Six of the Best … Books about death

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Death is one of the certainties of life. Everyone and everything will die, and there doesn’t seem to be anything we can do about it. While in the real world, the two constants seem to be death and taxes, in fiction it’s death and love. Every book I think I’ve ever read contains at least one death and one person in love. Today, however, with Halloween on the horizon, we’ll just be focusing on one of those.

No one knows what happens when we die. I like to imagine that whatever comes next is some kind of library. Because the answer is unknown, however, it has given writers of all stripes free reign to go wild with their imaginations. Throughout history, death has been talked and thought about, and it’s perhaps one of the main reasons we ended up with religion, as a lot of it seems to centre around what happens to us after we die. We are lucky as a society now that we rarely brush up against death. There are people dedicated to dealing with it, life expectancy is high, and hospitals and doctors are on hand when things begin to reach there end. Things were not always this way, though. In earlier times, death rates were much higher, and infant mortality was just a tragic but commonplace fact of life. People were used to seeing and dealing with dead bodies. One would guess that our ancestors were not as squeamish as many of us today may be, but we can’t really know for sure.

Death as a process is fascinating, and some scientists have even asked why it evolved in the first place. Is there an evolutionary reason for growing old and dying? Certainly there must be, or it wouldn’t have happened. Most people assume that older generations die off to allow there to be food and resources for the upcoming ones, and that seems to make the most sense to me. If nothing ever died, the world would be pretty crowded by now.

In 2011, a piece in Psychology Today even suggested that death is just an illusion. Maybe it is. This could easily just be a phase that we pass through between others we don’t remember and ones that we’ve yet to experience. Maybe we all keep going round and round. I suppose one day we will find out. For now, though, I think it is important to talk about death. Maybe not in casual conversation on the bus, but it is important not to fear it, to be able to come to terms with its existence, and to help comfort those who are dealing with it. It would be heartless to say we should just “get over it” and I don’t agree that’s the right way to go about things. Literature, as ever, comes to the rescue. By seeing something in fiction, it gives us a lens to view reality in a new way. We can understand death by how our favourite fictional characters react to it.

Let’s press on to six of the best books where death takes centre stage.

Scythe

Hundreds of years from now, humanity has managed to eradicate death. There is no more illness or injury, and the only way to die is to be gleaned by a scythe – someone who has been trained in the art of killing. You never quite know when your time will come, and there is no arguing with a scythe. The only rule is that no one would wants to be one can ever achieve the role. Citra and Rowan are two young people who both are against this normality and find the idea of murder abhorrent, but when they are both selected as apprentices to Scythe Faraday, they have no choice but to enter a new world and have their whole lives turned upside down.

A story that removes death from the world is not unique, but there was something particularly chilling and fascinating about this one. Neal Shusterman imbues the novel with great detail and a lot of lore that really makes the world, ironically, come alive. It’s a great worldbuilding exercise, and despite the potentially dark subject matter, there are some really fun moments. Without death, crime has vastly decreased as everyone lives so long as to be on a similar footing in society, and religion has faded because there’s no discussions on the afterlife anymore. The introduction of tonal cults – sects that worship sounds and smells – is one that feels very unique and is an example of what can be achieved in storytelling when you take away something as fundamental as death.

R.I.P.

There seems to be a taboo in Western society that says death is not something that we should consider funny. Granted, in certain circumstances I agree, but I’m also someone who believes there is comedy to be found in pretty much anything and that context is key. Nigel Williams is a funny writer, and he tackles death with just as many laughs in R.I.P. as he does in any of his other books. George wakes up one morning feeling absolutely fine, with the slight exception of the fact he’s dead. His mother, Jessica, has also died in the house that day, on the eve of her ninety-ninth birthday. The house is full of guests, and when it is revealed to the police that Jessica was worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen the latest will, it appears that both she and George may have been murdered, and everyone else in the family is now a suspect. Bittersweet and working as a genuine murder mystery despite being narrated by one of the victims, it’s a great look at ghosts and how our consciousness may carry on once our body shuts down for good.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

It’s rare that a novel opens with a death, but Mitch Albom manages it here. Eddie is eighty-three when, while trying to save a small girl’s life, he loses his own. He finds himself in the afterlife, where he meets five people, one at a time, each of whom had a huge impact on his life. Between them, they will help Eddie explore and explain his time on Earth, and only when he’s met them all will he be able to move on to whatever comes next. I’ve read it twice, and just bought the long-awaited sequel as well, and think it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. Albom has a stunning way with words, and conjures up great images from his precision and expertise. It is a book that reminds us that while we are the protagonist in our own story, everyone else has one too, and we’re just side characters in those. All stories are interconnected and nothing happens in a vacuum.

