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View Full Version : Susan Cooper: Bad astronomy, turgid narrative



Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-25, 09:38 PM
Decades ago I attempted to read Over Sea, Under Stone. I must have been about 18. I remember finding the astronomy rather poor - a major part of the storyline was based on the incorrect assumption that the sun sets in the same place every day of the year, and that you have to actually watch the sun set - you can't just work out where it is supposed to set.

This year, I decided to have another go. This was partly because I'd heard that the second book in the series had been filmed (although the reviews have been so scathing that the film is no longer on my "to see" list). I've got to roughly the same place, and I'm having the same problems as before. The astronomy, which is essential to the plot, makes no sense, and this time I've noticed that the narrative is more work than it deserves. Honestly, how many words does it take to convey the fact that someone has run a long way and has had to hide from some baddies? A current author such as Philip Pullman would have you quaking in your boots as you read - heck, you'd have forgotten you were reading a book and be thinking your own life was in peril.

Yet The Dark Is Rising series is often held up as a classic. Why? Was it the sheer lack of competition around at the time?

Gillianren
2008-Jun-26, 03:04 AM
I'll let you know when I've gotten to it. It's on the shelf. (I thought about seeing the movie, but as I've watched Deadwood, it would be weird to see one of the actors in anything else--he appears in Deadwood as "the guy who owns the 'saloon' and swears a lot.")

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-26, 03:19 AM
Thanks Gillian but I'm really interested in opinions about the book(s) rather than the film - especially opinions that might motivate me to pesist with it/them. Is there something thrilling coming up to justify the slog and serious credibility shortcomings of the earlier chapters?

Gillianren
2008-Jun-26, 04:36 AM
You misunderstand--I've no intention of seeing the film, since I hear nothing but bad. I may get to the books sooner or later, though, and when/if I do, I'll let you know.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-26, 06:30 AM
Sorry, my misunderstanding. (Insomnia post.)

captain swoop
2008-Jun-26, 08:45 AM
lack of competition?
There have always been bad writers.

Unfortunately Sci-Fi and Fantasy seems to have a large share of them.

Tog
2008-Jun-26, 08:56 AM
Just a thought. Maybe the reason the books are well regarded is that the majority of people who read them don't care enough about the astronomy to let it get to them. Once I find something that "breaks" a story for me, it's really hard to get back into it, and I start looking for other things to not like about it.

Dean Koontz is an example. The only book of his that I've read was Odd Thomas. I thought the story was great. The book might have been, if it had been anyone else that wrote it. Nothing just happens in this book. It happens like other things. "The grass spreads out on the lawn like a lush, living blanket over a pillow top mattress of dirt" (not a real quote), but every page seemed to have one or two of those. By the middle of the book, I wanted to heckle. I can't see myself ever reading another one of his.

In this case, the astronomy is something you know, and it's annoying that something so critical to the plot would so poorly portrayed so you begin looking for other things to hate and become more critical of the style.

Don't get me wrong, I'm with you on this. If it's something that critical, and a subject I know about, and they get it all wrong, I'll probably stop reading it too.

I'm also sort of curious as to why the sun is that way in the book now though.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-26, 11:09 AM
Excellent post, Tog_.

The only bit I don't agree with is the looking for other things to dislike.

Despite loathing the film, I remember reading Interview with the Vampire. One serious problem I had with it was the "background body count" issue. Louis and his two vampire chums fed on one human each per day throughout their 100 year stay in New Orleans. Ignoring the various other vampires, this means there must have been 100,000 blood-drained corpses scattered about the place by the time they left, but nobody noticed. That, to my mind, is insanely ludicrous. (Some vampire writers get around this in various ways such as by not having the vampires actually drain their victims, or reducing their need to feed to manageable amounts. Anne Rice did not.)

But I actually came to terms with this ludicrousness before I read the book. Indeed, my wish to confront such an absurdity was part of my motivation for reading. And in all other regards, I found it an enjoyable read. (I tried reading Lestat, but ground to a halt before I reached halfway.)

