Friday, 27 March 2009

I'm reading in black and white

I'm reading a book in black and white at the moment.

Before you conclude that I've finally cracked under the strain and gone to pieces, because pretty well all books are in black and white, let me explain. I love old movies. But it takes a certain amount of patience to enjoy them. As soon as my kids see that a film is in black and white they give up. Usually with a movie of that period you have to make some allowances. Take one of my favourite films, It's a Wonderful Life - it is, without doubt, a great (if schmalzy) movie, but, to be brutally honest it's a bit slow in places. And, well, a trifle clunky. But that doesn't matter, as long as you approach it the right way.

It's the same with this book, Gather Darkness by Fritz Leiber. It's a classic SF book, written in 1943. I can honestly say it doesn't feel as old as it is, but, yes, you do have to make allowances for the fact it's a 'black and white' book rather than a technicolor one.

One of these allowances that surprised me, in reading my 1979 edition, is just how rubbish the copy editing is. I keep seeing typos, some as blatant as substituting 'minds' for 'hands'. I suppose this is because a) it's a cheap NEL version and b) it was before the publishing process was so computerized. I know even now some mistakes slip through in every book, but not as many as this. (Incidentally, in typical NEL fashion of the period, the cover has nothing to do with the story.)

Then there's a certain allowance for creaky writing. Leiber is a reasonable wordsmith, but he ain't no Jane Austen. At one point he says 'The invisible music rose to an exalting climax...' - so you'd expect visible music, Mr Leiber? (What he means is the source of the music is invisible, but still.)

But that doesn't stop it being a gem of a book, with a sort of 'we know things you don't' plot I love. So we've got the world ruled by a scientific hierarchy using a fake religion with real 'miracles' driven by technology, but there's a growing 'witchcraft' underground movement that uses even better versions of the same technology to throw the hierarchy into chaos. (Hang on, did Philip Pullman read this before he wrote The Golden Compass? The witchcraft people even have 'daemons' of a sort. Hmm.)

I couldn't do it all the time, but just occasionally it's fun to make that little extra effort and read a book in black and white.

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