The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Master story teller of dark tales Neil Gaiman produced another brilliant book for young adults back in 2008 and my Bloomsbury edition is beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell. Gaiman is probably best known for his books Coraline and Stardust both of which were turned into wonderfully strange films, along with the comic novel masterpiece that is Sandman and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett in writing Good Omens. The American edition, also released in 2008 was illustrated by Dave McKean who also did all the covers for the Sandman graphic novels and this version contains far more illustrations than the UK edition but I really like the sparseness of the Riddell pictures, see the two examples below. The darkness of the novel starts right from page one where before we get to the bottom of the page our hero’s entire family, mother, father and elder sister have been murdered by the man Jack and he is going up the stairs to kill him who is just eighteen months old. First is the picture by Chris Riddell and then comes part of the image of the same scene by Dave McKean.

Fortunately for the, as yet unnamed, toddler he had heard something and climbed out of his cot using his teddy bear as a stepladder and had worked his way down the stairs whilst the man Jack had been killing his family. Finding the front door open he had gone outside as stairs going up were far more difficult than bouncing down on your bottom so the choices were limited and tottered up the road outside until he reached what looked like a park. The man Jack followed him by scent, for there is a lot more to the man Jack than just a common assassin as we will find out as the book progresses, but as for the toddler he is now at an old graveyard, one that is no longer used for burials and is now, at least during the daytime, a nature park, but it is currently nighttime and the gates are locked but the child could squeeze through the railings. Eventually the man Jack tracks down the child and gets into the graveyard only to be confronted with the ghosts who ‘live’ there along with Silas (more of him later) and after a brief appearance of the ghosts of his family the inhabitants of the graveyard decide to look after the child as best they can.

Silas convinces the man Jack to leave using one of his powers which is to be extremely convincing even to such as Jack and is appointed the child’s guardian by the rest of the ghosts because Silas can leave the graveyard and exist in the world of the living as he is neither dead nor alive. It is never made clear in the book who, or indeed what, Silas is but he is clearly from the realm of the undead. All of this takes place in the first five pages of what is a 289 page book so as you can see Gaiman packs a lot of story into this work which was written piecemeal as he came up with ideas.

My son Michael inspired this book. He was only two years old, riding his little tricycle between gravestones in the summer, and I had a book in my head. Then it just took me twenty-something years to write it.

When I started writing the book (I started with Chapter Four) only my daughter Maddy’s request to know what happened next kept me writing beyond the first couple of pages

From the Acknowledgements at the rear of the book

Chapter four was originally published as a short story entitled ‘The Witch’s Headstone’ in a couple of anthologies and each of the chapters from two to seven make up complete short stories set a couple of years apart as Bod, as he becomes known, grows up in the graveyard with Silas able to bring food and clothes from the town of the living to keep him alive and the ghosts teaching him what they can. Bod, short for Nobody, makes a friend for a short while and Scarlett features in a couple of the chapters, Bod even manages to go to school for a while but that doesn’t end well and the man Jack reappears to try to finish what he started all those years ago but this time Bod is a teenager and on his own territory and knows just how to deal with the man Jack and his four accomplices. The book has funny parts as well as sections of considerable menace and appeals to adults both young and old. I loved it. There was even talk of making a film but despite a few abortive attempts nothing has yet come of that. But for me the most fun way to enjoy the book is with Neil Gaiman himself reading it which can be found here. This is the American edition so some of the words have been changed, a nappy becomes a diaper for example but even so enjoy…

Second Foundation – Isaac Asimov

Concluding the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov, the review of part one can be found here and part two here.

This book is in two sections ‘Search by The Mule’ which is sixty pages long and ‘Search by the Foundation’ which is almost twice the length at 117 pages. After the events in Foundation and Empire both The Mule and The Foundation come to the conclusion that the mysterious Second Foundation hinted at by Hari Seldon three hundred years ago when he created the First Foundation on Terminus is a danger to their continued existence although for very different reasons, but where is it? Seldon had stated that the Second Foundation would be created at the other end of the Galaxy to the First but where exactly was that?

