Nation and other books

One of the best books I read in 2008, I just managed to squeeze into the year. I finished it about five minutes before the bongs, on the same day its author’s knighthood was announced.

Nation by (Sir) Terry Pratchett could have been a Discworld novel but it wouldn’t pack half the punch it does. It’s more or less set in our world’s nineteenth century, with just enough variance for Pratchett to have fun. But the underlying premise simply isn’t funny and he doesn’t try to pretend it is: the Nation is a Pacific island (one of the Mothering Sunday islands, which are an extension of the Bank Holiday Monday group) whose population is wiped out by a tsunami following a volcanic eruption. Mau is the sole survivor. On the island he meets Daphne (née Ermintrude, but in Pratchett style she chooses a name that better reflects her personality), scion of the aristocracy and related more closely than she realises to royalty, who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck caused by the same tsunami. They both have a great deal of pain to get through. Being Pratchett heroes, of course, they manage; and then you remember the author’s own recent personal tsunami, his diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, and you realise this is Pratchett’s Book of Job.

I hadn’t realised before how well Job works for non-believers as well as believers. I remember Pratchett saying in an interview that he’s a humanist, and therefore an atheist, and either way that unfortunately means he can’t get angry with God because he doesn’t believe in him. Job, and Nation, show that you can still scream WHY? at whoever you do or don’t believe in, and either way you get the same answer: “Because. Who’s asking?”

After all that, don’t get the idea it’s heavy going, because it isn’t. Pratchettism abounds. When you hear a sentence like “it only needs 138 people to die and your father will be King!” then it’s just asking for trouble – the humour equivalent of the gun on the mantelpiece. The platonic love story – Mau and Daphne are still children – is funny and moving, and there are sideways views of science and religion and civilisation and wonderful turns of phrase left, right and centre. One of my favourites was a description of Daphne’s great-great-aunt: “apparently a young man had smiled at her on her twenty-first birthday and she’s gone straight to bed with an attack of the vapours, and stayed there, still gently vaporizing …”

It’s great fun, and it’s also one of the few books I actually feel honoured to have read.

And here’s everything else I read in 2008. In summary, with last year’s figures in brackets:

total: 53 (60)
science fiction/fantasy: 30 (30)
translated from Swedish: 4 (4)
gave up reading: 2

In full:

  • Nation, Terry Pratchett
  • Black & Blue, Ian Rankin
  • The Turing Test, Chris Beckett
  • Enigma, Robert Harris
  • The Big Over Easy, Jasper Fforde
  • Fool Moon, Jim Butcher
  • Storm Front, Jim Butcher
  • Halting State, Charles Stross
  • Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
  • Little Brother, Cory Doctorow
  • The Locked Room, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö
  • Marooned in Real Time, Vernor Vinge
  • The Peace War, Vernor Vinge
  • Jingo, Terry Pratchett
  • Invasive Procedures, Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston
  • The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
  • Smoke & Mirrors, Neil Gaiman
  • His Majesty’s Dragon, Naomi Novik
  • Coyote Frontier, Allen Steele
  • Coyote Rising, Allen Steele
  • Empire, Orson Scott Card
  • Notes from a Big Country, Bill Bryson
  • The First Rumpole Omnibus, John Mortimer
  • Pied Piper, Nevil Shute
  • Imperium, Robert Harris
  • Wintersmith, Terry Pratchett
  • Saturn’s Children, Charles Stross
  • Keeper of Dreams, Orson Scott Card
  • A Fire Upon the Deep, Vernor Vinge
  • Wife to Charles II, Hilda Lewis
  • Round Ireland with a Fridge, Tony Hawks
  • I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
  • Ireland: Awakening, by Edward Rutherfurd
  • The Great Siege: Malta 1565, Ernle Bradford
  • Snakehead, Anthony Horowitz
  • The Digital Plague, Jeff Somers
  • Simon and the Oaks, Marianne Fredriksson
  • Then and Now, W. Somerset Maugham
  • Leviathan Rising, Jonathan Green
  • Stardust, Neil Gaiman
  • Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist
  • Mister Monday, Garth Nix
  • Looking for Jake & Other Stories, China Miéville
  • Rainbows End, Vernor Vinge
  • Causing Chaos with Jeremy James, David Henry Wilson
  • The Queen’s Tiara, CJL Almqvist
  • The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman
  • The Subtle Knife, Philip Pullman
  • Frankenstein Unbound, Brian Aldiss
  • The Dilbert Future, Scott Adams
  • Galileo’s Daughter, Dava Sobel
  • My Booky Wook, Russell Brand
  • The Twinkling of an Eye, Brian Aldiss