Review: The Bone Clocks

Not so much a review as an impression. And spoilers, of sorts, although fairly vague ones.

First, as I mentioned earlier, I read David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks while on vacation, which meant I developed an emotionally charged relationship with it, in which the passage of pages grew connected to the flow of time and the declining number of days in which I hid out from winter and normal life. Perhaps I both enjoyed it more and grew to hate it a little, because it had to end. 

Second, it was impossible to read the book without reflecting on Mitchell's stunning Cloud Atlas, one of the best books I didn't love and didn't fully understand. Mitchell can write a hell of a story, and has an expansive mind in which distinct narratives nest within each other, not so neatly as matryoshka dolls, more like a rainforest in a petri dish on a space shuttle waved about in a child's hand. This is another work in which we assemble a plot from multiple perspectives that jump forward through time, inexorably and sometimes heart-breakingly, as characters die off and time marches on, relentless, until the vacation - I mean book - is suddenly over. 

The characters' lives in The Bone Clocks are impacted by a supernatural presence, a counter-current beneath the everyday. Just what is happening behind the scenes remains fragmented and inscrutable for most of the book. Then - wham! - we go full fantasy mode, and strange powers wage war upon each other in a mad monk's extra-dimensional palace, and it starts to sound like a hundred other works in which the warriors of light, defenders of humanity, battle those of the darkness, who see us as their prey. Oddly, Mitchell illuminated the lives of his characters so beautifully that the fantastic elements come across as lackluster, far less interesting than the regular lives we've been watching unfold over the span of decades. 

When we return to the everyday, it's a few decades from now, the oil has run dry and technological civilization has begun to run its course. Humanity is devouring itself for dwindling resources. Things are terribly grim. And although there's a glimmer of hope for one character, the writing appears to be on the wall for our species: a downward spiral of tribalism, brutality, and diminishing prospects for decent lives.

That was when I began to wonder what the hell was going on in this book. Why the fantasy plot, when the eventual trajectory of humanity was a ruinous disintegration of social cohesion? The climactic battle of the ancient warriors didn't really make any difference in the overall result for our species. The predator has been eliminated, but we've done an excellent job at killing ourselves off in far greater numbers than they ever managed. The entire book felt like an elaborate false premise. What was the point of the entire supernatural story line?

Is David Mitchell trying to tell us to get our heads out of our collective asses and stop looking to fantastic fictions to solve our problems? Immortal warriors of the light aren't going to rescue the future of human civilization. Only we can perceive the long, slow act of self-destruction and arrest our collective descent.

Another world

Writing complicates your relationship with everything you read. The more I tell stories, the harder it becomes to suspend disbelief and perceive a story as an organic reality, and not the product of another mind. The author is present in every turn of the tale, an ungoverned god who is willing to torment characters and twist reality for the sake of a few pages' diversion. 

I try to resist, but it has become increasingly difficult. Enjoying a story is less a matter of immersing myself, and more of a meeting of minds. I recognize and admire good craftsmanship, and I frown a little as I see the writer's hand move pieces from behind the shimmering tableau. 

I recently finished Andy Weir's The Martian. It's probably the "hardest" hard sci-fi I've read in a long time, meticulously researched and compellingly plausible. It follows an astronaut who's inadvertently left behind during an emergency evacuation of a Martian mission. Injured, believed dead by his colleagues, and with no way to contact Earth, his prospects seem hopeless. He has at his disposal a shelter and all the technology that was abandoned on the planet's surface... but not nearly enough food to last until the next Mars mission is scheduled to arrive. 

The Martian does one thing exceptionally well: it maroons its hero in a seemingly insurmountable situation, and shows how he assembles a plan to survive. He faces repeated, overwhelming threats, and develops solutions that are elegant and often ingenious. 

But as I read, I began to miss something: introspection. We learn virtually nothing about the protagonist's life on earth, what he misses, what he's fighting to return to. Similarly, although he goes into tremendous detail about the technology around him, there's very little description of the surface of Mars.  You might point out that he's simply not an introspective guy, and he's far too focused on the business of survival to comment on the frozen desert in which he finds himself. Fair enough. But I doubt that if you could spend a solitary year in the great waste of a distant planet, the most isolated human being in the history of the species, without that emptiness looking into you as well. The Martian might have been an interplanetary Walden in addition to a satisfying survival-adventure tale.

And that's the critical phrase: might have been. It wasn't, and people love it just the way it is. The movie (starring Matt Damon) is coming soon to a theater near you. The might have been is the voice I can't suppress, the voice that tries to rewrite everything I read. It runs down branching corridors and comes back breathlessly suggesting endless alternatives. Many, I suspect, are foolhardy; none can really be said to be better or worse. They're different books from other universes.