Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007)

I’d been recommended this a few years by a colleague who I don’t think read sf, but knew I did. I never got around to it until this summer, despite a pile of copies in Albatross House’s SILENT ZONE which is where I tend to work. Other friends liked his worked, and I often use those rather chunky quotation in lectures:

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Neither Uncanny Nor Fantastic

Is it too soon for spoilers?

L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)

I’m unclear how many of the Oz books I’ve read, but I was bought this for Newtonmas something like thirty years ago and I did read this. I suspect it is heresy to say, but I think it is a better book than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, if only because it isn’t overshadowed by the film. Whether it is true or not that the first book was the first American fantasy (I don’t believe this), or is it first for kids?, it was clearly popular enough that Baum was pressurised into a sequel.

The whole point of the first book was to get Dorothy home — having got her to marvellous Oz — and so returning her is a tough gig. The supporting characters got their brain (Scarecrow), heart (Tinman) and courage (Cowardly Lion), so everyone has what they want. Baum elects to bring back the Scarecrow and the Tinman, mainly in support roles, and gives us a boy hero, Tip.

There’s gratitude to all the Dorothies who wrote letters.

Tip is a mysterious orphan, mistreated by the wicked old witchlet Mombi, who decides to play a trick on her by making a scary dummy with a pumpkin head. Mombi responds by bringing him alive. Tip and Jack — a Scarecrow variant — run away to the Emerald City and en route create a living sawhorse and meet a large intelligent beetle (who I suspect was more amusing when I was twelve).

Then comes revolution — a girl’s army is fed up of slaving away and march on and take over the city. The Scarecrow, Tip, Jack and so forth escape, in the hopes of finding Glinda to rescue them, but mainly so that we can have a series of marvellous episodes to show off the weirdness of Oz. The resolution is more interesting than assuming there’s a satire of suffragism going on. Glinda points out that the Scarecrow is only leader because he took the city over on the Wizard’s departure, and the Wizard, who we had been led to believe built the city, usurped someone else. But there is a daughter, hidden away somewhere in safety and so the Force is safe. We also learn — thanks to the various pills and potions that run through the the story (and I get the sense that Baum trapped as liberated by variations on the three wishes trope) — that the Wizard had rather more magic than he pretended.

Did the Wizard in fact get out of town ahead of the coming revolution?

I note that all the characters are abject and marvellous — the living scarecrow, the animated squash, the giant beetle, the cyborg, the sawhorse, the Gump — and so it should be no surprise that Tip is rather more complex than we’ve led to believe. But the restoration of a matriarchal rule is also a restoration of a blood line — and Baum is perhaps not as generous to the army as his character Glinda is.

Apparently Baum had been involved in theatrical productions of Oz and pantomime — and in a world of dames and principal boys, a certain gender bending is not unexpected.

Until You Find the Key to Your Life

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900)

There was a documentary on BBC Radio 4 over Christmas about Alice — a couple of books to which I sometimes have an allergic reaction — that said something along the lines of the Alice books became popular in the 1960s in America because the US had had no fantasy aside from the Oz books.

Ho hum.

But presumably Alice is a taproot text — a young girl who falls into a fantastical world and undergoes an almost random series of encounters before returning home. Baum gives the story more architecture: there is the journey to the City of Emeralds; the journey to the Wicked Witch of the West and the return to the Emerald City. She is given more defined companions, each with a quest of their own: the Scarecrow; the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. A recurring trope in the book is their restatement of their needs, a fairy tale recurring rhetorical structure.

The gimmick is surely clear from the perennial Newtonmas screenings of the film version — the titular Wizard is a humbug and you must search for the hero inside yourself. (Incidentally this is a variation on the anti-technology sf movie dependent on technology to narrate its tale — the fantasy narrative distrustful of fantasy and illusions.) The Wizard isn’t who he claims to be and that is a Bad Thing, but the Scarecrow, Tinman and Cowardly Lion must pretend to be who they want to be and that is a Good Thing.