Search by The Mule (Originally published in January 1948 as ‘Now You See It’). This story continues immediately after the ending of the previous book and looks at the five years The Mule spent looking for the Second Foundation using both his mentally controlled subjects and a man who wasn’t under his direct control in case the control itself was what was stopping the leaps of imagination needed to locate it. After five years he gave up determined that the Second Foundation didn’t exist and concentrated on his empire, this story explains why.

Search by The Foundation (Originally published in three parts from November 1949 to January 1950 as ‘Now You Don’t’). Another fifty or so years have passed and during that time the First Foundation has been studying the brain as never before, partly in an attempt to understand the almost mythical Second Foundation especially since The Mule had decided it wasn’t there to be found. But they were convinced that Seldon’s plan had to be true and that the Second Foundation had helped, in secretive ways, to defeat their enemies over the last 3½ centuries. At the start of the novella five men gather at a family home to start an audacious attempt to find the Second Foundation, this story is probably the most fun of all the ones making up the trilogy especially with the final unexpected twist right at the end.

The three covers from this Panther edition make a complete image and it’s a great one from Chris Foss who I’m glad to say is still designing spaceships, including for the film Guardians of the Galaxy.

In the 1980’s Asimov returned to the Foundation series in an effort to integrate them with the other novels he had written, specifically the Robot series. One of the most striking aspects of the Foundation series when considered amongst Asimov’s other works is the lack of robots particularly from an author famous for his ‘three laws of robotics’ and numerous books about man and robots living together. The additional books comprise two prequels ‘Prelude to Foundation’ (1988) and ‘Forward the Foundation’ (1993) along with two sequels ‘Foundation’s Edge’ (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). ‘Forward the Foundation’ was published posthumously as Asimov died in April 1992. Of these books I only have a copy of ‘Prelude to Foundation’ but maybe I should get copies of the other three and give them a read, I have after all enjoyed rereading the original trilogy after decades of the books sat on my shelves unopened.

Campaigns & Companions – Andi Ewington and Rhianna Pratchett

OK, this is an extremely short book, being more a series of jokes about why you should never let your pets take part in Role Playing Games such as Dungeons and Dragons, it is however also extremely funny and beautifully illustrated by Calum Alexander Watt. I purchased the signed edition which comes with four art cards each signed by one of the two authors, the illustrator and the editor and which have on the back a character profile in the style of RPG’s of the illustrated pets including special skills and dice rolling advantages and disadvantages. It has arrived in the post today and has immediately leapfrogged over all the other books in my to be read pile.

As it says on the back cover “What if your pets could play D&D? And what if they were… kind of Jerks?”

Anyone who has ever owned a cat will be all too familiar with that particular feline trait. There are forty five double page spreads like this with a scenario from a game on the left hand side and an illustration which mainly stays on the right but occasionally strays over to mix with the text, There is also a centre page double spread picture of the animals playing whilst seated at a table just as if they are human. One I particularly liked, because a friends dog is quite capable of doing this, is a dog with his staff in his mouth not able to understand why he can’t get through an archway. I’ve watched her dog try to get through a door to greet me whilst holding a branch in his mouth that is clearly too large to go through and getting more and more puzzled as to why he can’t get in.

Amazingly all the jokes work, there is a preponderance of cat and dog tales but that simply reflects the spread of pets, at least in the UK but there are also gerbils, a hamster, rats, a chameleon, a rabbit, a snake and even a spider amongst various others, but everything rings true to the habits of the animals.

