Review of Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

When I decided to teach novel craft via Ocean at the End of the Lane to my college writing workshop students I had no idea what I was in for. Sure, there's a plot arc, chapter hooks, rules for magic, and themes: the nature of memory and time, identity, the importance of friendship. Still, Gaiman's newest tome defies definition. It's a mash up of magical realism, psychological horror, fantasy, a coming of age, and dare I say cosmic Jungian theology. Okay, let me back up...

The unnamed narrator returns to his boyhood town for the funeral of an unnamed person (Let me add myth to the mash up list). Distracted by unsettled emotions stirred by seeing his old stomping grounds, the narrator wanders down the lane to neighboring Hempstock Farm. There, he talks to Ginny Hempstock, and inquires about Lettie, her daughter and his childhood friend. He remembers Lettie's claim that her backyard pond was actually a vast ocean. When he sits and looks at the pond, he "remembers it, and in remembering, remembers all."

Lettie, her mom Ginny and the Hempstock granny are no ordinary trio. Old Mrs. Hempstock claims, "I've been around since the moon was made," and these ladies know the magic of "snipping and binding". He recalls taking refuge at their farm after an opal miner renting a room in his parents' house takes his dad's car and kills himself in it. Soon after this, the boy runs to Lettie's when his new babysitter, Ursula Monkton turns out to be a terrifying monster who knows everything about him. Not only that, but she claims to have wormed her way into this world from boring a hole in the boy's foot and traveling up to his heart!

Ursula is a truly frightening thing, and Gaiman has wicked fun in creating her. She is, in turns, a flea, a dirty mess of flapping canvas, a beautiful woman who has transfixed the boy's father, an alien from another time who tells the boy, "I've been inside you and I'm always watching you." Her defense in being creepy is that, "It's your fault. You brought me here. You tore a hole in Forever." Indeed, it's a dangerous thing for the boy to "be a door."

When Lettie and the boy band together to fight Ursula and "send her home" they must deal with supernatural varmints, or as Lettie calls them, Hunger Birds. These ravenous critters not only peck and injure, but they devour the world, part by part.

I won't tell you what happens except to say that the boy is tested in every way. For one, he must remain alone all night in a fairy ring stalked by visions and specters who try to coax him out of the safe zone.  Gaiman's magic is quite creative, and the last section of the book blossoms to a cosmic level. Gaiman's visionary language is brilliant, and his message transcends the bounds of the fantasy genre. Highly recommended.


You Know Nothing, Jon Snow #sci #fantasy #research #facts

How important is it that writers get their facts straight? It’s a question that often bothers me, because so many books I read get simple factual things wrong. Meradeth touched upon the distinction between a theory and a hypothesis last month, which is a good example of what I mean, but there are many others.

Take computers: that’s an area I happen to know about as I’m also a software developer. It’s very obvious to me, however, that many writers do not really know their megabits from their gigahertz or do not really know the distinction between the internet and the web. They try, and they use so many of the correct terms, they just use them in a slightly incorrect way which shows they’re essentially just using technical jargon and hoping for the best. I still laugh at that bit in Independence Day when our heroes manage to upload a computer virus to an alien and utterly unknowable operating system. Similarly, a friend of mine recently stopped watching a certain Sci-Fi series remake because “they got the physics all wrong” and it ruined the enjoyment for him.

I’ve no doubt the same is true for other specialized areas of knowledge. For example, I’m married to a medical doctor, and she often sees significant flaws in books touching upon healthcare. Viruses and bacteria confused, that sort of thing. The chances are, she won’t notice the IT mistakes just as I won’t notice the medical ones. As writers, we all strive to research our characters and our worlds, but it’s inevitable we’ll get things wrong because we can’t be an expert in everything.

My question is, does it matter? A book with technical mistakes may alienate some readers, but maybe most won’t mind. For me, what matters more than strict factual accuracy is story. If the story’s good enough, if the characters are intriguing enough, I’ll forgive a few slipups in the research. If it’s a great book I may not even notice.

Of course, as writers of speculative fiction we maybe have things a bit easier. If we’re inventing our own worlds then readers often won’t know when we get things “wrong”, because we’re not trying to achieve a reliable representation of the real world. Sci-Fi maybe represents more of a challenge, because there are a lot of scientifically knowledgeable readers out there. I think that what’s important, so often, is consistency rather than accuracy. We can invent all manner of miraculous magics and technologies, and readers will accept them, but if we fail to follow our own rules, contradict ourselves, then readers will spot it and may be jarred out of the story.

Gary Gygax, designer of Dungeons and Dragons once said, “a reader will swallow a whale but choke on a minnow.” It's an important lesson.

As a writer, I do all I can to get my facts straight, but I’m honestly more concerned with story, plausibility and consistency. But maybe I'm wrong to take that approach. I should probably do some more research.

What does anyone else think?