No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

2011/19 and 20: The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men -- Patrick Ness

That's the secret of this planet, Todd. Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand each other for once.
I clear my throat. "Women don't got Noise," I say. "What'll happen to them?"
He stops. I'd forgotten ... if there's a way for men to stop having Noise, there must be a way for women to start. (Monsters of Men, p.453)
I'm discussing both novels in a single post because I read them back to back, and it's hard to separate out some aspects.
  1. These two novels, following The Knife of Never Letting Go, complete the Chaos Walking trilogy. They tell the story of Todd and Viola, two teenagers on New World who find themselves in the middle of a war. Possibly more than one war: the native population (called Spackle by the colonists) are rising against the invaders, but there is also conflict between the Mayor's party and those loyal to Mistress Coyle. Todd, who at the start of The Ask and the Answer is plotting to kill the Mayor, finds his beliefs and integrity shaken by the realities of war. Viola, who was sole survivor when a scout ship crashed, brings an external perspective and a few home truths.
  2. The trilogy as a whole is immensely readable -- well-paced, plotty, with plenty of reversals. The books are also a remarkably quick read, full of staccato sentences and creative typography, though not as much as in the first book).,Todd and Viola's voices are utterly distinct (and printed in different fonts). In the third volume there's a third viewpoint character who gets a font of his own: again, a very distinctive voice.
  3. On reflection, I'm inclined to think that the Chaos Walking trilogy is not -- despite Ness's choice of narrators -- primarily the story of Todd and Viola, or even of the conflict between humans and Spackle. Todd and Viola, despite the epic events in which they're instrumental, would very much like their story arc to be a typical teenage romance: they're besotted with one another, they act and justify those actions because of one another, and despite their youth (he's 14, she's 13) they move through the typical dance of romance: love, jealousy, doubt, apparent betrayal. But perhaps the 'real' story is that of David Prentiss, the Mayor (he elects himself President), a former military man who knows a great deal about the allure and corruption of power, and even more about social engineering. Chaos Walking could be read as the Rise and Fall of David Prentiss: he's a complex and credible character.
  4. One of the themes of the trilogy is communication. The Spackle communicate predominantly (only?) via Noise: to take away a Spackle's capacity for generating Noise is to silence that Spackle. ("It makes them better slaves." (A&A, p.100)) The Mayor learns to use Noise as a weapon, and as coercion: apparently this is a teachable skill. But so's reading: the illiterate can become literate if someone who can read 'shares' their skill -- rather than guiding word-by-word -- via the (rather fuzzy) mechanism of Noise. A society used to Noise doesn't expect stealth attacks, because an attacker's Noise would give them away. And Viola, who's become accustomed to Todd's Noise, is disturbed when she can't hear it any more; when he's become the same as the men she grew up with.
  5. I'd have liked more detail about how Noise works. It's audible over a communications link, so it's not traditional telepathy. It's also audible from underwater: the fish of New World are hungry, and have a small but precise vocabulary (eat) which is remarked upon by people on the beach. And I would very much like to know why women don't have it. Human women, anyway: Spackle females, who we never really encounter, have Noise.
  6. There are plenty of good, strong, three-dimensional female characters: Viola, Mistress Coyle, Simone, Todd's dead mother whose present in her journal. The women talk to one another about things other than men. Yet there's no specific, credible explanation of why all the women of the first colony are dead. (David Prentiss tells one story; Mistress Coyle tells another. Neither is a trustworthy source of information.) Given that a considerable part of the emotional content of the novel is about the conflict between men and women -- ranging from attempted 'femicide' to Viola's complaints when she can't hear Todd's noise -- it feels as though we're missing an important part of the story.
  7. Todd's essential decency -- his capacity for empathy, his desire to do the right thing (if only to make Viola happy), and the ways in which he protects himself against a world in which he's forced to be brutal -- is evident throughout the books. It's a catalyst for the actions of others, including the Spackle who wants revenge because Todd ('the Knife') knew that he was doing wrong but still did it, and the Mayor, who says that Todd is making him into a better person -- and, later, that until he met Todd he thought he himself was morally good.
  8. Given that many of the adult humans are either torturers (the Ask) or terrorists (the Answer), it's a relief that one of the more traditional themes of the trilogy is the transition of power from the older generation to the younger. Occasionally this seems slightly too neat, but the three young protagonists have endured a great deal in order to be qualified and competent to pick up the reins when they must.
  9. The Spackle are an intriguing alien race, though they have a damning tendency to speak without contractions (I'm reminded of various TV 'sci-fi' shows, and any number of Noble Savages in popular literature. There's just enough detail about their society to make me want more explanation.
  10. I was pleased to find The New World, a novella that tells the story of Viola's journey to New World, free as an ebook on Amazon. It shows just how quickly Viola has to grow up after the ship crashes, and offers some insight into her character.

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