Brian Ruckley's News & Views

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

A Brief Return to Pre-Web Books

Is it cheating to turn an exchange in the comments on a previous post into a new post? No, I say, and what I say goes around here.

Anyway, some chap/chapess called Anonymous chimed in on the recent post about books that arrived too soon to benefit from online buzz with some welcome additional recommendations. Two in particular caught my eye: one because I very nearly included it in the original post, and have ever since been feeling vaguely guilty about not doing so, as if the book itself now watches me from the shelf with an accusatory and faintly disappointed eye; the other because ... well, just because I think it's interesting really. So here we (briefly) go again:

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. This is one of my favourite sf books, and was within a gnat's whisker of appearing on the previous post. A picture of a crowded, complex 21st century Earth, written in a very distinctive non-linear style, with multiple storylines, numerous contextual snippets, oh just a ton of stuff going on. It was written in the 1960s and feels like it: innovative, eruptive, engaged, playful. It's quite long, so you do need a bit of stamina, but that's obviously not a problem if you're enjoying the ride. A lot of its concerns - over-population, corporate power, media saturation, the rise of computers etc. etc. - still strike a chord now that we're actually living in the century Brunner anticipated, even if events haven't followed exactly the course he suggested.

Dracula by Bram Stoker. As it happens, I don't think Dracula is as remarkable as Frankenstein, but I do think it's good. Why do I prefer Frankenstein? Basically, I guess I just find it the more interesting of the two books. Its premise (Man is undone by his Creation) is both more potent and more succinctly and imaginatively explored. Dracula is much, much longer, and I don't think it quite has the narrative or thematic legs to sustain it all the way through. And, for me, Frankenstein has a certain timeless quality: it's a vision complete and coherent and somehow separate in itself, whereas Dracula has always felt to me more clearly rooted in and constrained by its time (the late Victorian era) and context. But I don't want to seem like I'm knocking Dracula too much. I do like it. It's got an interesting and largely successful structure, telling its story through letters and diary extracts, and it definitely has a certain Gothic, melodramatic, power. Worth a try, if you haven't yet read the original, and arguably still the best, vampire tale.



Anonymous Mark Thwaite said...

You're right Brian, both Dracula and Frankenstein are most certainly worth a read, but Frankenstein is the better book.

I think Bram Stoker knew he was stretching what is essentially a short story into a novel hence the form and techniques (extracts from diaries, memoirs letters) he uses to tell his story. But the form then adds its own interest to the story being told and the outcome is pretty darn good.

Still, Frankenstein trumps it and, as you say, has more contemporary resonance.

1:51 PM  
Blogger Brian Ruckley said...

mark: Indeed. re: Stoker's stylistic choices, though, I do have ever so slightly mixed feelings, which is why I said 'largely' successful in the post.

I think the telling of the story through 'secondary materials' is part of what elevates Dracula above what it might have been in other hands: an imaginative but not wildly remarkable slice of Victorian Gothic adventure/horror/whatever.

But when it's the sole story-telling medium, as here, I also think it has a slight distancing effect on the reader, robbing the action of some immediacy and urgency, which for modern sensibilities is perhaps not ideal when dealing with such dramatic events. I suspect it may have worked rather better for Victorian readers (who were big fans of letters and diaries, after all), and may even have made the novel feel more realistic and convincing to them.

2:22 PM  

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