I read one Dean R. Koontz - Phantoms, partly because it was a major source for Silent Hill, and partly because I found a copy in my loft. I enjoyed it, but was not left with the impression that Koontz is anything more than a horror hack.

Actually, I recently came to the conclusion that horror writers such as Clive Barker, Anne Rice and others are a little too eager to portray themselves as something more than hacks who give people entertaining scares. "We're literary, and we say important things about society," some say. But I don't agree. With rare exceptions, horror stories should be pulp that gives people cheap scares. That, to my mind, is a sufficiently admirable goal.

Finally, Captain Swoop's suggestion - lack of competition - has some merit. AFAIK, there was not much fantasy around when Susan Cooper was writing, except for Narnia, Tolkien and books for very young children.

KaiYeves
2008-Jun-26, 01:51 PM
I liked the book, although that astronomy was definitely wrong. What I had a beef with was how anybody could find an uncle who looks for ancient secrets boring.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-26, 04:03 PM
Thanks for that, KaiYeves - it's nice to know it's not just me who thinks the astronomy is wrong!

I think I might persist with it because the Wikipedia article on the books suggests the series does get better.

Matherly
2008-Jun-26, 04:07 PM
lack of competition?
There have always been bad writers.

Unfortunately Sci-Fi and Fantasy seems to have a large share of them.

I direct you to Sturgeon's Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeons_Law)

To misquote, "90% of Sci-Fi is crap, because 90% of everything is crap"

pghnative
2008-Jun-26, 04:26 PM
he appears in Deadwood <snip> and swears a lot.")That's redundant, right? (haven't seen the show, but that's what I've read about it)

Gillianren
2008-Jun-26, 07:04 PM
That's redundant, right? (haven't seen the show, but that's what I've read about it)

Put it this way--he swears a lot by Deadwood standards.

eburacum45
2008-Jun-26, 07:47 PM
he swears a lot by Deadwood standards.
Heh, heh; Ian Mcshane, I presume. I wonder if you've ever seen him in the rather twee British comedy drama series, Lovejoy: that might give you some idea of his range.

captain swoop
2008-Jun-26, 09:37 PM
I didn't suggest lack of competition, I suggested that maybe it just wasn't very good. From my experience of Sci-Fi and Fanasy and the tastes and standards expected by friends of mine there is a lot of poor writing that seems to be regarded as 'Classic'

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-26, 09:39 PM
I direct you to Sturgeon's Law (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sturgeons_Law)

To misquote, "90% of Sci-Fi is crap, because 90% of everything is crap"

Whereas there is some truth in Surgeon's law, I think it gets overquoted.

It is not a law of nature, and there are undoubtedly areas or sections of the market where quality is abundant, and others where it is in very short supply.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-26, 09:41 PM
I didn't suggest lack of competition
Has someone been using your account without permission, Captain? ;)

captain swoop
2008-Jun-26, 09:56 PM
If you read the OP it was there that you suggested lack of competition.

Roy Batty
2008-Jun-27, 12:09 AM
The 'Dark is Rising' series does get better - but it was written more for older children not adults (of course that means it's more important to get critical astronomy bits right!), but 'Over Sea Under Stone', whilst being the 1st chronologically, is definitely the weakest IMHO. Best to read the 2nd, 'The Dark is Rising' (& no, I have very little desire to see the film yet either!) then the 1st & then carry on with the other three. It's kind of like the whole read the 'Lion Witch Wardrobe' thang before 'Magicians Nephew' :)
Any way if you don't like the book 'The Dark is Rising' then I shouldn't bother to carry on, that was what got me hooked 1st & searched out the others.
Sorry for rambling a bit - just that I grew up with the books around 9-10 or so & they still sit proudly on my bookcase with fond memories :) I've read them again several times over the years of course but I found each time I did some of the magic I found at that younger age eroded away .... This of course happens when we read our chidlhood/earlier faves as we get more critical & experienced.

TrAI
2008-Jun-27, 12:44 AM
Excellent post, Tog_.

The only bit I don't agree with is the looking for other things to dislike.