Sum

Of course, Mitch Albom’s version of the afterlife is only one possibility. In David Eagleman’s astonishingly beautiful Sum, he presents forty possible versions of the afterlife, each as beguiling, entrancing and magical as each other. In one, we find that power over the universe was handed over to a committee quite early on in the process. In another, we don’t die until we are entirely forgotten on Earth, which means the likes of Shakespeare are still there unable to move on for good. In one you meet all the different versions of yourself, and in yet one more, you can only spend time with people you knew on Earth. Some are fun, such as becoming the actors in the dreams of the living, and some are desperately weird, such as every atom in the universe being made up of the exact same quark that is attempting to be everything and everyone, and will eventually just wind itself down. It is, without question, one of my favourite books of all time and for such a slim novel contains so many lessons and ways of looking at the world.

Mort

I’m not particularly a Discworld fan, but I didn’t think I could let a post like this pass without mentioning Mort. Terry Pratchett’s character of Death is, despite everything I feel about the series, one of the greatest inventions in literary history. Dedicated to his job and quietly fascinated by the humans he has to deal with on a daily basis, the only time I can ever really bring myself to the world is when he’s in a starring role.

The title character of Mort is unsuited for the family business, and instead gets an apprenticeship under Death himself, leaning to take souls and deal in the business of death. When Mort fails to collect the soul of Princess Keli but instead kills her assassin, he sets in motion a parallel universe that will eventually collapse and see her dead anyway. Death, meanwhile, is taking a well-earned break while his apprentice holds down the fort and is learning what it’s like to be human. Mort must seek advice from Albert, Death’s assistant and former wizard, in protecting fate and seeing the universe restored to normality. Like all Discworld novels, it’s packed with jokes, silliness and some of the most phenomenally intricate world building ever attempted. While it’s the fourth book in the series, even Pratchett himself said this is the first one he actually liked.

Duck, Death and the Tulip

Death to many is scary, and children in particular may not understand the finality of the process. Duck, Death and the Tulip is a German book by Wolf Erlbruch and has been translated into many languages. In it, a duck meets the character of Death, who has been following her all her life. The two strike up a friendship and discuss life, death and a potential afterlife. Although Death seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to directly give the duck any answers, the conversations seem to bring about a certain peace, leading to a very moving ending where the title’s tulip comes into play. It’s short and sweet and has utterly adorable illustrations. It’s one of those books that is great for children and adults alike. I didn’t discover it until I was in my mid-twenties, but it charmed me immediately. With a touch of humour, the book provides a great deal of comfort and is a vital tool for all ages.


Thanks for joining in and reading this new entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This is a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction and books more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

Six of the Best … Fictional Vehicles

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Characters in books rarely stay in one place for long, unless they’re stuck in prison. How they get about, however, is often of enormous interest to readers. In our world, we are limited by fuel, time and distance, but in fiction the same rules don’t necessarily apply. You can travel at colossal speeds and cover massive distances given the right technology or magic. Cars can fly, submarines can sink to impossible depths, airships can …  well … they can be feasible. Even an elevator can serve as a spaceship with enough ingenuity. We’re also not limited by travelling through space, as time travellers need a vehicle too, and they’re inherently cool.

Rarely is a vehicle the main focus of a book, although exceptions could possibly be made of the Thomas the Tank Engine series. Still, enough have vehicular titles. Many of us would recognise titles such as Murder on the Orient Express, Three Men in a Boat, Strangers on a Train, and The Little Engine That Could.

Transportation often features heavily in fiction as it is not without its risks. Trains were occasionally locations for murders in Agatha Christie’s novels, and few of us can forget the dangerous driving in The Great Gatsby. Despite all this, there is something fantastic about vehicles that inspire humanity. Literature is where we’ve let our imaginations run wild. Books are already an escape from reality, so giving us a cool car, train, boat or spaceship is just adding to that. China Miéville created an ocean-less world in Railsea, where long trains trawl eternally across the planet’s dry surface, acting like boats do for us. Great ships like the Pequod in Moby Dick, the Walrus in Treasure Island, or the Jolly Roger in Peter Pan stir the imaginations of anyone who’s ever wanted to cast anchor and set sail for new shores. The Nautilis submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea so inspired people that numerous real ships and submarines have been given the name, which is ironic as the fictional one got its own name from the first practical submarine, built in 1800 by Robert Fulton.

