Wednesday, August 03, 2005

John Twelve Hawks: The Traveller

A trivial point first, I think. John Twelve Hawks's novel The Traveller is known as The Traveler in the US. Where, for reasons best known to themselves, they spell things differently.

I first heard of this book about three weeks ago when I read a review in The Times, or its Sunday sister. The review made it clear that The Traveller had been heavily hyped. Hmm, I thought. Just goes to show how remote (or 'off the grid' as Hawks would say) we are out here in darkest Wiltshire, because I had never heard of the book.

Anyway, I looked it up in the Wiltshire library catalogue -- and behold! They actually had a copy. Which is a novelty in itself, because (a) they often don't get copies of popular and/or much-reviewed books, and (b), when they do, the new titles take weeks or months to get catalogued. Once I got over my surprise, I put in a reservation and found that I was the book's first reader.

Well, perhaps I should say 'attempted reader', because having ploughed through a hundred pages I am going to give up. Sorry, but this just ain't for me.

John Twelve Hawks is, one assumes, a pseudonym. Rumours allege that he is a well known novelist who is moonlighting (I doubt it), or one who has failed under another name (much more likely), or that he is actually a collaboration (entirely possible, given the patchy and, to me, unsatisfactory nature of the prose). Anyway, JTH is a bit of a mystery man. The book's jacket says only that he 'lives off the grid', which presumably is intended to create an air of mystery. And he is said to communicate with his publisher only by untraceable satellite phone or through his lawyer. All cobblers, no doubt, but it helps to generate talk.

As for the book, what the hell is it? Well, I suppose it's a techno-thriller. A mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and thriller. Heavily influenced, I would guess, by movies such as The Matrix, and aimed at a similar audience.

The plot seems to boil down (and here I quote the flyleaf) to a life-and-death battle 'between those who wish to control history and those who will risk their lives for freedom and enlightenment.'

All of which is all very well, and not unattractive in its way, but the problem, for me, is that the book just doesn't work. The early chapters are not well handled from a technical point of view. The viewpoint is not clear, and there is too much stodgy information conveyed to the reader directly by the author, rather than being passed on painlessly in the course of interesting action. Most of this background information could, I suspect, have been kept until later in the book.

Chapter 3, my notes say, is much better, and Chapter 6 is quite well written. But I still wasn't at all interested in the characters. For a start there are too many of them, and none of them are very convincing.

One way or another, I found this book curiously adolescent. Which is not, in itself, off-putting -- I've read plenty of children's books in my time, and enjoyed them -- but I didn't have any real confidence that the author knew what he was doing.

From my point of view, the book is chiefly interesting as an example of what you can do by way of marketing hype if you take enough trouble and spend enough money. This book began, I presume, as a concept in the mind of an author. But it could just as easily have been a concept dreamed up by an agent or a publisher, who then put the package together.

Somewhere along the line the originating publisher, who seems to have been Doubleday in New York, was persuaded to put up some substantial capital. And, according to reports from those who know about such things, the marketing campaign was aimed not so much at the public as at the marketers. For instance, a number of ladies dressed up as one of the book's characters, Maya, were mixing with the crowds at BookExpo America.

You can find an account of the hype at Cross-Media Storytelling, together with links to various web sites and a blog which is (so to speak) written by one of the book's characters, Judith Strand.

All in all then, what we have here is a determined attempt to generate buzz and publicity in relatively new and innovative ways. And it seems to have worked.

Certainly the book is generating acres of newsprint and there are masses of links on the web. The book is also reported to be on various bestseller lists. The movie rights have been sold, and there will be two sequels to make up a trilogy.

The major newspapers, for reasons explained last week, have given the novel a reasonably warm reception, but you may find that some smaller reviewers may be more enlightening, e.g. Shots or Blogcritics.

Well, credit where credit is due, I suppose. The various editions of The Traveler or The Traveller are selling lots of copies. Which is the point of the exercise. Compared with that, the fact that the book isn't actually very good becomes almost irrelevant.


Amber said...

I got this on a lark from an online book dealer, reading the blurb and thinking, aw, what the hell... it wasn't horrible, but it seems to me that he's trying to mix William Gibson with Choose-Your-Own Adventures. That sounds crass, but I didn't mind spending $10 on it. Now, had I paid cover price, that would have been different.
Actually, I'd not heard anything about this book until after I read it.

archer said...

...there is too much stodgy information conveyed to the reader directly by the author, rather than being passed on painlessly in the course of interesting action.

