Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Colin Greenland: The Hour of the Thin Ox

The Hour of the Thin Ox, by Colin Greenland is, I have to admit, an obscure book. It was published in the UK, in 1987, both in hardback and paperback, and, er, that was about it. Why mention it then?

Well, for one thing it's an early work by a man who has gone on to become pretty distinguished in the field of science fiction, even though he is not, I suggest, a household name. For example, his 1990 novel Take Back Plenty was winner of all three major British science-fiction awards: the Eastercon, Arthur C. Clarke, and the British SF Association. So if you're exploring the science-fiction field he's a writer you ought to look out for.

As for The Hour of the Thin Ox itself, I am inclined to think that it's a novel of ideas. I suspected that just from reading the book, but when I found out that Greenland did a PhD on Michael Moorcock and the New Wave, I inclined further to that view. The PhD, by the way, was published as The Entropy Exhibition.

The Hour of the Thin Ox is set in a kind of parallel universe (and, incidentally, some commentators classify the book as fantasy rather than SF). It's one of those worlds where they do things differently, which I ought to be able to accept easily enough, but I find myself faintly resistant to books where the characters have odd names, such as Ky varan and Bi tok. Why can't they just be George and Mildred, like sensible people? Anyway, this is a world where technology is not very far advanced, and they are only just beginning to have guns.

The plot is a sort of adventure story, with various sympathetic characters finding themselves in various kinds of peril. There's a war on. Several different wars, actually. And along the way you are invited by the author (implicitly, I hasten to add) to contemplate the folly of war and the possibility that 'primitive' tribes are actually a good deal smarter than we give them credit for.

The bit I liked best came on page 158, where one character tells the young boy, Bi tok, that 'life only begins when you stop planning.' She points out to him that absolutely nothing in his recent life has worked out the way it was supposed to.
You're travelling with your father but he doesn't even know he is your father. He's supposed to take you to New Bright Rock and look after you, but there's an accident and then he's killed before you get there.... You're life isn't over, Bi tok, it's just beginning. You must understand: you're free.
Hmm, I thought. Now how does this relate to writing, do you think?

Very few things that a writer plans for actually work out the way she intended. Books, by and large, do not leap to the top of the bestseller charts and win the Booker/Nobel in the same year. So does that make us free, do you think? Is it liberating?

I can only speak for myself. And it seems to me that, once you get used to the idea that none of those wonderful things that you imagined for yourself in your callow youth are actually going to happen, then it lifts a great burden from you. You don't have to bother about trying to find an agent, or what the agent says if you have one. You can just do your own thing. For instance, you can write a blog post about a book that hardly anyone's heard of.

I recommend it. The approach, that is. And the book too, if you like that kind of thing and have suitably modest expectations, because this is, after all, an early work.

By the way, since we are all interested in gossip, you may care to know that Colin Greenland's partner (they have been together since 1996) is Susanna Clarke. Yea verily, she of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.


Anonymous said...

>>I find myself faintly resistant to books where the characters have odd names, such as Ky varan and Bi tok. Why can't they just be George and Mildred, like sensible people?

My feelings exactly, Grumpy. Which is why I eventually decided to try it out in Finding Helen.

If I've done this right, you can find out more by clicking on my name, above. If not, I apologise, but you can always Google it.

Thanks for the kind remarks, by the way. Did you ever come across Other Voices, I wonder? It's not a sequel to Thin Ox, but set in the same world, with some of the same characters.

The opening chapter, especially, is rather good. I look at it and think, Bloody hell, who wrote that?

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