Isle of the Dead [2000]

I recently read Isle of the Dead by Julia Gray. It was one of the books I picked up in the UK during my holiday over Christmas 2004/2005 – so it’s been on the “getting round to reading” pile for quite some time.

I can now confirm what I half suspected: that it was essentially a waste of my time.

Fantasy is a literary genre that habitually promises a lot, and delivers only a modest reward. Which probably puts it in much the same camp as literature generally, I’m just more aware of this failing in SF/Fantasy because that’s what I read most.

What makes Isle of the Dead slightly more interesting than most of the other trash I’ve read over the years is its genre-crossing. Because while failing to deliver on the promise of a wondrous and imaginative world filled with delights and horrors on the edges of imagination, it also fails to deliver on the promise of the demise via revolution of a fascist police state riven by internal tensions.

Fantasy, and indeed, SF, work well as twisted mirrors to the society we presently live in. A lot of very successful writers have used their insights about society to fuel fantastical stories that are a warning and a promise. This is rarely more obvious than in cyberpunk and 60s SF (Heinlein, et al).

The stray thought that spins out from this is that I wonder whether there are people really applying themselves to untangling exactly how SF and Fantasy work. Glancing at prospectuses from a bunch of universities around the place, it seems like you’ve got your pick of people trying to make “ordinary” literature better via criticism, but relatively few people really sinking their teeth into genre fiction of any kind.

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6 Responses to Isle of the Dead [2000]

  1. house_monkey says:

    That bump on the noggin must have been worse than we thought.

  2. Today is obviously a day to be reminded of books I intended to read (referring to the urban space volumes in this case, rather than the genre fiction). Which edition of The Death and Life of Great American Cities are you reading? The USC library system has about twenty copies in various libraries; most are the 1961 version, is there much extra material in the editions from the 90s and 00s?

    • mashugenah says:

      No idea. 🙂 Mine appears to be type-set from the 1960s.

      Tell you what: I’ll loan my copy to you – I’m not exactly buzz-sawing through it. We can meet up for lunch one day when you’re around next week and make the exchange? 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    Man, going by your reviews you are having the worst luck with books at the moment. It would be cool if you did a post about some of the books you’ve enjoyed, even if they’re not your current reading.

    From what I’ve seen of your reviews, I’m not sure the Amber books will be to your taste either. They’re essentially light superheroic/wish-fulfilment fantasy with baroque politics, writ large; though you might find that amusing as a sort of comic-opera filler while waiting for the next chunk of Martin’s far earthier “A Game of Thrones” series. However, even if you do enjoy the first series, *don’t read the second*. It will seem so easy, but come book 4 (if that), you’ll be begging me to put your eyes out with a hot poker; and I’ve found the police take a surprisingly dim view of that.

    Concerning “life changing” vs. “maybe even quite interesting.” “Life changing” depends very much on the life one has led. DLGAC and “How Buildings Learn” are inevitably going to be revelatory in inverse proportion to the reader’s existing knowledge of the built environment (and related economic and human ecological issues). As an analogy, “The Selfish Gene” is another of my life-changing books, but if you handed it to a biologist who hadn’t read it before, they’d probably find it decidedly ho-hum. There may be no “finer qualities” to be teased out, and you’re not going to find any surprising treasures in the last 100 pages of DLGAC; it may just be a matter of an ignorant reader like me getting immensely more out of a book than a savvy reader like yourself or my hypothetical biologist.


    • mashugenah says:

      TBH, I think it’s just that I’ve never lived in a city of the scale described, nor experienced most of the living conditions she talks about at length. So for me, the material is all quite remote from my own life. There are some analogies I can see in what she’s talking about with tiny cities like Wellington, and with what I anecdotally know about larger South African cities.

      Things like: the Manners Mall decision, the value or not of Civic Square (which was very highly touted at the time, but is only sparsely used whenever I pass by), the effect/not-effect of The Bypass.

      I also have only a very scant knowledge of most of the cities she talks about in detail, so her examples exist more-or-less in isolation for me.

      All of which is adding up to a book that’s interesting, but not deeply compelling.

      • I definitely noticed this phenomenon when I read Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City. All of the Los Angeles examples brought to mind very vivid images, but the Boston and New Jersey examples were significantly less relevant to me.

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