Wednesday, May 24, 2006

John F.X. Sundman: Acts of the Apostles

On 1 May of this year I mentioned the name of John F.X. Sundman, and said that I had read chapter 1 of his Acts of the Apostles online. I then took the liberty of suggesting how that first chapter might have been improved.

Well, I hereby apologise. In fact I grovel. I have now bought, with my own money, a copy of the entire book, and I'm glad I did. Having read it, I can tell you that this is a deeply impressive novel, especially as it seems to have been the author's first, and I can assure you that John Sundman needs no advice from me, or from anyone else, on how to construct an effective book.

I see from John's wetmachine web site that the print version of Acts of the Apostles was self-published, and that it won the Writers Digest National Self-published Book award in 2001. I'm not surprised.

If you want to categorise this novel, I would have to call it a science-fiction thriller. John is a very experienced software man, having been at one time the chair of the software development architecture team of Sun Microsystems, and he has won a couple of awards in the IT field. So it is obvious that he understands the digital world and has a good insight into other recent developments, e.g. in biotechnology. Furthermore, he can write. (In the acknowledgements he says that Joe Regal, the literary agent, taught him.) This is nearly always a formidable combination.

I am reluctant to go into too much detail on the plot. It's complicated, and plot summaries are always unsatisfactory. Let's just say that this novel is set in the mid 1990s, and that it concerns the use and abuse of technology. There are good guys and bad guys. One reader has said that the book is actually about Kaczynsky's Postulate: that technology and freedom cannot be reconciled. In this case, one group tries to advance technology -- specifically, nanotechnology -- in ways which will more or less eliminate freedom.

I have sometimes expressed the view that writers really shouldn't worry about how their work will be viewed in the future. Just making the bloody book work in the present is enough of a problem for most people. However, I have the very definite feeling that this is a book which will be read in 50 or 100 years from now, in the way that we now read books such as The War of the Worlds, 1984, and Brave New World. People will look at it and say -- see, that is what they were worried about at the end of the twentieth century. How quaint! Alternatively, they may read it and say How prescient! Let's hope it's the former.

From a reader's point of view there are a few difficulties. The principal characters are nearly all young and involved in IT or science, and it is sometimes an effort to keep track of who is who. But as you get to know them better this becomes less of a problem.

At page 218 I made the following note: This is a book that gets better as it goes along. It's only when you read a book like this that you realise what a feeble, runty thing the average thriller is.

And a few pages later: This is a rare fusion of science and, in the broadest sense, literature. It isn't commercial in the sense that Neal Stephenson is commercial (though even he has never had a big fat hit), but it's quality stuff.

As you stick with this book, it begins to be moving, in addition to gripping. And the ending is ironic, amusing, and sad. It's a formidable achievement.

This is a long book, in terms of wordage, and I would have been a more comfortable reader, visually, if the font had been larger and there had been fewer lines on the page. But then, of course, the page count, and the cost, would have gone up.

Not that it's terribly relevant, but is it my imagination, or is there, on page 305, an echo of James Joyce's short story The Dead? David Daiches, a professor of English at Cambridge in my time, once described the last paragraph of The Dead (in a lecture that I attended) as perhaps the best written piece of prose in the English language. Or words to that effect.

Acts of the Apostles isn't in that class. But it will do for now.

Oh, and by the way: the wetmachine web site contains an account of how Acts of the Apostles came to be written. A cautionary tale if ever there was one. Perhaps you'd better read it before you embark on your own long-planned masterpiece.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I followed the link to John Sundman's website, and aside fromo attempting to get hold of a copy or two of is book for the bookshop (it's a great story!) I don't think his experience should be offered up as a reason not to write - just a reason not to write the way he did.

There is a myth in entrepreneurial circles that you have to be prepared to become very poor on the way to becoming very rich. I'm not sure where this myth came from - I think it's because many people who 'make it' and write their memoires play up the rags-to-riches aspect of their lives. Also, the guys who do make it often take enormous gambles and succeeded after the 'final throw of the dice'. Well, for everyone that succeeded, there's a 1000 for whom that throw failed, and they never got to write their memoires.

(I read a quote once: "They say that money talks. Well, so does poverty, but no-one is interested much in what it has to say").

A lot of people (I hesitate to say it, but mostly men) experience a mid-life crisis, want to completely re-invent their life, etc. Some walk away from their families. Some go down the 'big gamble' route. I speak both from experience running my own business a few years ago, but also seeing someone destroy their life 'living the dream'.

The *really* difficult thing to do is to harness the dissatisfaction with life, keep true to your family responsibilities, and take steps like cutting down on the TV and crap Internet browsing to carve out 5, 10, 15 minutes a day to write that book in regulation time. Bloody difficult. Yes. Better than trashing everything you hold dear? I think so.