Thursday, December 3, 2015

His Dark Materials

Oceans are wide and crossing them --- even in fast airplanes --- takes time. The time is easily passed in reading and worrying about blood clots forming in stationary extremities. This blog post will focus on the former.

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials is a trilogy of novels, and in retrospect I'm pretty sure they are categorized as "young adult" novels, not only because the protagonist(s) are 11-13ish children/pupating humans, but also because of the general attitude demonstrated in the books. I read these books first in high school, and I remember enjoying them immensely; I revisited them in college, when I remember no distinct pleasure; and I reread them just now, and found them irritating. So it seems I've aged out of the target demographic for this, and into an age and decrepitude where I can hobble onto my lawn and shout at the upstart youngsters whilst waving my fist (cane optional) in the air.

Book one, The Golden Compass, features a young girl who is entitled, naive, stubborn, not at all sympathetic. Interesting things happen around her and she actively ignores them. She is afflicted with a cruelly pervasive and powerful case of Protagonist Syndrome, whereby no venture of hers can fail and every incident for which she is present --- even accidentally, even peripherally --- ends up revolving around her actions. She is absolutely crucial (in book 3 this persists even when she is drugged unconscious for several weeks, which beggars the imagination). She accidentally sets off on a quest, and accidentally accomplishes it, and then also accidentally accomplishes a side quest wherein she deposes a king and installs a new one, basically just as something to do to fill an afternoon. Whenever she lingers around adults long enough to hear Portentous Conversation, it is heavily laden with foreshadowing. Explicitly:
"... this child seems to me to have more free will than anyone I ever met. Are you telling me that she's just some kind of clockwork toy wound up and set going on a course she can't change?" (p. 235)
As per the title, she is recklessly entrusted with the care of a magical "compass", a device which only she can read, and which knows all truths in the universe. It is my sober adult displeasure that she doesn't ask whether P=NP.

Book two, The Subtle Knife, adds to the narrative a young boy. He is actually quite sympathetic, and savvy, and intelligent, and observant, and reasonable in his consideration of choices and actions. It also introduces a grown woman, an ex-nun-turned-experimental-physics-professor (explain that career path, wheedles the reality-check in the back of my mind). The boy receives the titular knife, which is a magical knife (of course --- welcome to the genre of fantasy, The Only One of its Kind, which can cut portals to parallel universes. And is controlled with feelings, because: fantasy.

Book three, The Amber Spyglass, gives the titular (and magical!) object to the physicist, since she is the only main character without a magical device. Like a real scientist, she has to build her tool herself. This is essentially the only part of the book that makes any sense. In the rest of the book, the children run rampant across the author's imagination, swapping between parallel universes at the drop of a hat, having dream-visions which are real, face-to-face meeting big-g God (and witnessing his death, spoiler alert), visiting the afterlife/underworld/land of the dead (which this mythos constructs as simply another parallel universe, somehow).

I ended up liking the boy a lot more than I remembered. And the scientist lady. And what I pieced together, as an adult reader who tore through the books voraciously and was not distracted by the coming-of-age emotional tugs, was that dark matter are particles of consciousness which is misconstrued (? maybe) as original sin in the Catholic tradition. Somehow, sentient, verbal, apparently-free-will-possessing creatures do not possess consciousness in the same way; only humans are special, only humans have souls (somehow also attributable to dark matter!) and ghosts and an afterlife (in a parallel dimension, remember!). Global warming is also wrapped up in the book's proffered explanation of dark matter, as are dementia and obsessive-compulsive disorders. As is evolution, apparently the result of messing about with dark matter, and also of a grudge-match between angels, who, yes, are real.

I think the story works, emotionally, as a coming-of-age story, even though I'm not sure what lessons the protagonist learns other than "growing up is hard and full of challenges, but I can never fail!"

As a piece of coherent fiction, it fails. Its universe(s) are slapdash, a little bit of frankly whatever the plot needed to stay interesting in this chapter, cliffhangers that turn out to be inconsequential, powerful resources which are not called on to solve problems until the last possible instant before oblivion, etc. We learn that angels are real, and pervasively present, and can interact with humans and transmit information faster-than-light. (A good part of books 2 and 3 involves various parties searching for the protagonist, often on behalf of the omnipotent angels, which makes no sense whatsoever.) This should make essentially the entire plot trivial, all problems easy to solve, all difficulties tractable.

I've aged out of this series, I suppose, and into the age where I can endlessly read on the topic of information transmission in WWII, which is relevant, compelling, and scientifically accurate. Maybe I just wasn't in the mood for fantasy.

This post's theme word is torpid, "lethargic, apathetic, dormant, benumbed." "The two female Scholars sat up very slightly, though their dæmons, either well behaved or torpid, did no more than flick their eyes at each other." (p. 59)

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