Thursday, 25 March 2010

Toby Litt-- Journey Into Space

This is a fairly short book, but not short on scope. It covers generations and light years, in its 242 pages. This, I think, is a strength and a weakness. More on that later.

Journey Into Space is the story of the mid-generations who live in stasis on a longhaul spaceflight. The nearest habitable planets are so far away that the people who arrive there will be the great great grandchildren--at least--of those who set out. It sort of sucks for the people in the middle, but that's Mission.
August and Celeste, two cousins, are bright and disillusioned. They have to be bright to find ways to escape the prying eyes of a society of exactly one-hundred living in a small space ship, with all-seeing cameras available to everybody through the ship's software.
Their actions are personal: and almost inevitable, in the inhuman environment they have been forced into. But their personal actions disrupt the stasis and echo down the subsequent generations of gods, hedonists and prophets on an earth-shattering (I promise) scale.

I enjoyed this book a huge amount--it's among my favourites that I have read since starting this blog. But a few things bother me. To stop this sounding like I'm unhappy with the book (I'm really, really not) I will balance every Dislike with a Like.

Dislike: I don't want to spoil the plot, but a whole chunk of events involving two main characters--the only characters we ever really get to know, and care about--is told in a metaphor. There's a reason for this that I can see, but it's annoying and not worth it. It's the one part of the book I would love to read most, the most real and gritty and human and painful, but instead there is the story of a planet with odd weather. Pages and pages and pages of it. I'm sure it's clever, but it reads as cowardly.

Like: The prose, throughout, is great. Entertaining, unique, and somehow still completely unobtrusive. The huge shifts in scale are deftly handled, years flittering past in a sentence right next to moments dwelt on, without any incongruity. Something small--an ambiguous glance--can live along side something galactic--the end of a species. Great stuff.

Dislike: A lot hinges on a short letter that a character sort-of sends. We never find out what it says. I could hardly believe we don't find out: I was so sure it would come up. So sure, in fact, that I wonder if I somehow managed to miss it (maybe it was snuck on to a page about the weather on a metaphorical planet?)
Having said that, I'm not completely sure leaving it out is a bad thing. It's the sort of thing I want to know, but I may well have enjoyed the book better, without knowing. Which is good and brave authoring, if that is indeed the case.

Like: The ending is about what the characters would do if they could go back to the earth pre-Mission, pre-apocalypse. They could be anything! They list dozens of amazing things they would do. My favourite:

"I would have been a very fast runner who didn't stop running even when the race was over."

It's a clear call to be thankful for the opportunities of our Here and Now, and an unabashed pointing to the privilege of it, historically. And it's a demand to go out and use it, somehow. It's not at all what I expected from a 'literary' author. This is the sort of positive, emphatic sentiment I see smirked at and sneered at by literary types. So, go Toby!

Here's the bad news, though. All that was just the introduction. That's right, this is a long post... but sit tight! I actually have a slighty-less vague idea, this time. And I'll get there in the end.

I've talked a lot about scale already, on this blog, and this book is a really good microcosm of why the issue fascinates me.
Firstly, scale does not equal size. This book is a shorty. It's not even good for its 242 pages , with blank pages (note the plural) seperating each of its five parts. Yet it's huge, on scale. It must cover over a century, it has cults that come and grow and split and go, it has life and death and... well, loads. I cound go on.
Secondly, scale is not exclusive. I don't think this book is a complete success in this regard, but it certainly shows that there is no fundamental reason why the human and historic cannot exist complimentarily side by side.

It's becoming clear from this blog already, one thing I do love in fiction is getting to know people. This book suggests a distinction in how this can be done. The two scales:

The Historic Scale. The historic scale allows generational insight. It is typically, I think, broad and shallow. This reminds me of something. It might be Aristotle, with all his eudaimonia nonsense... Anyway. The completist way to know somebody is to cover their entire life. It's more how God knows us, than how we know each other.
The fact that it is so different from how we know each other is half its charm. Pratchett has said the goal of a novelist (though he was talking fantasy novelist, mainly) is to show the familiar in a new way, making it appear unfamiliar. It works on people, too. There is merit in knowing people in a new and unfamiliar way.
Because we never know one person over the entire course of their life. Not really. We come close, at times, and I think this is the other half of the charm of knowing people on the historic scale: that it evokes the closest thing we have to it in real life: long, old, friendships. When you've known someone for 20 years (I can'treally talk about anything longer), you've actually known three or four people, who are all mysteriously the same person. The historic scale can distil this slightly weird feeling.

The Human Scale. The human scale offers momentary insight. It is usually deep and fleeting. It also reminds me of something: you know those friendships you get on holiday? The holiday is only one week long, so you know you will only spend one week with these people. That's all the time you have. So you get these crazy-intense friendships, not very long but deeper than normal.You only get to know a small part of the othe person, because people only carry a small amount of themselves around at any given time. Yet you also get to know that side of the person more deeply than some of you know your year-round, every-day friends.
In fiction, this scale allows the littleness that make people so amazing and people-ish to become big. Small, unnoticed events become huge and heartfelt, because we know them so intensely. I'm trying not to be biased, but it's probably clear: I prefer the human scale to the historic (I mean, just look at the names I gave them.) What somes up humanity better, though: a love letter or a political constitution?

The conflicts between these two scales runs throughout Journey Into Space. With just the human scale, you could never get the extent of the implications that come tumbling from August and Celeste's transgression. You could never get the moment where Herakles and Ultima are orbitting the uninhabitable earth, finding out things, musing on what they would have done with an erthbound life, as they peacefully use up the last of their oxygen. These events need the historic scale to exist.
With the historic scale, these moments are possible: but they are also lacking. They should be some of the most powerful things I've ever read. I really should have cried. But after the opening two characters, the human scale is lost--there isn't time for it, with all the history--and I don't really know Herakles and Ultima at all. Sure, it's sad, but I only thought that. I never felt it.

The solution is simple. If this book had been a 500-page epic, I'd have been in tears (but after a month of reading.) I'm not saying this should be a long book, because I love short books. But I'm pointing out where the pay-off lies. I see the options like this:

A Human Book. Get up close, get personal. Make me care about the characters. Let me get to know them intimately, not distantly. Screw history.

A Historic Book. Get out of their heads and into the world. Show me distant points of their life, so I know them more than they ever knew themselves. Let me see the trends across their decades, not the mood-swings of a morning.

A Looooong Book. Go on then, do them both. But you better know exactly what you're doing, and be bloody good at it.

Pkay, that's all I have. Hats off to anybody who has managed to read this whole thing. Sorry for rambling (I'm not sorry).


  1. Doff your cap and bow! Read every word of this mother of blog!

    Sounds like a ruddy good book. I think I'd prefer the Human scale too. Odd really considering.

  2. Ok, a few things:
    1. This book sounds amazing.
    2. I now have such an urge to just sit in a room with you for a very long evening drinking and talking about random shit.
    3. As a historian I've got to say that both scales fascinate me.

  3. I love this blog.
    Also, I now really want to read this book.