By Niamh Cullen
Imagine a world where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts, every hour and minute of every day. From a cacophony of voices to an interminable buzz in the background, it’s always there, inescapable. How would people react if they had to live in a world like this, where privacy, solitude, and even silence were mere abstract and utopian notions? It is with such a scene that Patrick Ness opens the first book of his Chaos Walking trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go.
While some fantasy writers – Tolkien, Arthur Ransome, Roald Dahl – invent whole imaginary worlds in order to escape from the harsh realities of war, politics, revolution or even just the drudgery of university life, others use fantasy not as an escape, but as a way of better understanding and explaining our own twentieth-first century lives. For some reason, it seems that these days that some of the most imaginative and ambitious fiction and particularly fantasy – the kind of stuff that is unafraid to tackle the big themes head on and that most writers only hint at; war, religion, human nature – is labelled children’s or young adult fiction. If the Harry Potter craze taught us nothing else, it’s that it’s perfectly acceptable for grown-ups to read so-called children’s books. The irony, of course, was that the adult Harry Potter craze resulted in new editions of the books being published with darker, more ‘serious’ looking covers so that commuters could read them on buses and trains without having to feel embarrassed or as if they’d rifled their children’s book collections.
However, far from being frivolous or somehow ‘unserious’, there is something about writing with a younger reader in mind, that seems to liberate the writer from the need to be clever, showy or cynical. Good, old fashioned storytelling is still what works best here. That’s not to suggest though that children’s fiction necessarily lacks sophistication. I recently finished reading the final instalment of Patrick Ness’s excellent trilogy, Monsters of Men. In it, the conflicts brought about by in the small settlements of people on a remote planet just like Earth – except for the one crucial difference – are playing out their final scenes. Set in a world that is brilliantly imagined, the trilogy – and the last book in particular – is ultimately about the horrors of war, which makes ‘monsters of men’. It’s also about the complexity of modern warfare; there are no good and bad sides here, just various different shades of murky grey. It’s clearly a very contemporary book; the first one published several years after the second Iraq war began. Filled with echoes of terrorism, colonialism and dictatorship, it reflects the concerns of its time just as much as the Lord of the Rings did, even if Tolkien himself refused to admit it. Set in a fantasy universe, but clearly a commentary on our own society, Ness has written a parable about the horrors of war, just as Philip Pullman’s brilliant His Dark Materials trilogy wove a brilliant and complex story around the premise of the ills of organised religion and belief.
The world of the Chaos Walking trilogy lacks the detail and imaginative depth of Pullman’s universe; populated by armoured bears, compassionate and wise witches and where, most memorable of all, people’s souls take the form of animals or daemons, and from whom separation is impossible. Ness’s world is simpler and starker; a barely populated planet whose similarity to Earth makes those few, important differences all the more striking. Both act as mirrors to our own societies though, the distortions only showing up the arbitrary nature of some things we take for granted or the idiocy of others, and their creative richness revealing the potential to imagine things differently.