Northern Lights


Bag o’shite.

As research for something I’m working on that may rear its head relatively soon, or at some far point in the future, or perhaps never at all, I read the first volume in Philip Pullman’s His (‘n’ Hers) Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights.

Because so many people of genuine intelligence rate his work I was presuming that it would turn out to be rather good, and far superior to the clumsy stylings of J.K. Rowling (the latest in a longish line of children’s authors with barely passable literary skills that the general public nevertheless hold dear to their hearts. See also, J.R.R. Tolkien). Upon reading it, however, I found that I did not like it. No, I did not like it one bit.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Pullman is a great ideas man. I won’t go into what it’s all about because you probably know, and if you don’t there are people out there who can tell you with a great deal more enthusiasm than I can, but the parallel universe he creates is full of neat imaginative twists, with the familiar made to feel strange, and vice versa. The problem is that it’s dead on the page. Why?

Because he can’t write characters to save his life. He really doesn’t seem to have any real understanding of how human beings work. And without characters, you don’t have anything that can be accurately described as a novel (unless you’re Olaf Stapledon, who was a genius, which Pullman isn’t).

Take the protagonist, Lyra. Presumably, we’re meant to fall in love with this little girl. Only problem is, her main characteristic is that she lies a bit. That’s not enough to drag me through the novel, at least not without me kicking and screaming.

Often, Lyra simply forgets to react to things. Major changes of fortune, grand revelations, even deaths, are met with an eerie silence from Lyra. Occasionally she’s eventually provided with an oddly delayed reaction, but many times not.

Along the way, Lyra encounters various helpers who she becomes deeply attached to. They also become deeply attached to her. Presumably the reader is meant to get deeply attached to all of them. This is hard, as none of the good guys possess any quality, such as wit, charm or even mysteriousness that you can really hook your affections or at the very least, attention on to. Then, once a friend has been made, Lyra will invariably be separated from them and hardly think of them again until the plot demands it, which renders the alleged earlier affection somewhat suspect.

On a technical level, Pullman’s writing itself ensures that a deep identification with any character is impossible. We drift in and out of Lyra’s perspective and fleetingly into those of other characters. A lot of the time, we’re just hovering uncertainly outside the action, like a shy person at a party. Sometimes, we discover things as Lyra does and have access to her thoughts, but then it’ll turn out that Lyra’s been learning to master the use of a magical compass or something behind our backs, and suddenly knows more about what’s going on than we do. She then has to have a convenient explanatory conversation with someone before we can catch up. These are basic writing errors, and ones that Pullman’s nemesis from beyond the grave, C.S. Lewis, knew not to make (I think. I haven’t read him since I was eleven. I’d check, but it’s a bank holiday and the library’s closed. Maybe he did make them. I’m having a crisis of faith. Like Susan with her makeup in The Last Battle).

Ultimately, I couldn’t care less about any of it. It felt like the literary equivalent of The Phantom Menace, the first part of a saga that stretches out before you like a particularly unwelcome train journey involving multiple changes, because its first few chapters guarantee that at no point will the human element come into play. In fact, I preferred The Phantom Menace, because that, at least, had a Holby City cast member wearing a humorous uniform.

You heard me. I preferred The Phantom Menace. I do not say those words lightly.

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One Response to “Northern Lights”

  1. wow… such a wonderful post…
    outstanding balance of lines and words….
    Learnt a lot from you….

    visit mine… & plz plz plz post your comments….

    Thank you…

    I’ll be in touch…

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