As I said at the beginning of this review the four art cards, each signed by one of the people involved in the project, have a different format to the rest of the book and take four of the featured characters from the book and add more details on the back of the card that would be relevant if they were taking part in a Role Playing Game. The four cards are as follows:

I’ll just show the top half of the card for Rexar the Fighter and Poppy which was signed by Rhianna Pratchett, who by the way in her dedication in the book says “To Pinky and Perky. My wonderful girls. Thank you for all the bleps, plurps and snuggles”, I just hope they were guinea pigs and that is why she chose to sign this one. The other three contributors also dedicated the book to their pets

This shows the sort of extra detail, and jokes, that are only available to owners of the signed edition and as this cost the same price I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t get this variant at least while stocks last, it is only available from Forbidden Planet whilst the standard edition is widely distributed. The book is published by Rebellion who I hadn’t heard of before but I suspect it will be worth checking out their catalogue. As Ian Livingstone (co-founder of Games Workshop and the Fighting Fantasy series of books) says in his blurb for the book

Dangerously funny – I had to make a saving throw vs side-splitting. Pet adventurers – you have been warned.

Foundation and Empire – Isaac Asimov

Continuing my reading of the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov we have reached the second volume, my review of the first book can be found here.

This book consists of a longish short story (just over 50 pages) and a novella (113 pages) and continues the story of the Foundation on Terminus, both were first published in Astounding Science Fiction before being combined in this book in 1952.

The General (originally published in April 1945 as Dead Hand) – Set roughly 40 years after the end of the first book so 205 years after the creation of the Foundation on Terminus this short story reveals that the Galactic Empire is still considerably stronger than the Foundation believes it to be and is even now capable of launching an all out attack. Two men hope to stop them and they are prisoners of the Empire, Lathan Devers, a reckless trader and Ducern Barr, son of Onum Barr who had met Master Trader Hober Mallow on his investigations of the dangers of the Korell republic in the story The Merchant Princes.

The Mule (originally published in two parts November and December 1945) – It is now 300 years since the Foundation on Terminus was established and 80 years after the death of Lathan Devers and the trader planets are more or less independent of The Foundation which has come under a despotic ruling family. The Mule is an unknown, a mutant who has apparently effortlessly built himself a fleet and an empire and now threatens The Foundation. This story highlights why Asimov never became a mystery writer (although he did have a go at the genre), there is supposed to be a major twist at the end but I had guessed it within a couple of pages of the character being introduced right at the beginning of the novella. For all that though it is an entertaining story with a strong female lead character, which was somewhat unusual in 1940’s science fiction.

Coming to the end of the second book in the trilogy I realised something else about Asimov’s science fiction and that is the almost complete lack of aliens in any of his writing. The Foundation trilogy covers the entire galaxy but nowhere is there an alien species; it is covered instead in humanity that has spread out from a semi-mythical home planet millennia ago. I have read dozens of his books and apart from one short story, written for Playboy, and the much later novel The Gods Themselves (written in 1972) I cannot remember there ever being an alien species referenced and this is odd. Asimov was a professor of biochemistry at Boston University so was certainly aware that where life can exist it will, at least on Earth, why did he not then extend this to encompass life on other planets? It is suggested in the Wikipedia article about him that when he was starting out an early story was rejected for having aliens more powerful than humans so he decided to not write about them at all, but I don’t buy that explanation as other authors had powerful aliens so maybe we’ll never know the true reason for his humanocentric universe.

As teased in the first review the covers join together to make a whole image, with the first two books it is less obvious but if you follow the smoke and light trails you can see that we are looking at two thirds of one painting. It must have been tricky to select this as each cover has to work on its own whilst also being part of the whole thing.

Foundation – Isaac Asimov

With the imminent release on Apple TV of a blockbuster adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy it seemed appropriate to reread these books that I haven’t picked up since I was a teenager and I’m going to do one a month rather than block out the rest of September. Fortunately I still have the copies I bought back in 1979 with their wonderful covers by Chris Foss that drew me to them in the first place. Panther Science Fiction used a lot of Foss’s paintings for their Asimov covers and as you will see as the months go on the covers on this trilogy are a little special.