Despite loathing the film, I remember reading Interview with the Vampire. One serious problem I had with it was the "background body count" issue. Louis and his two vampire chums fed on one human each per day throughout their 100 year stay in New Orleans. Ignoring the various other vampires, this means there must have been 100,000 blood-drained corpses scattered about the place by the time they left, but nobody noticed. That, to my mind, is insanely ludicrous. (Some vampire writers get around this in various ways such as by not having the vampires actually drain their victims, or reducing their need to feed to manageable amounts. Anne Rice did not.)

But I actually came to terms with this ludicrousness before I read the book. Indeed, my wish to confront such an absurdity was part of my motivation for reading. And in all other regards, I found it an enjoyable read. (I tried reading Lestat, but ground to a halt before I reached halfway.)

(This may end up containing some spoilers and stuff about the vampire chronicle series...)

Hmmm... Well, many of the victims are probably of the lower classes and the types that will not be missed by many people, anyway I expect that their deaths will be put down to crime or plague(It is mentioned later in the series that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the vampires to keep their actions off the scope in the modern world).Also I am not really sure that Lestat needs to feed that often by that time, as the vampire lives on, their need to feed is reduced, this effect can be accelerated by feeding on very old vampires, something Lestat seems to have done pretty often...

If I recall correctly, there is some mention of vampires limiting their feeding in the series, apperantly it is essential for a to be able to justify their feeding to theirselves or they will not be able to live with themselves after a time, the most common ways are either by feeding on the guilty followed by only feeding a little from each person, so as not to hurt them.

Lestat generaly follows the practice of feeding on criminals/"bad" people I believe(though not always), he probably instructed Claudia in this too, they could easily pick out potential targets with their telepathic abillities. Of course, the things that happens in first book really is heavily distorted by Louis' point of view and his innabillity to get to grips with his vampire state, so these things really isn't apperant there. Louis is, of course, unable to use the mind gifts as a result of this.


I read one Dean R. Koontz - Phantoms, partly because it was a major source for Silent Hill, and partly because I found a copy in my loft. I enjoyed it, but was not left with the impression that Koontz is anything more than a horror hack.

Actually, I recently came to the conclusion that horror writers such as Clive Barker, Anne Rice and others are a little too eager to portray themselves as something more than hacks who give people entertaining scares. "We're literary, and we say important things about society," some say. But I don't agree. With rare exceptions, horror stories should be pulp that gives people cheap scares. That, to my mind, is a sufficiently admirable goal.

Finally, Captain Swoop's suggestion - lack of competition - has some merit. AFAIK, there was not much fantasy around when Susan Cooper was writing, except for Narnia, Tolkien and books for very young children.

I am not really sure that the vampire chronicles is ment to be horror, it is more about people struggling to come to terms with their new state, and to have to live with their actions over houndreds or thousands of years than about horror. Claudia and Louis traveled to Europe to try to find the meaning of their existance, Claudia really can not come to grips with having the body of a child forever, and her obsession is partly responsible for her death. Lestat knows pretty much all there is to know about the hows and whys, but he does not have the answers either, and to add to his problems, he is haunted by deep regret for the pain he caused Claudia by making her a vampire, and is very affraid that she hates him. Louis too, in fact, I seem to remember that he almost got himself killed by trying to ask her how she felt about him.

Anyway, It's been quite a while since I read the books, so I may remember something wrong.

As for the history of fantasy and its related genres, they have probably been around since the dawn of storytelling, but it may have been hard to find it. These days most stories that are in existance is available somewere on the net, and people from all over the place can exchange views and suggest books, so it may be easier to find even older stories now then when books was the dominant data carrier, and the searching would have to be done by hand.

There is also a quite a few people that publish their books on the net, or as podcast audiobooks. I guess this is one of the examples of the cycles of technology, with the reemergance of oral storytelling, but in a new medium. But I guess I am starting to go OT, and this post is to long as it is, so...

Lord Jubjub
2008-Jun-27, 01:17 AM
Under Sea, Over Stone was written in 1965. Good book but definitely for tweens. I don't think Cooper was looking to write a story with English myths as a theme. That would come up in the second book.