Above all, a vehicle in fiction has to be cool. James Bond is of course particularly notable for his exquisite taste in cars, and will forever be associated with Aston Martins. Elsewhere, Lord Peter Wimsey drives V12 sleeve-valve Daimlers, and Australian flapper and detective Phryne Fisher traverses her books in a bright red Hispano-Suzia. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo tear through the desert in cars named The Great Red Shark and The Great White Whale, which are cool just for their names, even if the rest of the book lacks.

Before we get on with the list of my six favourite fictional vehicles, I’d like to first run through some honourable mentions. First up, on the left, the shoe car driven by Mr Funny. It would be a great as a statement vehicle, but it has very little practicality, with no luggage space, room for one person only, and apparently no doors. I also avoided putting the TARDIS on the list as, while there are Doctor Who novelisations, it’s better known as a television series (although I go against this reasoning with one of the other vehicles on the list, so, whoops). The TARDIS is remarkable, however. Able to go anywhere and everywhere in time and space (not that you’d necessarily believe it given how much time it spends in modern day London), it is as much a character of the show as anyone. It is the ultimate in travel, even if the pilot doesn’t necessarily know what they’re doing with it. I also left off the titular bus of my first novel, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus. Formerly nothing but a horse and cart, every piece has been replaced over the years until it now resembles a London bus, except for the sheen of blood over everything and the cannibal driving it around Britain at breakneck speed.

And now, on with the list!

Hogwarts Express

J. K. Rowling not only gave us an enormous amount of spells, magical creatures, beloved characters and mouthwatering foods when she created the Harry Potter universe – she also gave us a huge plethora of ways to get around. Wizards never really have to walk anywhere as they’ve got dozens of ways to get from A to B. They can use a Portkey, travel through the Floo Network, ride on the back of a thestral or hippogriff, pilot a broomstick, or catch the triple-decker Knight Bus. This is still before we come to Mr Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia, Sirius Black’s enchanted motorbike, the submersible Durmstrang ship, the enormous Beauxbatons carriage pulled by winged horses, flying carpets, and the Vanishing Cabinet. If all else fails, they can learn to apparate, although this always comes with a danger of splinching.

Despite all this, I think we can all agree that by far and away the greatest vehicle in the series is the Hogwarts Express. The scarlet steam engine is one of the most iconic symbols of the series, even gracing the front cover of the first book. While home to some pivotal scenes in the novels, including Harry, Ron and Hermione’s first interactions, a Dementor attack, and a fight with Malfoy, it’s broadly speaking a very safe space, watched over by the trolley witch, and anyone who’s read or seen Harry Potter and the Cursed Child knows what she’s capable of! The train seems to have very few particularly magic powers, having been stolen from Muggles in 1830. According to supplementary material, the operation required the use of the biggest concealment charm ever performed in Britain, and 167 memory charms, creating a brand new train station at Hogsmeade that hadn’t existed the day before, and leaving the railway staff at Crewe with the feeling that they’d misplaced something.

The Hogwarts Express might not be the most magical of things in the series, it represents something enormous, as it is the literal way Harry moves between the Muggle world he hates and the wizarding world he loves. Despite the lack of inherent magic, who wouldn’t want to set off from the fabled Platform 9¾ at eleven o’clock on September 1st, eating Chocolate Frogs and Pumpkin Pasties with your best friends, watching the British countryside swish by, as you head to the greatest school in fiction? No one, that’s who.

The Ada Lovelace

Ada Lovelace, as surely many of you know, is credited as being one of history’s first computer programmers, working alongside Charles Babbage. She was the first person to realise that a computer could do more than pure calculation and is responsible for writing the first algorithm. As a fun aside, she was also the daughter of flamboyant romance poet Lord Byron. It was, therefore, absolutely fitting for Nick Harkaway to name his code-breaking train the Ada Lovelace in his astounding novel Angelmaker.

Eleven carriages long and containing “a kitchen, bathrooms, and two carriages of strange machinery”, the train tears through the countryside of Britain, never stopping, “occupying empty sidings and blank slots in the timetable, rolling and slipping around the edges of the map”. Although designed to be perfect, the materials used to make it are not, so the entire train is maintained by hand. It’s a fascinating idea to basically put Bletchley Park on wheels, as it’s then never where it was five minutes ago and it makes it a lot harder to trace. Although it “is narrow and sways with a strange eerie motion”, I think living aboard the Ada Lovelace is something I could definitely get used to.