I was disappointed last night to find Dickens himself guilty of this. He can be fantastically subtle and funny and tactful, and then he can stuff your windpipe with an expository lump the size of a melon. I suppose if you're writing Oliver Twist as a series, you get up against it. But I think it's a horribly tough thing to avoid entirely, if even Dickens succumbs. Of course he offers compensations that Hawks presumably doesn't.

"But I also know," pursued the old gentleman, "the misery, the slow torture, the protracted anguish of that ill-assorted union. I know how listlessly and wearily each of that wretched pair dragged on their heavy chain through a world that was poisoned to them both. I know how yadda yadda was succeeded by yackety-yack, until blah blah blah became all but wocketawocketa wocketa."

archer said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I certainly fell for the advertising. It was on a large number of posters on the London Underground. Quite why it was billed as "From the publishers of the DaVinci Code " is not clear.

I am Struggling to get though it at
the moment. Why do all the main groups have so many different names? There's the Harlequins, and The Tabalar. But who are the Bretheren and the other groups whos names I have already forgotten.

Anonymous said...

This book is excruciating. Bad prose, poor character development, painful dialogue, shamelessly transparent marketing strategies. Boy, oh boy, this book sucks. The odd thing is, by cynically manipulating the market with his "air of mystery", JTH is acting as part of the Vast Machine. Also, every bona fide book critic that didn't pan this pulp fiction schlock is also functioning as part of the Machine. Want a good read? "Gould's Book of Fish"

Anonymous said...

I have the notion that John Twelve Hawks = Michael Cunningham. I happened to read Specimen Days soon after completing The Traveler. (Yes, I'm American.) I'm commenting here because the GOB has read (or attempted) both. I haven't found anyone else yet that has. He actually negatively compared both to another book (Spin), which is why I found this site on the Internet and decided to post my comment here.

Here's what I have. 1st, both The Traveler and Specimen Days combine sci/fi/fantasy with heavy-duty social criticism to the point that the reigning political system is seen as totally evil and/or failed. (That rules out Stephen King or J.K.Rowling, for example, but not Margaret Atwood.) Specimen Days, like The Traveler contains a character who wants to disappear. The Traveler has the Brethren; Specimen Days has the Family. Specimen Days also has the Company (like the Vast Machine?). Cunningham even uses the term "off the grid." (Is it that common?) Like Maya in The Traveler, the Simon character in S.D., Part 3, is learning to feel love.

At 1st I didn't think Specimen Days had a religious aspect like The Traveler. But that's in part b/c I 1st listened to an audio of the book and didn't pick up on the titles of the parts. Part 2 is The Children's Crusade. Also, the two main male characters in The Traveler are Gabriel and Michael, while those in S.D. are Luke and Simon. (Incidentally, the title of Part 1 is In the Machine.)

On the Night Shade Books forum on the subject, I learned about an essay by John Twelve Hawks that could be bought on Amazon. In that rant, he sounded like Cunningham's character "Walt" in Part 2 of S.D. Both The Traveler and S.D. have some messianic ideas (although the messianic folks in S.D. are the murderous terrorists while those in The Traveler are the good guys). Also, Hawks refers in his rant to a security guard watching variations from normal behavior on a video monitor and having to decide whether to call the police--like the beginning of S.D.'s Part 2 where the lady hotline worker has to distinguish crank callers from violent terrorists.

Well, that's about it. Couldn't an experienced author get into an alter ego as into one of his characters for the purpose of writing under an assumed name? It is interesting that the GOB has similar criticisms of both books.

jon said...

astrology on the web info is so cheesy but we were looking at it anyway...why i dont know. I guess it is fun to play around online. Anyway, I saw your astrology on the web posts and though it was cool...Alright, well...have a great night, I am back to astrology on the web surfing LOL : )


Anonymous said...

i found it to be an alright book, it had some interesting ideas that i thought were conveyed very well, also the slow start thats been referred to here is the case with many books of this genre

Blog Newbie said...

Hello Michael,
I read this post a long time ago but didn't comment. Yes, it is such a pity that the book isn't a good read. This is how publishers get scared off such approaches to advertising. Although, I should say that I don't see this strictly as an advertising venture -- it is also the storyworld spread futher than the bounds of the book.
Christy, from :)

Flights said...

I agrees with Christy that it is not a media stunt. It is just a viewpoint. And I think the traveller is the nice one,

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