Christmas reading: Magic and parallel worlds

· culture · books ·

One of the pleasures of having a bit of spare time over Christmas is that I have the opportunity to get my teeth into some good fiction. This Christmas I had borrowed a couple of books from the library: Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, and The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. I really loved both books, though it took me a bit longer than the Christmas period to finish both. Both books beautifully conjure up immersive alternative worlds and realities (though in very different ways), so I thought it would be interesting to review them side-by-side.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I hadn’t even heard of this book, but the bold black-and-white cover caught my attention on the shelves, then the glowing introduction by Neil Gaiman sold it to me. In many ways, it’s a very odd book. A whopping 1006 pages long1, it is written in impeccable 19th Century style, complete with archaic spellings like ‘chuse’ and ‘stopt’. Set in 1806 at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it tells the long and winding story of the return of magic to England, and of the involvement of two magicians, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

You may already be thinking, “Magic? Blah”, and if I say that there are also fairies involved (albeit psychopathic ones, not the lovely benevolent creatures you find in children’s fiction), you’ve probably already decided never to let the book darken your doorway. It’s certainly a Marmite book: I think you would either love or hate it, and there is a bit of a barrier to get over with the first few chapters. However, I ended up loving it and its eccentricity. The characters and odd setting have stuck in my brain and stayed with me well after finishing it.

The plot is labyrinthine, and there are many different characters involved (some real people like Wellington and Byron, but most invented), so providing a synopsis is rather difficult. The gist is that a magician called Mr Norrell starts a revival of practical magic in England, and shows the value of if to the nation by using magic to aid the Navy in their battles with Napoleon. The problem is that Norrell is a rather dry, fussy old man and while he claims to want to revive magic, what he really means is that he wants to be the only magician in England. He does his best to ensure this by buying up every book on magic and keeping them in his personal library.

Despite his efforts, another more intuitive magician called Jonathan Strange appears on the scene. Strange is young, gifted, energetic and acts as the Yang to Norrell’s Yin. Norrell starts tutoring Strange, but they grow apart when Strange starts to chafe at the restrictions Norrell places on him, and gets a position as magician to the Duke of Wellington. Meanwhile, the world of fairy intersects with the real world. Early in the book, Norrell raises a beautiful young woman from the dead by doing a secret deal with a fairy known only as the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair (let’s call him GWTTH for brevity). The woman marries Sir Walter Pole, becoming Lady Pole, and all is well for a while. However, eventually GWTTH comes to reclaim his half of the bargain, and Lady Pole, together with her husband’s servant Stephen Black, are enslaved to GWTTH, and are forced to spend long periods in the fairy world.

This intertwining of myth into the 19th Century world is beautifully done, as is the whole tone of the novel. It has a lovely dry wit, reminiscent of Jane Austen’s writing. Despite the fact that there are so many characters, Susanna Clarke manages to flesh them out beautifully. I particularly liked the relationship between Jonathan Strange and his wife Arabella. There are so many scenes that are instantly familiar, despite the period setting, and all the fairies and magic. For example, Arabella asks her husband over breakfast if he could visit his aunt and also call in at Wedgwood’s to enquire whether their new dinner service is ready. The scene is eerily familiar to anyone with a partner who is prone to getting side-tracked, and you know right away that Jonathan is going to forget completely about the errands. Sure enough, when he doesn’t meet her at the appointed time, she follows a wifely hunch:

A grey rain was beginning to fall. A sort of premonition inspired her to look in at the window of a bookseller’s. There she discovered Strange, talking energetically to Sir Walter Pole. So she went into the shop, bid Sir Walter good morning and sweetly inquired of her husband if he had visited his aunt or looked in at Wedgwood and Byerley’s.