Death’s bike in Discworld

Since the Second World War ended, the motorcycle has been seen as the coolest way to travel. In Terry Pratchett’s novel, Soul Music – part of the Discworld series – Death rides a motorbike that has been created in accordance with the tropes of rock music. As such, it isn’t designed to slow down, never mind having the ability to stop safely, and is specifically designed to crash at the end of the eighth verse. Even weirder, the bike itself falls apart pretty early in the story, but the idea of it remains, appearing simply as light reflecting off a machine, but without the machine.

Otherwordly figures almost by their very nature have to have bizarre and awesome vehicles. It’s worth pointing out as well that in another of Pratchett’s works, Good Omens, the demon Crowley has a Bentley that is protected from damage by his infernal powers – at least until it drives through a “wall of fire formed by a highway shaped like a diabolical sigil”. After that, it only completes its final journey through sheer force of will and by the end no longer resembles a Bentley – or a car.

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang

I know I said I was leaving the TARDIS off the list because it was better known from television, but I’m allowing this car famous from a film onto the list because the book categorically came first. Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was published in 1964 was written, perhaps surprisingly, by Ian Fleming. Yes, that Ian Fleming. Inspired by a series of racing cars also called Chitty Bang Bang, it was Fleming’s final work but he did not live to see it published.

The titular car is named for the noise it makes when it starts – the engine noise coupled with two loud backfires – and has been restored to glory by the inventor Caractacus Pott. The car, however, soon begins to exhibit signs of sentience, performing independent actions. When it instructs Mr Pott to pull a lever when stuck in traffic, the family learns that the car can fly. Later, on a beach, it develops hovercraft tendencies. Chitty is also able to track enemies when in pursuit and lock onto their location. The book ends with implications that it has many more secrets still to be revealed…

Flying cars are still absent from the real world, despite decades of promises from scientists that they’ll be along soon, so for many of us, fantasising about flying in Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, even if it is off to a country where children are forbidden and Benny Hill is inexplicably in work as a toy maker, is the closest we’ll get. And as if it wasn’t strange enough that Ian Fleming had written the book, Roald Dahl then penned the screenplay and the car soared into the hearts of people everywhere.

Thursday Next’s Speedster

Like the Hogwarts Express, this is one that is simply in here for being impossibly cool. Thursday Next, my favourite literary heroine, owns a 356 Speedster, that she is compelled to buy after seeing a future version of herself driving it. She claims that she was never much of a car person, but “this one was different”. Described as having a spartan interior, it is painted in red, blue and green. It takes her only a few hundred yards driving the car for them to be “inseparable”.

Beautiful and unusual, the car then features prominently in the series, even turning up on two covers – each book actually features a vehicle of some kind on the cover, usually a cool car – and taking part in one of the only car chases to ever appear in literature. Car chases are ten a penny in films, but in books it’s much harder to get the action right. Still, Fforde manages it, and with a car like this, how could he not?

Bookjumping – the act of reading yourself into a book – is still the coolest method of getting about in the whole series, but it doesn’t count as a vehicle. Unless you flag down a TransGenre Taxi, of course. That might.

Heart of Gold

It wouldn’t be possible to complete this list without the only vehicle possibly more remarkable than the TARDIS – the Heart of Gold. Springing from the pages of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it stands out among the other strange spaceships that Douglas Adams dreamt up as being the only one powered by improbability. Other ships present in the series include the Starship Bistromath, which runs on the laws of “bistromathics” (the specific mathematics of factors in restaurants), Golgafrincham B-Ark, a two-mile long generation ship built to exile a third of its home planet’s population, and Hotblack Desiato’s entirely frictionless Space-Limo which is so cool that Zaphod and Ford are compelled to steal it.

Heart of Gold, however, still rises above the rest for me. Described as the first ship to successfully use the Infinite Improbability Drive (an early form was used in the Starship Titanic, but due to the nature of infinite improbability, the ship stopped existing before it had even been launched), it was devised as a secret project on Damogran, before being stolen by Zaphod Beeblebrox at the launching ceremony. The faster-than-light drive was invented following research into finite improbability, which was often used to break the ice at parties by making all the molecules in the hostess’ undergarments leap one foot simultaneously to the left, in accordance with the theory of indeterminacy”. The Guide itself states that a lot of respectable scientists wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing “partly because it was a debasement of science, but mostly because they didn’t get invited to those sort of parties.”