Foundation was first published in book form in 1951 and tells the story of the collapse of the Galactic Federation or more accurately the plan of one man, Hari Seldon, to reduce the impact of that failure from 30,000 years of anarchy to a mere 1,000 years. He has predicted the collapse using a branch of mathematics invented by Asimov called psycho-history which takes statistical analysis of crowd behaviour to the nth degree and allows predictions to be made on populations with a trackable degree of accuracy. Seldon ostensibly formed his Foundation to write an Encyclopedia Galactica which would be a repository of all knowledge with a plan to have copies supplied to all the inhabited worlds of the galaxy and right at the beginning of the book engineers their exile to a planet on the furthest reaches of empire where the rulers consider them away from disturbing the peace with stories of empire collapse but where Seldon knows they will be left alone to further his master plan. Here on Terminus his researchers would form a nucleus of science in the increasing barbarism of the surrounding planetary systems as their understanding of technology melts away.

Seldon never makes it to Terminus himself, after less than thirty pages into the book he is dead and this is going to be the major challenge of any TV adaptation, the cast is going to need to be constantly changing as the centuries roll past, in Foundation alone 155 years pass from the first page to the last with major characters rising and then disappearing into history. Seldon alone can re-appear, as a hologram, but only to confirm that what becomes known as Seldon Crisis’s have been successfully negotiated and these are timed events and only occur twice in the first book of the trilogy so how will they maintain a following audience if the characters are never the same from one episode to another?

The major figure in Foundation is the mayor of Terminus fifty years after the settlement of the planet, Salvor Hardin, and if I was going to be persnickety about the book then having the two biggest names being so similar (Salvor Hardin and Hari Seldon) is the one lack of imagination shown by Asimov in what is otherwise a excellent exercise in world building with a truly believable back story and development of characters and technologies. It isn’t to the depth of Iain M Banks’ Culture series (1987 to 2012) but he was writing over forty years earlier and for a very different audience, teenagers and early twenties who were avid consumers of the science fiction pulp magazines of the day as 80% of the book had been published in Astounding Science Fiction between 1942 and 1944, Asimov added the introductory section for the 1951 book publication. The great historical leaps between the five sections is largely explained by the fact that it is a collection of short stories which were originally published separately but we go from an isolated exile planet to Terminus controlling the surrounding star systems and slowly spreading its technological know how with at each step a problem from aggressive neighbours being solved without using force themselves.

The five short stories that make up the book are as follows:

The Psychohistorians – This was written specifically for the book and serves as an introduction to the series, it is the only part where Hari Seldon is actually alive and tries to explain what psycho-history is so that it makes more sense in the stories that follow.

The Encyclopedists (Originally published in May 1942 as Foundation) – Fifty years after the settlement of Terminus and their first crisis as one of the surrounding star systems tries to take over what is still a planet dedicated to the production of the Encyclopedia Galactica. The aggressors plan is thwarted by the young mayor Salvor Hardin and a hologram of Hari Seldon reveals that all is not what it seems on Terminus.

The Mayors (Originally published in June 1942 as Bridle and Saddle) – Thirty more years have passed and Hardin is still mayor of Terminus and again faces aggression from a neighbouring star system although this time a far more powerful one. The Foundation have used the intervening years however to spread atomic power to the surrounding systems but kept the technical details as to how it works to themselves hiding the methods behind a mystical religious belief system where only the priests have access to the controls.

The Traders (Originally published in October 1944 as The Wedge) – Another 55 years have passed and the religious cult behind atomics has slightly waned as traders have started to take over the spreading of the Foundations power in their corner of the Galaxy. This is a fairly simple tale of one trader going a bit too far but getting away with it and is sort of a fill in tale written after The Big and the Little to explain the leap between that and Bridle and Saddle.

The Merchant Princes (Originally published in August 1944 as The Big and the Little) – Twenty years after The Traders so 155 years after The Psychohistorians this introduces Master Trader Hober Mallow who is sent on a mission to investigate unusually technically advanced equipment in the planetary republic of Korell. It turns out that the Galactic Empire is not quite as dead as expected.

The immense popularity of the books in the 1960’s and 70’s can be gauged by the list of reprints, and remember this is just the UK paperback edition.

I suspect that Asimov is no longer as popular as he was but the Apple TV series should hopefully put that right and bring to the fore a writer who was producing what must now be called Young Adult fiction decades before that term was even invented.