Friday 5 February 2010

The Power of Books

Being as I am a fan of both Gary Oldman and Denzel Washington, I went to see The Book of Eli on Wednesday. Before going in, I knew nothing about the film, and had few expectations, but I wasn't quite expecting what I saw. For those who have yet to see the film, the basic synopsis is that Denzel Washington plays Eli, a man possessed with the conviction that he must carry a book across the wasteland that was once the United States. On the way, he encounters a small town (think 'Wild West' meets Mad Max) struggling under the dictatorship of Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. Carnegie is searching for a Bible, convinced that if he controls faith, he can control his townspeople. Lo and behold, Eli's book is a Bible, and so begins the struggle for Carnegie to get hold of it.

It's a peculiar film, in a lot of ways. On one hand, it's a film that teeters dangerously closely to the edge of sentimentality in its depiction of religious conviction, with Eli so convinced that he's doing the work of the Lord that he keeps going when most would give up. Yet on the other hand, it yanks back the comforting blanket of personal faith to expose the control and manipulation of people by religion that lies underneath. Eli tells Solara, his female travelling companion, that "after the war", Bibles were burned because many believed them to be the cause of the war. As far as social commentary goes, it's a little ham-fisted, but in a clumsy way, the film has highlighted the importance of books.

Religious books, encyclopaedias, text books and even novels all tell us something about the world in which we live. A heavy tome about chemistry and a dog-eared copy of a hard-boiled detective novel are alike in their ability to grant power to the reader. Throughout the ages, dictators have recognised both the power, and the threat, of the knowledge contained in books, which is why the pages of history are dotted with scorch marks and burnt edges. Of course, the much higher level of global literacy makes the availability of information so much more dangerous. If people can read, then nothing is stopping them learning about economics, philosophy, history, mathematics or, inevitably, religion.

This, in a way, is another of The Book of Eli's veiled warnings. Few people can read in this post-apocalyptic world, leaving men like Carnegie and Eli as the sole interpreters of the written word. Interpretations are often coloured by bias, and where Eli appreciates the spirituality of the Bible, Carnegie sees only a route to power, at the expense of the spirituality of those he seeks to oppress. It's essentially a microcosm of religion as a whole. Some people view the teachings of their chosen religion as guidelines on how to live a fulfilled, and happy, life. The rest use the teachings to instill fear and obedience into their followers. This is why I say that books contain information and knowledge, but not truth. Truth is far too subjective, and open to interpretation. There is nothing inherently wrong with the information - it is the way in which it is used which casts a ruddy glow or gloomy shadow across it.

I won't sport with your intelligence by discussing the "twist" ending, but sufficeth to say, the book is not all that it appears. I would have imagined that you guessed that already. In a lot of ways, Eli is a truly admirable character, devoted to his cause and possessed by the sort of inner fire that you often dream about finding within yourself, when you're clinging to a pole in an overcrowded train carriage on a wet Monday morning. My biggest problem is that I simply can't put enough faith into the teachings of the book he is trying to hard to protect.

Still, in this digital age, it's quite nice to see a film centered upon a book. After all, I can't quite picture a film in which one man would happily shoot another over a Kindle, can you?

Sunday 31 January 2010

Iron Council; Or how I learned to love China Mieville

I'm quite pleased with myself today - I finally finished China Mieville's Iron Council this morning, meaning that I have started on the right path towards completing one of my New Year goals. That is, I wanted to read at least one novel every month for the whole year.

Now, I'll be honest with you. I didn't always like China Mieville. My good friend Simon was determined that I'd like him, and loaned me Perdido Street Station a couple of years back. It sounded interesting, and I wanted to like it so much since Simon clearly thought a lot of it. Trouble is, I didn't like it. Not at first. I persevered with it for Simon's sake, getting bored with the length of time it was taking for anything to happen. Then, about 3/4 of the way into the book, it did. BAM! I couldn't put it down.

Still, that's a fairly bad sign if it takes me until almost 75% of a book to decide I like it. Simon was still determined that I'd like Mieville, and let me borrow The Scar. I think The Scar is a much more successful book (possibly because the location is a lot more limited - New Crobuzon's sprawling nature means that sometimes more emphasis is placed on the geography than the plot), and features a host of fabulous characters (Uther Doul, the Brucolac, Tanner Sack etc.) but it still took me until half of the way in before I liked it.

Thankfully, where Iron Council is concerned, I liked it immediately. I found it quite difficult to warm to any of the characters, since they're all either selfish, arrogant, pathetic or one-dimensional, but the plot managed to keep things cracking along at a fair pace. He divides the book into smaller books, each concerned with past events which explain the present goings-on, or with the machinations and actions of the present. Mieville has certainly got a broad vision of his continent of Bas-Lag, and his sheer invention of geography, science and history makes this an incredibly awesome book. New Crobuzon, his immense city that provides a home to countless different species, becomes a character in its own right; both backdrop, and protagonist.

If you like sprawling epics within the speculative fiction or fantasy genres, then I suspect that you just might grow to like Mieville as much as I have...