The book doesn’t have the is-it-a-dream-or-not? frame of the film, in which various farmhands are anticipatory doubles of her companions. The farm sequence is pretty brief, barely a chapter, as Baum clearly knows to get her to the fantasy land as soon as he can. On the other hand, there’s little sense of why she wants to go home (although in the film it makes no sense at all). The flying monkeys are less scary than they become in the movie, as indeed is the Wicked Witch. If more incidents are thrown at Dorothy and the gang in the book than the film, they are dealt with chapter by chapter. Can one whisper the film is an improvement on the novel? Or maybe got to me first.

I think a comment needs to be made on gender, and the power vacuums created and filled by the narrative. Oz is divided into four segments, North and South ruled by good witches, West and East are ruled by bad witches. Four domains, four female rulers. The central zone is the Emerald City, built by the humbug wizard (but see The Marvelous Land of Oz) In the course of the novel two of the women are killed and one is replaced by a male character (it is not clear who rules Munchkinland, but presumably Dorothy has squatter’s rights). The male Wizard is replaced by the male Scarecrow, marking a shift from matriarchy to patriarchy. The novel was written in the era of the New Woman and an era of suffragism.

Perhaps this will become significant in the sequel.

What we want is Watney’s

Andy Weir, The Martian (2011)

So there are exceptions — the Watership Downs and The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Clenchers — which get rejected by dozens of publishers and then become bestsellers. And there’s the self-published which become bestsellers when they’ve gone mainstream. One has to admire Andy Weir for his success — which seems to have been ordained even before we learned that Ridley Scott was going to get his mitts on the manuscript.

Lots of books get optioned.

Some writers live on this — hoping the bloody film never gets made.

This time it did, but I haven’t seen it yet.

So, we have an astronaut, Matt Watney, on the red barrel planet, who gets separated from the rest of his crew in a sandstorm and is left behind. Or, since he’s telling us the story in the first person, possibly he’d nipped for a slash behind the yurt and got distracted. Anyhow.

Because he’s never read Joanna Russ’s We Who Are About Too…, he decides to Rebuild Civilisation by planting potatoes and keeping going until NASA can send a rescue mission. He sits there and does all the calculation in a sort of rivet-counting engineer in Heart of Darkness way, but we have not sense of jeopardy because it’s in the first person and it would be really naff to suddenly switch viewpoints and add This is the last of the tapes we found and Watney’s body was found buried under the sand. On wonders a little about the balance of amino acids he’s going to get with rations and potatoes, and surely the lunacy induced by just eating potatoes is higher than the lunacy of being on your own for four hundred days or being forced to watch nothing but seventies reruns and listening to disco.

Oh yes, yet another sf novel where the protagonist know no culture produced after the date of the novel being written.

There’s a certain kind of purity that comes from a tight focus on a single character.

…and then the action suddenly switches to Earth and NASA and what they want to do with it. They begin to anticipate what Watney will do and how rescue him, and set a new deadline for him to survive to. There are convenient other spaceships around to borrow and presumably extra rations for the rescue team and at least now we have a sense of jeopardy because we don’t know what Watney’s up to…

… only we do cut back to him and we aren’t really allowed to think he’s dead for more than half a page. At least once we get to the third person — and sometimes we see Watney from the third person and in italics if I recall correctly, so there is hope that he might die after all. At any point it could all go horribly Pete Tong.

It reminded me of two earlier novels — but not the exoticism of Barsoom or the nostalgia of The Silver Locusts or the ontology of Martian Time-Slip or the social richness of Red/Green/Blue Mars. Rather it took me back to Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, which confuses pedantry with verisimilitude, and Ben Bova’s Voyagers, which has that international glossiness. Every one is competent, there are no real antagonists except the universe itself.

You might argue there are no people.


It’s a long time since I saw Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I suspect that was a lot more fun. But this is that reasonable novel that does its job and yes, does keep you reading. But I’ll forget it within the week.