Who Is Arthur Dent?

three short reviews


Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Harper Perennial, 2003

Some weeks ago, I posted a brief review of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, wherein I noted a marked resemblance between his main protagonist, Alexander Duplessis, and Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not long after, I decided to reread Neil Gaiman’s classic Neverwhere. This would not ordinarily be fodder for a review, but gosh! Doesn’t the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, resemble Arthur Dent? And the story is basically Hitchhiker’s Guide as well: The hapless anti-hero loses his comfortable place in the universe and confronts a series of frame-of-reference-shattering challenges before returning… home? By golly, once you see the blocks, telling a story is almost like building with Legos! If this were a proper review, a discussion of the underworld’s political economy would be in order and how that economy is of a type for certain fantasy, that is to say magical, stories, as well as its appeal to those who don’t quite belong. And furthermore, how should we recognize an Arthur Dent when we meet one: “Arthur Dent, I presume?” What bundle of traits, circumstances, character and tropes define an “Arthur Dent”? But this is a brief review, so I’ll end it by noting: Arthur Dent is everywhere, once you begin looking for him.

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch, DAW Books, 2020

Once again, this is not a book I’d ordinarily review. Being but the latest in a series of police procedurals (the Rivers of London novels) involving magic (and magical institutions), it’s basically mind-candy that follows familiar conventions in both mystery and urban magic genres. As is typical of many mystery series, the Rivers of London novels focus on a particular character, Peter Grant, where each book is a challenge that evolves the character in a sort of life journey. And how did Peter Grant begin, in that first novel, Midnight Riot? As someone with a distinct resemblance to Arthur Dent?

No! Wait! There is another reason for reviewing False Value. Earlier this year, I noted how unions are so much not a part of science fiction. Well, you can add Aaronovitch to that short list of sf authors who at least mention unions. Take this line of questioning from the protagonist, Peter Grant:

“… Vampires were a problem, of course – they always are. You burn out one nest and another would pop up. Got real bad in the ’70s until a bunch of homeless vets went after them with homemade napalm and flame-throwers – quite a war by all accounts.”

“You didn’t intervene?”

“I was a teenager at the time, but the Association stayed out of it,” said Mrs. Chin. The Association being the New York Libraries Association, the militant magical wing of the New York Public Library Services. “Although we’re all members of the Green Machine as well.” That being the AFSCME, the union that most mundane librarians belonged to.

This is, I think, an act of mischievous dissonance. After all, magic is personal power, an act of will as well as incantation and calculation. Why should magical librarians need collective bargaining and solidarity? Are contracts magical? Is the magical vulnerable without the mundane? Well, this is a brief review so I’ll just note that this series of novels is one of those that is a) good if you like both police procedural mysteries and magical fantasy and b) best begun with the first of the books, Midnight Riot.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, Tachyon Publications, 2020

Driftwood is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and doing it quite well, thank you. The major difference in such situations being that as a collection, the author need not be so much concerned about closure, about bringing the whole edifice in for a landing at the end. Nor is the author confined to a particular few POVs. The stories, regardless of POV, all feature two characters: a guide / broker / informant / facilitator with an unnatural lifespan named “Last” and the universe that includes each story, “Driftwood”.

Driftwood is about aging and death. It is a constantly shrinking, constantly accreting amalgamation of fragments of different universes, each fragment being the remnant of a larger universe that has suffered some apocalypse. Wedged in with other fragments, they evaporate and shrink and settle toward the center of Driftwood where they, for a time, exist as ever diminishing parts of an urban shanty town, the Shreds. After all, when an organism (such as yourself) dies outside of extreme conditions, it doesn’t die all at once. Under the right conditions, individual cells might struggle along indefinitely. Heck, cells from your mother may still live within you. And ageing? We regress toward death, forgetting and losing, one by one. Or all at once.

Its worth noting that each of the fragments of Driftwood contains a particular culture and species of intelligence, often wildly different from their neighbors, but quaintly referred to as a “race” rather than as a “species”. This is an old science fiction practice that sometimes has a metaphorical function (aside from the fact that most science fiction aliens are humans in drag). In this case, “race” may be more apt as most of them can interbreed, and do: that being another characteristic that defines “the Shreds”. It’s not clear to me what Brennan’s point is except that it is likely also a part of the death metaphor. As is the character “Last”.

At some point, someone needs to write a compare-and-contrast essay about the political economy of fantasy novels… But I said that already, yes?

I always look forward to new writing by Brennan and am rarely disappointed.

Photo by Roman.

Author: rmichaelroman

... whatever ...

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