlandish machine of his own invention. It’s fairly clear that he could have done the same thing with one wand wave, but doing things the hard way for no particular reason is part of Dumbledore’s style, a fact Rowling uses to justify a multitude of arbitrary plotting sins in subsequent books).
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
I think a reasonable person would concede that Columbus & co do just as good a job on film two as they did on film one, and in some ways a better one. The kids, in particular, have improved out of sight; one imagines a very great deal of coaching went on between the two shoots. The template for this film is the something-nasty-in-the-wood-shed monster movie, and for a while it looks as though the thing sneaking out from the eponymous chamber to attack Hogwarts students in the night might be a giant spider. Ron is terrified of spiders. Listen to Rupert Grint ‘s voice retreat into squeaky falsetto as the spiders advance. (“Can we panic now?”) It’s overacting, but it’s canny overacting, just funny enough to work: I don’t think Grint could have pulled it off a year earlier. This is still very much a children’s film – the last real children’s film in the series – and laughing at Ron offers littlies a way of getting through the spider scene. (It wasn’t too many years after this came out that I had to regretfully keep my youngest away from the Jackson King Kong, even though I knew he’d love its dinosaurs. The giant insects would have been worth a month of no-kidding nightmares).
More generally, Ron registers as more of a person and less of a caricature here. There isn’t that sense of strain. Hermione is still being stuck with expository duties too much of the time, a natural enough offshoot of Rowling’s tendency to treat her as a Swiss army knife. (Problem facing our heroes? Hermione knows a handy spell. Facts needing to be laid out simply for our audience? Have Hermione explain things for Harry and Ron). But she’s good in the mudblood scenes, and those scenes matter. This is the film where the whole Voldemort-as-Hitler thing comes into focus: he isn’t just evil and power-mad, he has a racial purity credo. Watson has to show us with her reaction that “mudblood” in this world carries the weight of the ugliest of racial slurs. She does a good job of it – especially in the dignity and suppressed anger of her explanation to Harry afterwards. An expository exchange that works as character development, in fact; we could do with more of them.
So yes, a reasonable person would rate this film as at least the equal of its predecessor, and if I’d watched it a week or a month after the first one, rather than a day after, my simulation of a reasonable person would be more convincing. It turns out I have about one film’s worth of patience with Columbus available to me in any 48 hour period, and then I start to foam at the mouth. He’s so free with the twee, so unafraid of the not quite good enough. It doesn’t help that Chamber of Secrets puts its worst foot forward by opening with Dobby the house elf. Curious thing: the previous year, both Fellowship of the Ring and Philosopher’s Stone had featured battles with giant trolls. (I don’t know if anyone’s ever written anything about the disconcerting fact that the two big budget smash hits of 2001 each featured a moment when diminutive heroes brought a tower-like monster crashing to the ground). This was the year of The Two Towers, which is to say it was the year of Gollum. Compare Andy Serkis’s pitiful, lethal homunculus with Dobby: Dobby of the insipid Mickey Mouse voice and the exaggerated yet inexpressive features, and the habit – an effective bit of grotesquerie on the page, but somewhat disturbing when you’re forced to watch it acted out – of slamming his hands in drawers and beating his head against things. He’s unfortunately at the heart of this film’s story, and he only has to open his mouth to trip my bad voice acting circuit breakers and cause me to start scribbling notes to myself along the lines of, “Remember to say that DOBBY IS AWFUL”.
Most of the mysterious goings on in the story turn out to be the work of a possessed Ginny Weasley, Ron’s little sister. Exactly how and why she does what she does, and exactly how this leads to the final attempt on Harry’s life, we… never actually find out. This is fairly astonishing, when you think about it. My primary beef with the Columbus films is their slavish attempt to cram every last incident from the books onto the screen, and when they finally buckle and admit that this can’t be done, what gets left on the cutting room floor? The lengthy exchange in which the villain tells Harry what’s been going on. Picture Columbus behind the camera as they shoot this scene, well thumbed copy of the book in his pocket, mulled over and digested to the point where he can no longer recall what it would be like not to have read it. He boldly allows himself to trim a little fat from Rowling’s exposition, punctures her story’s left lung in the process… and doesn’t notice.
And look, John Williams, would you please retire already? I’ll grant the man’s a great melodist. There are any number of memorable themes in his scores for the first three films, many of which recur throughout the rest of the series, and although I used to intensely dislike the main theme, with its odd combination of nursery rhyme twee and jarring dissonance, I’ve come round to it. (In fact some time in the last decade I’ve lost the ability to hear it as a tune, rather than as a signifier. It contains this whole story-world for me now, the same way the name “Harry Potter” does.)
But his orchestrations. His fiddly, fussy, over-the-top orchestrations. His strings throughout have a shimmering flight-of-fancy feel to them which makes me think of some of the violin passages in Mendelssohn’s overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream: fast scurries of sound, like tiny footsteps or wingbeats. It’s an ephemeral sound. It fits Shakespeare’s fairies fine, Rowling’s earthy wizards not at all. And the way his scoring leaps in and tells you what to feel in a scene, rather than letting you respond to what’s happening, so that an emotion which might have built naturally over a few moments is imposed from the start of a sequence of events. It’s like having someone sitting behind you, loudly telling their neighbour what’s about to happen. It’s like someone insisting your dinner needs half a bottle of tomato sauce poured over it, to bring out the flavour. There are times for film music to lead, and there are times for it to follow. Williams refuses to be anywhere but out in front, twirling his baton.
In the film’s final scene, the Hogwarts community gathers in the great hall, announcements are made, and the wrongly imprisoned Hagrid returns from Azkaban prison, a free man. Columbus, having set out to recapitulate the festive school assembly which crowns the first film, decides to allow Harry and Hagrid an intimate moment. “It’s not Hogwarts without you, Hagrid”, says Harry, giving him a hug. But the intimate moment happens in the middle of the great hall, and everyone falls dead silent for it: not because that’s what they’d plausibly do, but because Columbus has no use for them right then. A quarter of these kids (the Slytherin ones) resent or hate Harry; there’s no way they’d allow him this respectful, “You speak for us, boy!” silence, and in any case it doesn’t play as respectful. The effect is purely weird. “Big crowd scene, yes, good… okay, we’re doing the closeup now, everyone freeze!” It’s as though Columbus wants to have two quite different endings, operating on different scales, and he thinks he can have them at the same time and in the same place, because damn it, he’s a movie director and he can do what he likes. Eight years later, in a fine example of cargo cult thinking, someone at Fox decided their Harry Potter wannabe series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, would get off to the perfect start if Columbus were put in charge of it. This scene on its own should have told them what would happen.