The drive works by ignoring space and travelling through every point of every possible universe at the same time, meaning you’ll never be completely sure where you’ll end up or who you’ll be when you arrive. As Adams says, it is “therefore important to dress accordingly”.

I think we can all safely agree that however you travel through fiction, you’ve gotta do it in style. Happy travels!


Thanks for joining in and reading the third entry in my new series, Six of the Best. This will (hopefully) be a twice-monthly series in which I take a look at fiction more generally and explore the fictional worlds I love so much. If you’ve got any suggestions for things you’d like to see me talk about, then please comment and let me know!

“The Colour of Magic” by Terry Pratchett (1983)

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the-colour-of-magic-1

I still don’t understand this cover.

“Fire roared through the bifurcated city of Ankh-Morpork.”

The Discworld series is an unstoppable force of nature. Everyone with even a passing interest in literature, no matter what your genre preference, has undoubtedly heard of the series and may know one or two things about it. It’s fairly common knowledge that one of the recurring characters is Death, and the the flat planet is carried on the back of four elephants that stand on a giant spacefaring turtle. It’s also well known as a parody of other fantasy books, as well as roleplaying games. It’s a series that even now, thirty years after it was born, still burns brightly throughout the libraries of the world.

As it is, I’m not a fan.

It’s sacrilegious to say it, perhaps, being as I am such a huge fan of Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams and Jasper Fforde, writers who have built amazing universes from scratch, but I simply cannot get my head around the Discworld novels. It defies all logic. I’ve watched and enjoyed (to various degrees) the TV films that have been shown so far, and will probably watch more if they arrive. One of my favourite computer games ever is Discworld Noir, which is a hard-boiled detective adventure game set in the grimy streets of Ankh-Morpork. I love the character of Death so much. But despite all of that, I cannot get my head into the books.

I better just give you a run down of what happens in this book before I get to a proper discussion.

In the very first of the Discworld novels, we meet Rincewind, a failed wizard who, after forty years at university, has only managed to learn one spell, a spell that is so dangerous that other spells refuse to share his mind. Greedy and trying to keep himself alive, he is perhaps not the nicest of characters. He soon meets Twoflower, a curiously dressed man who has become the disc’s first tourist, from the fabled Counterweight Continent. Oblivious to the danger he keeps getting himself into – this is a man who thinks nothing of asking barbarians to stop a brawl fight so he can have a picture taken with them – Rincewind takes it upon himself to save him.

The two are suddenly catapulted into a fight of their lives as they travel most of the disc with the simple aim of staying alive. They pass a number of incredible things, from the temple of the Soul Eater, dragons that only exist if you believe in them, a troll made of water and the most dangerous thing of all – the edge of the planet.

The Colour of Magic Sir David Jason as Rincewind ©RHI/Bill Kaye

Rincewind: the worst wizard on the Disc

There is absolutely no denying that Pratchett can build a world. There appears to not a single aspect that he hasn’t considered, from the nature of seasons on a flat planet, to the workings of magic (which seems to send up the rules of the Dungeons and Dragons universe) and the notion of hovercrafts that float simply because hydrophobic wizards are staring at the water, willing it to go away.

The ideas presented are great, intelligent and funny, but the book is so dense (not literally, it spans only 280-odd pages) that is becomes difficult. You’re so busy trying to work out what certain races are, what certain words mean, how to pronounce most of the names (Hrun, Lio!rt and Ymor, to name three) that you become distracted from the story as a whole. As someone who can never sleep during the day, I think it’s important to note that I fell asleep twice during this book.

There are no chapters, although the book is split into six parts (unusual for a Discworld novel, I’m told) and it really feels like three or four book’s worth of stuff squashed together. There is no time for a breath between various adventures and you can quickly get confused about what is happening.

In short, I didn’t enjoy this book but I am quietly cursing myself for that fact. Everything in the universe screams that Pratchett should be one of my favourite authors, but the denseness of his writing makes it difficult for this to become a reality. I appreciate that, as the first book in the series, there is a lot to set up here, and it’s regularly stated that this is probably the worst of the Discworld canon, so I’m probably not being entirely fair. I did earlier read a later book called Mort, which I enjoyed rather a little more, but still not very much. If you love fantasy then go for it (although I would assume that you’re already involved in this world), but for the casual reader, there are easier series to get into.

I appreciate that I’m in a minority with these opinions, and with thirty-nine books in the canon so far, he’s cearly doing something right. But for me, it’s a no. I’ll bid the Discworld books a farewell for the foreseeable future.