The Dark is Rising was written in 1974 and appears to have little to do with the first book. I don't think Cooper originally meant to connect the two stories. She used the same background character (Merriman). The astronomy is meant more for mystical/mythological aspects than realism. The movie (I haven't seen it) apparently trashes all of the English mythology and Americanizes the story. The Dark is Rising is a good Young Adult thriller, but the ending is definitely a bit of a chore to fully comprehend.

The Greenwitch is the last chapters of Under Sea. It brings the first two books together but seems to be more interested in wrapping up the first book than introducing anything new. Since it was published only a year or two after Dark, this was clearly a throwaway book, imo.

The Grey King is based on actual Welsh myths. The plot is not as complex as The Dark is Rising, but has a very evocative style. I think by this book, Cooper had an idea that bound the entire series together and this showed a bit in this book. Had she slowed down and given herself more time to write, this story could have been a bit better.

Silver on the Tree had no business being published as a single story. It is very clearly two stories and Cooper seemed to have been too interested in wrapping up the story and tossing out more mythology than providing a single thrilling story. Sometimes I think that Tolkien's method was the best. Take your time and let the story tell itself. Silver was published only three years after Dark. Had she taken her time, this series would have been a classic on par with any other Young Adult story--including Pullman.

Tog
2008-Jun-27, 07:21 AM
Excellent post, Tog_.

The only bit I don't agree with is the looking for other things to dislike.

Thanks.

For me, as long as there is a willingness to overlook the stupid bits, the story can be saved. Star Trek VI comes to mind here. I liked it. It may be my favorite of the series, but it's got some serious flaws in the plot. We're talking "How far above the Moon does this alleged vacuum go" serious. Still, I ignored that and enjoyed the film.

On the other hand, Armageddon made flaws of about the same magnitude (just with physics, rather then plot), but it wasn't good enough to save it from digging further into stuff.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-27, 10:47 AM
TrAI:


Well, many of the victims are probably of the lower classes and the types that will not be missed by many people, anyway I expect that their deaths will be put down to crime or plague(It is mentioned later in the series that it is becoming increasingly difficult for the vampires to keep their actions off the scope in the modern world).Also I am not really sure that Lestat needs to feed that often by that time, as the vampire lives on, their need to feed is reduced, this effect can be accelerated by feeding on very old vampires, something Lestat seems to have done pretty often...
They might have limited their feeding in later stories, but they didn't in Interview. And yes there was a plague in Interview, but still... Even if Louis was exaggerating by orders of magnitude (and there was no suggestion that he was) they were still getting through a substantial fraction of the population - and if he wasn't exaggerating, they were getting through more people than were alive!

1000 bodies per year, every year (plague or not), all similarly drained of blood... even Poirot doesn't encounter that many suspicious cases!


But I guess I am starting to go OT, and this post is to long as it is, so...
Very interesting, though.

Lord Jubjub:

Thanks for your post. I am more convinced now that it's worth persisting.

Matherly
2008-Jun-27, 02:24 PM
Whereas there is some truth in Surgeon's law, I think it gets overquoted.

It is not a law of nature, and there are undoubtedly areas or sections of the market where quality is abundant, and others where it is in very short supply.

:eh: And sometimes everything that can go wrong doesn't, and yet we still quote Murphy's Law. C'mon man, it's snark. It's not supposed to be a law of physics.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jun-27, 03:04 PM
:eh: And sometimes everything that can go wrong doesn't, and yet we still quote Murphy's Law. C'mon man, it's snark. It's not supposed to be a law of physics.

I was speaking generally, not having a go at you.

I was put off Sturgeon's Law when a loud-mouthed magazine editor declared that it is always true, and even went so far as to say that if you removed the 90% that was crud, the remaining 10% would STILL be 90% crud. Said editor was treating as if it WAS a law of physics. (Not Sturgeon's fault, of course.)

But even when it's not used in this extreme way, it's too easily used (by some, not you) to undermine differences in quality.

Paul Beardsley
2008-Jul-11, 10:38 PM
Well, I finished the first book. (I haven't had much time for leisure reading lately.)

It was okay.

I will probably read the next book, but I'm in no hurry.