Strange seemed somewhat perplexed by the question. He looked down and discovered that he had a large book in his hand. He frowned at it as if he could not imagine how it had got there. “I would have done so, my love, of course,” he said, “only Sir Walter has been talking to me all this while which has quite prevented me from beginning.” — p. 331

Clarke also has fun with her depiction of Lord Byron, deftly puncturing his dark and brooding image through the sceptical eyes of a character called Dr Greysteel, who visits Lord Byron in Italy:

A lovely young Italian girl passed by. Byron tilted his head to a very odd angle, half-closed his eyes and composed his features to suggest that he was about to expire from chronic indigestion. Dr Greysteel could only suppose that he was treating the young woman to the Byronic profile and the Byronic expression. — p. 824

It is an epic, but after Jonathan Strange had appeared and the plot strands intertwined, I was gripped by it and romped through the last third of the book.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

I had wanted to read this book for a while, having been intrigued by the short story written by Pratchett which inspired it. However, this book as had mixed reviews, and in many ways is as Marmitey a book as Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (though much shorter). I think that part of the problem is that Pratchett and Baxter have very different styles and different readerships. Fans of Pratchett’s Discworld and Baxter’s hard sci-fi will find a very different style of book than they are used to seeing from their favourite author. However, I loved it. It’s not without its problems: at times, the joins between the differing writing styles of the authors is somewhat visible. It also jumps between a large cast of characters and different worlds (does this sound familiar?) because of the enormous scope of the book. Remember, I read this straight after Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, so that book had got me ‘match fit’ for reading sprawling narratives. Nevertheless, I think that the world(s) brought to life in this book are brilliantly gripping, as are the implications for society, politics, culture, evolution and economics.

The book is set (mostly) in the near future of 2015, when an anonymous person posts a schematic for a simple device called a ‘stepper’ that can be built by anyone from cheap electronic parts. The stepper allows the owner holding it to ‘step’ between alternative versions of Earth with a flick of a switch. People soon find that you can step ‘East’ or ‘West’ of what becomes known as ‘Datum Earth’ hundreds of thousands of times. Each Earth represents a node in the contingency tree of possibilities in Earth’s history. Some are superficially similar to Earth, while others (the ‘Jokers’) are wildly different. However, they all have one thing in common: in none of them except Datum Earth has Homo sapiens evolved. This means that humanity has — suddenly, and at a stroke — unlimited resources and space to exploit. When you step, you move to exactly the same geographical spot on the next Earth, at the same time of day and season as on the one you left. A small wrinkle (and a bit of a MacGuffin if I’m being very critical) is that you can only step with what you can carry, and you can’t carry over ferrous metals. This means that, initially at least, people colonising other Earths have to start as hunter-gatherers, using simple, non-iron tools and weapons.

As I mentioned, there are a lot of characters, some only briefly visited, but the story centres on Joshua Valienté who is a ’natural stepper’ (that is, he can step without the use of a box) and an artificial intelligence called Lobsang who claims to be the reincarnation of the soul of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman. Lobsang is a particularly wonderful character, and develops in interesting ways throughout the book. His and Joshua’s explorations through the Long Earth form the heart of the book.

The book raises so many interesting questions about how such a situation would affect our lives: for example, would the economy collapse if people moved to other worlds, out of practical reach of the tax man? Would normal currencies have any relevance any more, when resources are effectively infinite? As a biologist, I also really enjoyed the speculations about alternative evolutionary pathways on alternative Earths and the implications of that. There’s hours of fun to be had with wondering what would have happened if that comet hadn’t lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs. They also cleverly use the scenario of the Long Earth to provide a rational, scientific explanation for myths and legends, which I won’t spoil by explaining further.

While, as I mentioned, you can sometimes see the joins between the two authors’ styles, I think they complement each other extremely well. Baxter brings rigour and a thorough exploration of the scientific implications of things, while Pratchett brings warmth, humanity (and a touch of surrealism) so that you can understand this at a human scale. They have said that there will be at least 3 books in this series, and I can’t wait to read the rest. Again, it’s a book that stays with you long after you read it.

  1. Only 358 pages shorter than my copy of ‘War and Peace’ that I have still failed to finish. ↩︎